Thursday, December 08, 2016

The End Of The Beginning

Early this year, Keith Emerson died.  Now Greg Lake has died.  I don't mean to sound flippant, but is Carl Palmer getting a little nervous?

When I was a kid, learning guitar, Lake was definitely one of those artists who set the standard we all aspired to.  And he still remains an inspiration.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Go West

Game Of Thrones won't be around much longer, so HBO has a much-needed hit in Westworld to anchor their schedule and burnish their brand.  But is it any good? (Spoilers ahead.)

After watching the first season, I've got a lot of problems with the show.  Above all, it's slow going.  We know the robots (they're called hosts and guests on the show, but I'm going to call them robots and people) are going to rise up.  That's the whole point of the thing.  That it took ten hours when it could have been accomplished in two doesn't speak well for the show. I know they want to set up the basic situation (before blowing it up), but we get a ton of repetition, in both action and theme.

Most of the subplots along the way don't really work, or make much sense.  Take Maeve, a favorite of the audience.  She's a robot brothel madam who becomes aware of her situation and plots to get out of Westworld.  Hers is a necessary character arc, but every step of the way is ridiculous.  First, to help her along, are two bumbling lab technicians, essentially Laurel and Hardy, who screw up numerous times.  That Westworld doesn't have basic lab protocols, not to mention basic security surveillance, to prevent guys like this from messing around, is absurd. (It turns out there's someone who programmed Maeve to behave this way--very possibly Ford, who created the park--but even so, there is presumably free will on the part of the humans, who behave with continual stupidity.)

As Maeve starts figuring out her situation and wants to do something about it, one of the lab boys supports her--another necessary plot development which I didn't like--while the other has misgivings.  It would have been easy for the latter to stop Maeve along the way (without endangering his job) but he blows every chance he gets. For instance, Maeve's intelligence is set at 14--as high as any robot in the park.  She asks this guy to raise it up to 20, which he does.  Wouldn't this have been a good time to lower it to 1, so she'd be manageable, and he could figure out what to do with her?  In any case, since no one wants any robot to be smarter than 14, why is it even possible to set their intelligence higher?

Another part of Maeve's strategy has her shutting down programmer Bernard by voice command.  We first thought Bernard was a human, but he turned out to be a robot created by Ford.  But Bernard is a secret creation whom everyone else thinks is human.  We've seen other such robots, and Ford makes sure they only respond to his voice.  One would assume he built Bernard this way--it would be pretty embarrassing if someone told a different robot to cease all motor functions and suddenly their good friend Bernard shuts down.  But nope, this is Westworld, where the plot is as dumb as needed for the scene.

By the end, Maeve, with some robot compatriots, shoots her way out of the tech area.  The lack of competence in the security staff is stunning.  The robots should never have gotten so far to begin with, but once you've got three of them armed with machine guns, that's when you should really swing into action.  You cordon off the area and encircle them. Instead, in Westworld, every security guard works alone so he can be picked off, as one after another they run right into the line of fire, even after they've seen others killed this way.

Then there's the story of William and the Man In Black.  I didn't bother to read much theorizing about the show, but even I heard about how these two characters were the same person, just in different timelines.  This was confirmed in the finale. I wish I hadn't heard about it, since I could have had the pleasure of figuring it out, or the pleasure of being surprised.  But once you think about it, their story makes no sense.

William, the young man, went to Westworld thirty years ago or so.  He meets Dolores, a robot, and they fall in love.  In the real world, he's set to marry into a rich family and become an important player in Delos, the corporation that will buy Westworld, but he finds his true self in the park.  However, his journey, in addition to being dull, isn't buyable.  Okay, having a fling with a beautiful young woman is what you do in the park.  But after falling in love too fast, he turns into a bloody killer even more quickly, ready to do anything to find Dolores after she's taken away.

This is bad enough, but when we discover he turned into the nasty Man In Black years later, it doesn't seem earned.  The transition is hinted at, but it doesn't make much sense--so you lost Dolores, snap out of it.  Making even less sense is why William--a rich philanthropist back in the real world--would come back regularly to Westworld on a quest.  I can see him coming back every year to sate his bloodlust, but he's searching for the "maze" he's heard about to help him understand the place. Why?  What's to understand? What can he possibly think he's going to find?  He already knows Ford.  There's no special mystery.  The park is what it is.

He'd also like the stakes to be higher, because he knows the robots aren't allowed to kill him. Okay, no big deal, just create robots who can kill you--though I don't think that would be a popular attraction at Westworld--or, for that matter, go out into the real world and do dangerous things.  The rules in Westworld, I should add, aren't that clear.  The humans can rape and pillage all they want while the robots have to put up with it, but we see William (and others) getting bashed around pretty bad.  Perhaps at the edges of the park life gets tougher, but we see humans cut (creating permanent scars, one assumes), almost hanged, and beaten within an inch of their life. Dolores delivers this particularly rough beatdown to the Man In Black.  Which raises a couple questions:  We just assume the robots are stronger than humans (though why should they be)?  And no matter how expert the robots are in human anatomy, how does Dolores know how far to go without killing William?  The stuff she does to him sure looks like it would cause serious, perhaps permanent, injury.

(Speaking of this violence against the humans, I don't see how the park stays open.  The insurance alone must kill them.  People pay $40,000 a day for the privilege of going there, but isn't the park too dangerous--even beyond the savage beatings which, apparently, are considered acceptable?  How do people know if others are robots or humans--you start a knife fight with a real person, someone can get hurt.  And with all the action around, don't guests get hurt, just by, say, falling and hitting their head on something?  I know they'd have to sign waivers, but if enough people got hurt, wouldn't the authorities shut the place down?)

Anyway, despite all the nonsense of the William/MIB plot, at least, at its heart, it matters.  There's a whole lot of people just playing cowboy throughout the first season, and none of it makes any difference. It's all a game, so it's hard to get involved in this side of the story.  Remove this pointless stuff and the season has two or three less hours.

Then there's Dolores, a robot who's been at the park from the beginning.  Evan Rachel Wood does a fine job with the character, but her new direction in the finale, that points to next season, doesn't bode well.

Dolores is troubled from the start.  Her character starts each day fresh and full of hope, but lives through tragedy--her family is killed, she's abducted, etc.  But she can't shake these memories--in fact, she's got to work them out.  It's part of her going through the "maze," which leads, through suffering, to Dolores confronting herself.  This allows her, allegedly, to gain consciousness.  She merges with a new villain, Wyatt, and becomes a killer.

This is all Ford's plan (which makes you wonder if there's consciousness, or free will, involved).  In the end, she shoots Ford, and the robots are ready to go on a rampage against all the upper class people invited there.

There are two problems with this.  We're supposed to be on the side of the robots, who are treated terribly by the humans, but this is horrifying.  If the robots don't have any consciousness, or self-awareness, what happens to them is no big deal.  And even if some of them have achieved some level of consciousness, after they're struck down, they can still be brought back to life and their memory wiped, so it's not quite a complete tragedy. But the humans they're killing?  They're gone permanently.  Why should anyone support the robots, even if the humans aren't so nice?

Second, I just don't see where this can lead, unless the humans who live outside Westworld are as stupid as the ones who live inside it.  If any of the humans escape the finale's rampage, they'll report to the authorities what's going on in Westworld and have it shut down. (This is assuming there's a real world out there that we would recognize--we see nothing in the first season outside Westworld, except a glimpse of Samurai World, meant to whet our appetite for the next season.)  And even if no one survives (or some ridiculous plot development like Delos tries to cover it up), a lot of rich people not returning from Westworld would be noticed.  The authorities would investigate and, finding the park full of killer robots, shut it down.

I guess the question is will I return to Westworld? On the positive side, there's some fine acting and a well-done (and expensive) look.  In addition, I'm a sucker for sci-fi, and robots on the verge of consciousness.  So I guess I'll keep watching.  But I wish they'd up their game to a 20, or at least a 14, since right now it feels like it's about a 3.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Who's Counting?

There's a lot of talk about the recount that Jill Stein has started. Mostly the talk is it's a waste of time.  (Some have said it's a strategic recount designed to prevent enough electors from being certified so there'll be no majority leader when it's time to vote.  This makes no sense to me.  If it were that easy to stop the electors, why wouldn't the loser try this every election?)

But here's the part that's really weird--they're still doing the original count.  How can you have a recount till that's over?  Every day since the election I've been watching the numbers as Hillary Clinton keeps increasing her lead in the popular vote.  As I write this, she's got about 65.3 million votes while Trump has around 62.7 million.*

So she beat him by more than 2.5 million.  Impressive, though, if you like, you can claim that's all California, where, bucking the national trend, they went nuts for Hillary, voting for her 2 to 1 over Trump, with a greater than 4 million vote lead. (Many of whom, Trump supporters would claim, are illegal votes--if they have any evidence about that they really should turn it over.) At present, she's got about 48% of the vote and he's got about 46%**.  Johnson got a bit over 3% and Stein finished fourth at around 1%.  So they'd have to do some wild recounting for the good doctor to even show.

How much longer will this original count go on?  If they've still got a few more days to go, Clinton could even surpass Obama's 2012 total of 65.9 million votes.  Trump has long ago passed Mitt Romney's total of 60.9 million votes. (That didn't stop people from saying on election night that Trump didn't get as many votes as Romney--they really should have waited.)

Since we can have a count and a recount at the same time, let me suggest we start a second recount.  (Sort of like a second mortgage.)  Who knows what we'll find?  And it'll only cost a few million.  Anyone willing to donate?

*Another number that might be of interest--Clinton spent $150 million more than Trump. I guess that's good news for the people who are tired of big money in politics.

**The average of the final polls showed her a bit more than 3% ahead, so they weren't that far off.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Great moments in journalism

"To wit"

"As such"

"The future of democracy"

"and the planet"

Oh, my. This is possibly the Greatest Writer and Thinker of my lifetime.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Fun On A Schedule

In the last few years, South Park has had serialized seasons.  I'm not sure if this is a good development. It's hard enough to create a funny half-hour each week with stories ripped from the headlines--to add the balancing act of long-form storytelling makes it much trickier to pull off.

This season I think some of the seams are showing.  There are a bunch of connected stories: trolling, girls versus boys, a trip to Mars, Member Berries and the presidential race.  It's that last one that's screwed things up.  Based on how the plot is going, it seems likely that Trey Parker and Matt Stone prepared a storyline where Trump (and thus his South Park stand-in Mr. Garrison) lost the election.  But now that Trump has won, they're flailing a bit, trying to force the threads of the story to come together in ways they never expected.

It's always dangerous to base your show on the outcome of an election.  The best example I can think of, ironically, is another Parker and Stone show, That's My Bush!.  In 2000 they had an idea for a sitcom parody.  It would look just like a sitcom (which meant huge expenses for their channel Comedy Central) but instead of some fictional family, it would be about whoever occupied the White House in 2001.

They figured Al Gore would win, but even if Bush took it, they were planning to go on the air soon after.  They would start writing right after election night, and air the first episode in February 2001, a month after the President was sworn in.

You know what happened next.  The recount went on and on, and no one knew who the President would be until well into December.  All during that time, Parker and Stone had to wait, wondering who'd be the star of their show.

That's My Bush! finally aired in April 2001.  It never really worked, and was quickly canceled. I doubt it would have worked no matter what, but the acrid atmosphere over the fight for the White House made things worse.  Here was a show mostly about mocking old sitcoms, not the political situation, but you couldn't help but think about politics.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

I've always thought so

"Research into how penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI) affects a woman’s brain found that it can help women to remember abstract words."

Like what, for example? "Huge"?

Friday, December 02, 2016

Time After Time

So I've watched a few more episodes of This Is Us, NBC's new hit.  It's maintained the same level of quality, but I still have a problem: its double timeline.

Perhaps it's just a quirk of mine, but it really bothers me when the characters know everything about the past, but it's being withheld from us, and each piece is revealed only to comment on the "present" of the show.  What I like about TV drama is how we discover new things along with the characters, or get to watch the characters discover things we already know.  To keep us in the dark artificially about things the characters could have spilled at any time just annoys me. The idea of waiting for each new episode to give us just a little bit more of what we could have known from the start makes me not want to watch a show.  I can deal with this wait over a two-hour movie, but year after year?  No thanks.

Has this happened before?  You bet.  One of the first examples I can recall is The Nine, an ABC drama from 2006 about a bunch of people who were caught in a hostage situation.  The show followed these characters lives after the incident, and each episode would show a few moments from the traumatic situation.  So each week's snippet was designed to comment on what's happening with the characters on this week's episode, even though all the character at all times know everything that happened to them during those life-changing hours.  And the plan of the producers, presumably, was to do this for years on end, until the show is canceled (which actually happened pretty quickly).  Unbearable.

The Nine was sort of a knock-off Lost (one of many), with its flashback format.  But Lost, which I loved, used the past differently.  The present of the show, always the central story, was about a bunch of people discovering more and more about a mysterious island, and we, the audience, were discovering it with them.  The flashbacks (well-done dramatically in themselves) helped establish who these characters were and how they got to the island, and we wanted very much to be filled in.  But each flashback was unique to one character, it wasn't about something that everyone already knew but were artificially keeping from us. (And even then Lost had to eventually drop the flashback device, since you can't keep it up forever.)

Other shows that I have avoided, or stopped watching because of this double timeline, where the story is filled in for us while the main character or characters already know everything:  Quantico, How I Met Your Mother, Rectify.

(Many think Westworld had more than one timeline, but that's okay since we're discovering what's going along with most of the characters, and no one seems to be aware of everything, not even Anthony Hopkins.)

So I stand at the crossroads.  This Is Us is a decent show, even if family drama isn't generally my cup of tea. But to be kept in the dark for the indefinite future is not my idea of fun.  Maybe I'll wait until the whole thing is over and then watch it all at once--the period of painful ignorance will be a lot shorter.

It's probably the Jews

Good luck finding those answers. The newspaper won't be much help. Here's their opening:
"An 18-year-old who was shot and killed by an Ohio State University campus police officer, after he rammed a car into a crowd then stabbed several people, was buried Thursday afternoon."

He's a boy.

He was shot.

By police.

He died.

His car was involved, importantly. (Maybe his family can bring suit against Ford.)

Anything else? Well, yes, there was that thing, you know, somehow something sharp may have inconvenienced some conveyors of white privilege or something.

And the big, dramatic hook: He was buried. Thursday afternoon. It was raining. Hemingway always said, the weather is important.

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