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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Fordham University Press to Distribute Print Edition of Touching the Face of Cosmos; 1st Glimpse of Cover

Two very good pieces of news regarding Touching the Face of the Cosmos, the forthcoming anthology edited by Paul Levinson (me) and Michael Waltemathe:

1. Fordham University Press will be distributing the print editions of the book, which will appear in its Spring 2016 catalog, with a likely publication date in March.  Connected Editions will still be publishing all digital editions, with a likely publication date in November.   (A list of essays and stories can be found here.)   Paperback and hardcover editions now available for pre-order.

2.  Here's the cover - created by world-renown illustrator Joel Iskowitz.

And here's the catalog copy for the anthology -

Military advantage, scientific knowledge, and commerce have thus far been the main motives to human exploration of outer space. Touching the Face of the Cosmos explores what may be the best motive of all, largely untapped: the desire of every human being, essentially spiritual, to understand more about our place in the universe, how our lives on Earth are inextricably part of that bigger picture. Drawing on leading scientists, religious thinkers, and science fiction writers – including a new interview with John Glenn, and an essay by Director of the Vatican Observatory Guy Consolmagno, SJ – Paul Levinson and Michael Waltemathe have assembled a volume that puts space travel and religion on the map for anyone interested in outer space, theology, and philosophy. 
Paul Levinson, PhD, is Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, and author of 16 scholarly books and novels, including Realspace: The Fate of Physical Presence in the Digital Age, On and Off Planet. 
Michael Waltemathe, PhD, is Senior Lecturer in Religious Education, Department of Protestant Theology, Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany, and author of Computer Worlds and Religion, and articles about science, religion, and outer space.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Masters of Sex Season 3 Finale: Cliffhanger

Masters of Sex concluded its third season with a real cliffhanger last night, almost reminiscent of the last scene at the airport with Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.   Except Bill never quite makes it to the airport to intercept Virginia.

But the question is whether his profession of true love to her, earlier in the evening, will prevent her at the last minute from taking off in the plane with the perfume guy.   She's certainly thinking about it, looking over her shoulder, and she could well fly back from Mexico before she makes the mistake of marrying Logan.

It would certainly be a mistake, historically, because the facts of this story have Virginia not marrying the guy she had an affair with for years - an older man, presumably the basis of Logan - and in fact marrying Bill in 1971.

But that's a little in the future in our story on television, which leaves everything a bit up in the air.  As I've been saying all season, the advisory at the end explicitly says that kids' part of the narrative is fictitious, but that raises the question of what else is divergent from history in this powerful series.

If the kids are a fiction, then presumably the real Masters was never brought up on charges because of his son, but he and his wife did get divorced before he married Virginia.   The mixture of fact and fiction is an issue of every docudrama ever made, but it has been especially prominent this year in Masters of Sex.

In any case, it was a good season, if only because Bill and Virginia were so unlike their selves in earlier seasons, and, as the saying goes, if some of that is not true to history, who cares, it's still a good story.

See also Thomas Maier: Masters of Sex and Biography Come to Life ...Masters of Sex 3.1: Galley Slaves ... Masters of Sex 3.2: The Shah, the Baby, and the Book ... Masters of Sex 3.3: The Bookstore ... Masters of Sex 3.7: Going Ape ... Masters of Sex 3.9: Calling Hugh Hefner 


Saturday, September 26, 2015

Hats Off to Brian Williams

Yesterday - Friday, September 25, 2015 - was an extraordinarily important day in news.  Pope Francis was at Ground Zero and Madison Square Garden and other places in New York City.   The President of China was in Washington, DC with President Obama.  And Speaker of the House John Boehner announced his resignation.

Any one of these would have been an occasion for breaking news reports.  John Boehner's resignation would have triggered in depth-reporting that dominated the news for most of the day.  And the Pope in New York City was a once-in-a-lifetime event for many people.

Brian Williams, back on television as MSNBC's anchor for breaking news, did a masterful job in commenting, interviewing people about, and all ways covering these three events.  His astute observations, his mix of historical contexts, eye and ear for detail, and humor, provided seamless hours of vidid reporting.   In the hands of a lesser master of anchoring, so many events to cover live could have a resulted in a confusing hodgepodge that reported well on none of them.

I went on record earlier this year, suggesting that Brian Williams' exaggeration of what happened to him in a combat zone was not the end of the world - certainly not enough to have him removed from his position as anchor of the NBC Nightly News.    He should have been called out and chastised for those statements indeed - but yanking him off the air was not only overkill, but a disservice to all who enjoyed and benefitted from his sage anchoring and reporting.

It was thus especially good to see him back on the air, and at a perfect time in terms of important events to be covered.  Reports say MSNBC had a nice ratings spike with Brian Williams at the helm - good, not surprising, and I hope to see much more of him on television.

See also I'm Glad Brian Williams Will Be Back on Television

Friday, September 25, 2015

Heroes Reborn: Good To Be Back

Heroes had an iconic trajectory beginning nearly a decade ago on NBC.  Punching through the sky not only with someone who could fly, but people endowed with all kinds of intriguing and amazing powers, the series in its first season provided a much needed smash hit for NBC, and pushed Lost of its place as must-see television for those who love science fiction (and that included me).  And then the series faltered. Creator Tim Kring famously apologized to fans of Heroes for a season that "sucked".  He promised to do better, but the series although it had some excellent moments by and large got worse.  And ... well, the last thing we need is another autopsy on what went wrong in Heroes.

But as of last night, it turns out that any autopsy would be premature.  Heroes lives - it's been "reborn".   Will it reach the heights of that fabled first season?

That would be a very difficult task, maybe even requiring someone with truly science fictional heroic powers.   The innocence of that first season, of the characters and the audience alike first discovering the challenges and mysteries and joys and dangers and pain of heroic powers can never be recaptured. But, that said, Heroes Reborn has a freshness which I don't recall in the last few seasons of the original series.

There's an excellent stand-alone (at this point) story in Tokyo, featuring Miko and Ren.   Miko has some connection to Hiro, in many ways the most important character in the original series - at very least, she has the sword that we last saw in Hiro's possession.   Back in the USA, Noah Bennett, at this point the only character from the original series with a leading role in the sequel, is literally thrown into action by an explosion that nearly kills him and apparently (but likely not really) kills Claire, just as the father and daughter were about the reunite after years of separation.  This is a piece of the central plot of Heroes Reborn (so far), the attempt by nefarious non-heroic forces (though some of them have superhuman powers) to kill everyone with heroic powers - a continuation of much of what was going on in the concluding seasons of the original series.

But Heroes Reborn is bringing some new heroes onto the stage and into the action.   The most appealing, so far, is Tommy, who has a crush on Emily - my favorite of the new characters, because they recapture a lot of the wistful innocence which was so winning in that first, remarkable season of Heroes. Molly -  a child in the original series, with the capacity to know where everyone is, a sort of a global GPS in the brain - is back as a young woman (played by a different actress), and promises some good story lines.  There's a heavy, bald guy who makes people forget, after saying "a penny for your thoughts" (nice touch) - wait, wasn't that guy also in the original series? - I forget.

Lots of attractive pieces on the table in the two-hour debut of this mini-series last night.  I'm glad it's back, and I'm looking forward to more.

See also Heroes Season 4 Premiere: Metaphysics, University, Carnival ...Heroes Meets The L Word in 4.5 ... Heroes 4 Mid-Season Finale  ... Heroes Season 4 Resumes ... Heroes 4.15: The Chess Game Continues ... 4.16: The Trial of Hiro ... 4.18: Penultimate  ... Heroes Forever

See also reviews of Season 3 Heroes Gets Lost ... Heroes 3 Begins: Best Yet, Riddled with Time Travel and Paradox ... Sylar's Redemption and other Heroes and Villains Mergers ... Costa Nuclear ... Hearts of Gold and the Debased ... Seeing the Future Trumps Time Travel ... Superpowered Chess with Shifting Pieces ... Villains and Backstories ... The Redemption of Sylar ... Thoughts on the Eclipse, Part I ... The Lore of the Comic Book Store ... Hiro's Time Traveling Closure ... Augmented ... Shades of Recalibration ... Baby, Rebel, and Last Fantasy ... All that Shape Changes Remains the Same? ... Season 3 Finale: Hopeful Deceptions

Reviews of Season 2 Heroes: Episode 1 ... 2 ... 3 ... 4 ... 7. Heroes Meets 12 Monkeys ... 9. How Immutable Are Fate and Isaac's Futures? ... 10. Penultimate for the Fall ... Heroes 2 Finale: Heroes Who Didn't Survive

And from Season 1: Heroes in Focus ... Heroes Five Years Gone: Triumph of Time Travel and Comics ... Heroes the Hard Part: Only the Pictures Not the Words ... Heroes Landslide: Winnowing and Convergence ... Heroes Volume One Finale

no heroes, but pretty strange

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Blindspot 1.1: Good to See - Or, Coronet Blue meets The Illustrated Man

Good to see Blindspot begin on NBC last night - in fact, it was excellent.  Coronet Blue, the 1960s CBS summer replacement series fragment starring Frank Converse about a guy who washes up in New York with no memory and saying the words "coronet blue" was always one of my favorites, as is Ray Bradbury's 1951 anthology The Illustrated Man, about a vagrant whose tattoos each tell a magical, science fictional story.

Blindspot has elements of both, as well as Sullivan Stapleton (from Strike Back), an Australian with a great American accent, who plays Kurt, the lead FBI guy, whose name is tattooed on Jane Doe's the amnesiac's back.  She's played by Jaimie Alexander, who does well in her role, too.   The debut was fast-moving, and revealed enough important information to give hope for a compelling series.

Not enough information, being kept too much in the dark, is a pitfall with these kinds of shows, which Blindspot avoided.   We now know that Jane was/is some kind of Navy Seal - even though the Seals don't officially - yet - take women, though as FBI leader Bethany aptly remarks, maybe that's just their public stance.  And there's an evil guy with a beard afoot - who's apparently behind Jane's condition - though who knows for sure if he's entirely evil (and here Blindspot connects a little with NBC's other strange crime hit that begins with a B, Blacklist).

Back to The Illustrated Man, it looks as if given episodes of Blindspot might well be devoted to clues contained in the tattoos, which will be deciphered in series as the series progresses.  That's a good way of keep the stories fresh, as the underlying plot unfolds.

So I'm up for watching Blindspot.  I gotta say, though, that I liked Blacklist much better at the beginning than as the series went on, and I'm hoping Blindspot can avoid this kind of running out of tension and steam.

no tattoos, but pretty strange

Minority Report 1.1: Boding Well

Minority Report debuted on Fox tonight.   It's based on the 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick (a pure masterpiece) and 2002 movie by Steven Spielberg (quite good), but other than pointing that out, I'll try to say little as possible about these previous versions when I review this series, because comparisons to earlier incarnations aren't usually helpful.  The work under scrutiny must stand on its own two or more feet.

Yeah, I'm going to review the series because the debut tonight was also quite good.   The genius of Dick's idea is still there, and plays well in the pilot:  pre-cogs (three of them) can see the future, including crimes and murders.   Society once used them to arrest people seen in the future to be murderers, but stopped for a variety of reasons, including that the pre-cog visions weren't always right.  Indeed, the name of the narrative comes from a situation in which one of the pre-cogs sees something different from the other two - hence, a minority report of a future crime.

Though the pre-cogs as an official team have been disbanded, they're still very much alive.   The pilot centers on one of the pre-cogs, Dash, and the alliance he initiates with a detective, Lara, to stop a heinous mass murder.   Their success heralds a continuing relationship - but the going won't be easy, especially since the other pre-cogs see some dire dangers in what Dash is doing.

This is a nice set-up, and the environment of 2065 Washington DC where the action takes place is well sketched.   In fact, that part is so well rendered that our futuristic detective Lara, with all kinds of bio-enhancements at her disposal, would be interesting and fun to follow, even if there were no pre-cogs around.  But there are, and this adds to the foundation of a what looks like an appealing series.

Kevin Falls, who did such a good job with the late, lamented (by me and other discerning viewers) time-travel series Journeyman on NBC a few years ago, is Executive Producer for Minority Report, which also bodes well.

See that?  I can see something of the future, too, and I know for a fact that I'll be watching every episode of the new series - unless, wait, is there a minority report on that?

not pre-cog, but pretty strange

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Second GOP Presidential Debate: Trump Fails on Immunizations

I'll preface my analysis of the second GOP Presidential debate - three hours, just concluded on CNN - that I'm not a Republican, and this undoubtedly influences my views of who scored and who did not in a Republican debate.   Nonetheless -

It seemed to me that Trump did not do all that well tonight.  He was more conciliatory, true, and perhaps that helps him, but he once again spoke only in generalities.  And at times - for example - in the discussion of immunizations and autism - he seemed outrightly ignorant, insisting there was sort of a connection, even though Ben Carson, an MD, patiently and repeatedly explained that there was not, or none statistically and scientifically demonstrated.

As Trump does on most of these issues, he conflated at least two different issues - one, whether immune injections cause autism, and, two, whether the immunization shots can be spaced out, or not given all at once.   Drs. Carson and Paul may agree with the latter, but not the former - and Trump tried to sweep his ignorance under the rug by saying he, too, agreed with that, but somehow that still meant there was a connection between immunizations and autism.

The other candidates, with varying styles and intensity, all talked knowledgeably about a variety of issues.  Rand Paul was especially good on the dangers of unconstitutional wars, and Chris Christie on the opposite side of that argument, on the need for a strong and aggressive defense.   These two also spoke very well on opposite sides of the recreational drug legalization issue (I agree with Rand Paul).

Christie was also good in his denunciation of the personal skirmishing between Trump and Fiorina.  I thought Jeb and Fiorina were both strong and articulate in taking Trump on.    But of the two - Jeb and Fiorina - I thought Jeb had far more substance in his positions.

We'll see what the polls say in the next few days.  But I'd be surprised if there wasn't some slippage for Trump - a dangerous prediction, I know.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Come Out Tonight by Bonnie Rozanski: Brief Review

This is more a blurb than a review, but, hey, it captures perfectly what I thought about this superbly complex novel:

A riveting, high-concept medical thriller with an eye and ear for New York ambience that rivals E. L. Doctorow’s, except Come Out Tonight is quintessentially 21st century. Bonnie Rozanski will have you wondering, laughing, cajoling your brain for answers until the final page.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Stephen Colbert in His CBS Debut Reminiscent of Dick Cavett and Jack Paar

I don't usually review late-night talk shows - actually, never have - but there's a first time for everything, and I thought Stephen Colbert's debut on CBS Late Show last night was a good time to begin.

In a phrase, I thought Colbert, divested of his incisive and hilarious conservative caricature from his previous show, was just as brilliant last night, and as funny and politically relevant in his own persona (assuming that's what we saw last night).

The interview with Jeb Bush was probably the highlight of the hour.   Colbert peppered Jeb with hard-hitting questions, and managed to be funny at the same time.  The last late-night host who had this kind of intellectual gravitas wrapped in a smile was Dick Cavett, and before him, Jack Paar.

It's not that everyone from Carson through Letterman and even Fallon right now weren't and aren't sharp as tacks intellectually.  It's just that Colbert last night mixed it with a perfect lightness, a quickness, that we haven't seen on late-night television for a while.

It was a good session for Jeb, too, who seemed a little nervous at first, but came back with a series of good and good-humored responses.   It will be interesting to see if this gives him a lift in the polls, and how he compares with Donald Trump, who will be on Colbert's show later this week.

There was also a winning meta quality weaved into the show, with George Clooney and Colbert talking about and showing clips from a non-existent movie, and Colbert having two interactions with Jimmy Fallon.    That would have been unimaginable in Cavett's or Paar's time - and, for that matter, in Carson's or even Letterman's (unless I missed it in Letterman) - but Colbert, if this first show is an indication, represents a nice step forward in late-night television, even as he reclaims an intellectual terrain not seen since the 1960s.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Masters of Sex 3.9: Calling Hugh Hefner

The last two episodes of Masters of Sex have been pretty good, but there were at least two things that annoyed me.

First, in episode 3.8 last week, there's talk about not drinking if you're pregnant. This is 1966, and at least 15-20 years before that limitation became common practice.  This follows the talk, in episode 3.7, of humans and apes being almost 99% the same - another anachronism, said on the show decades ahead of its time.

But in both episodes 3.8 and 3.9, and especially last night's 3.9, I'm finding it hard to believer that Virginia is falling so hard for perfume-exec Dan Logan.  He's well enough played by The Good Wife's Josh Charles, and the weekend fling in 3.8 made some sense, but Virginia's falling in love with him in 3.9 and out of love with poor Bill doesn't add up.

Yes, she's had her frustrations with Bill, but these have been there all along, but if anything Bill recently has been far more considerate of her than he's been in the past.  Yes, his attempts at finding out what's wrong are lame, but this is also nothing new, and no reason why Virginia should suddenly be pulling away emotionally and faking orgasms with Bill.

And Dan Logan just isn't that good.  He's bright enough, and more attentive than Bill, but he's no Bill, not by a long shot.  One of the problems with Masters of Sex is that we don't know where the real history leaves off and the fiction begins.  We've been told that the narratives involving the children are all fictitious, but was Virginia really involved with this perfume guy or someone like him?  (See this little essay in Bustle, which says that Logan is indeed based on a real person - if so, then I guess the truth of history is stranger than fiction in this case.)

Virginia aptly tells Bill that Logan was his choice to bring into their work, and that she wanted Playboy's Hugh Hefner.   Him I could believe Virginia would fall for, or at least get addicted to having sex with.

See also Thomas Maier: Masters of Sex and Biography Come to Life ...Masters of Sex 3.1: Galley Slaves ... Masters of Sex 3.2: The Shah, the Baby, and the Book ... Masters of Sex 3.3: The Bookstore ... Masters of Sex 3.7: Going Ape


Friday, September 4, 2015

Tyrant Season 2 Finale: Deserves to Be Renewed

The Tyrant season 2 finale this week offered a rocky ending to a rocky, uneven season, which nonetheless had some excellent moments - the season and the finale - making me want to see the series renewed.  (There will be lots of spoilers ahead.)

The single most absurd part of this season was Barry managing to fool his brother Jamal into not recognizing him on the phone, with his voice just muffled by a head-dress.   No way Jamal wouldn't have recognized his brother's cadences through that "disguise".

But, with that subtracted from whatever episode a few weeks ago, we still got a pretty good wind-up to the season on Tuesday.  Barry's coming back to the capital as a hero was satisfying, and Jamal's stubborn refusal to abdicate, after he said he would, was completely believable.  Moran Atias, in particular, put in a sterling performance as Jamal's wife Lila, as, for that matter, did Ashraf Barhom as Jamal, Adam Rayner as Barry, and even Noah Silver as Sammy, who was not the greatest last season.

Jamal's getting shot and likely killed by his daughter-in-law was also both well-motivated and surprising.  I say "likely" because, I'm a firm believer in the principle that if you don't see a character's head blown off on television, he or she may somehow survive (and sometimes even with a shot to the head, if we're talking science fiction.)

But Tyrant has done an excellent job of portraying very real situations in this fictional country in the Middle East, a quasi-Syria in most respects.   As such, and given our world today, the series has made an important and even compelling contribution, and deserves to be renewed.

I'll certainly be reviewing it if it is.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Mr. Robot: Cyberpunk Triumph

Well, my number-one television guilty pleasure this summer was "Mr. Robot" on the USA Network - though it was so good, easily the best new show on TV this summer, indeed of the year, maybe even the past year or two, that there's nothing whatsoever to feel guilty about watching it.  It was just a pleasure, rare, keenly intelligent, and provocative.  I saw most of it in the past few weeks, and the finale tonight.

Hackers have appeared in all kinds of TV series, most of them obvious, a few like CBS's CSI-Cyber not half-bad, but Mr. Robot is something else, in a class all its own.  Impossibly suave and gritty at the same time, as lyrical as Rectify - the other out-of-left-field masterpiece to come along in the past few years - but hipper, with words like louche in  it, and with a heart and soul and slap-in-your face realism and cynicism that's not to be believed, but is plausible all the same, you disbelieve Mr. Robot at your peril.

Cyberpunk has attained impressive heights in writing - Sterling, Gibson, Varley - but not so much on the screen.   Mr. Robot takes its place right up there with its story - its only competition screenwise being Bladerunner, an utterly different kind of tale.

There are elements not only of Occupy Wall Street and V for Vendetta but Fight Club in Mr. Robot, but I won't say which ones or what, because I don't want to spoil your surprise and fun if you haven't yet seen it.  But unlike Fight Club and its progeny, in which the narrative is completely situated in the minds of the characters, in Mr. Robot we have a ratification or support of this in the very digital age we in fact inhabit, in which the difference between the fantasies on screens and realities in first-hand tangible experiences in hand have never been less.

Like many series, the next-to-last episode, and the one before that, packed more of a punch than the finale.  But that doesn't matter, because the story is continuing, the series will be back next year, which makes tonight's finale not a finale at all, but a bridge, and a short one at that.

I'll be here next year with more.


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Eye in the Sky in the Hand: How Video Cameras in Smartphones are Finally Beginning to Bring Police to Justice

I'll be presenting this paper at Digital Culture Symposium at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia on December 3, 2015, and thought I'd share this abstract with you for starters.  (I'll provide links to the video, is there is one, and details on where to get the entire paper, after the symposium.)

The Eye in the Sky in the Hand: How Video Cameras in Smartphones are Finally Beginning to Bring Police to Justice

by Paul Levinson


For the first time in human history, the ubiquity of video cameras in smartphones has made police misconduct publicly accessible to the world at large, including on the Internet, television screens, and in courts of law. This paper will explore the modern history of this revolutionary development, beginning with the 1991 police beating and bystander videotaping of Rodney King, through the role of video cameras in the hands of citizen journalists in Occupy Wall Street, and major cases of police killing unarmed civilians in 2014 and 2015. The uneven impact of this on the judicial system - including not-guilty verdicts and charges not filed by prosecutors - will be explored, as well as the ethics and logistics of police body cams and their impact on police work and democracy, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s reasonably clear that police cannot just continue doing business as usual in this new panoptical environment in everyone’s hands. The question is what role will the police play, how will they be expected to perform and held to account, when this new world becomes universally recognized.

Full conference program here.