Category Archives: Various and Sundry

The Clarke Centennial

100 years ago today, in a small town in England, Arthur Clarke was born.

Perhaps he’ll always be best known by the public at large for 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is certainly how I was first introduced to his work. Later, when I had a chance to delve deeper into my Dad’s collection of 50s paperbacks, I came across Childhood’s End and later still, “The Star” — a very short story that nevertheless haunts me every time I read it (spoiler alert: I’ve linked to the actual story, so you should avoid reading it if you want a holly, jolly Christmas).

Clarke’s work is endless inventive and, at times, as distant as some of the objects in space he describes with ease. But as cold as he might seem to his individual characters, his work often shows a warmth and optimism about the human spirit. I suppose this conflict comes because while we see his characters such as Heywood Floyd or Robert Singh struggle mightily to do good, Clarke makes sure we never forget they are mortal with finite, mortal lifespans. Nevertheless, I always find myself drawn into his work.

I will plan to update this posts with remembrances that will surely come today. You can also hear what he had to say 10 years ago in celebration of his 90th birthday.

UPDATE (later that same centennial):

 

Fun with Nuclear Devastation

Growing up near Washington, DC during the Cold War left an impression on me. It could be that my dad, a physicist, had explained how the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals were large enough to reduce the world to dust and have nukes left over to shake up the dust.

Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbolae. My dad would probably qualify my sentence by pointing out that the nukes wouldn’t obliterate the entire surface of the earth… and then he’d provide the exact square footage based on what he’d read and complex calculations he’d do in his head on the fly. That’s how he rolled.

But regardless of whether the entire planet would be flattened (it wouldn’t), it was very clear that, should World War III occur, where we lived would disappear in the intense fireball caused by multiple nuclear warheads.

That was pretty heavy to contemplate in elementary school.

There was an air raid siren near where we lived which, at the time, still went through the same monthly tests it probably had done since the Eisenhower administration. Of course, we grade schoolers did not know the finer points of such test schedules. Invariably the siren would roar to life while we were walking home from school and you felt the need to run for cover even though you were probably doomed.

So it probably comes at no surprise I caught many of the nuclear apocalypse-themed films and TV specials from Dr. Strangelove to The Day After to Threads to World War III. And yes, I made a point to see the TV version of Fail Safe live.

Sadly, even though it’s over 25 years since the end of the Cold War, the Doomsday Clock remains very close to midnight. I suppose you could accuse the Atomic Scientists of being dour, but they do more than just watch movies. They’ve put a lot of time and thought into this. And speaking of time and thought, I stumbled across a site created by Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science and technology.

Simply called “NUKEMAP,” it’s a devilishly comprehensive simulator of what would happen when any of a variety of existing nuclear weapons might hit  wherever you’d like Google Maps to specify. You can even project the radioactive fallout based on wind direction. It’s no hyperbolae to say that, had this site existed when I was a kid, I would have spent an afternoon or three going through all the scenarios I could think of… after confirming our family home would be reduced to dust in a full Soviet attack.

Because, if you’re going to contemplate the horrific destructive capacity of nuclear weapons, you might as well have a little fun. General Turgidson would.

You know he would.

Time is Not on Your Side. It is Your Personal Rashomon

As the year draws to a close, people invariably muse aloud about how fast the year has gone. Strangely, November was far longer for me than October. I’m not sure yet how December will shape up.

I decided to do some Internet digging about time and how people perceive it. I suppose I could go ahead and read some Marcel Proust since no one can properly summarize his masterwork, but I wanted something more on the scientific side.

I read about how time itself isn’t real certainly that time is subjective to each person. I tend to think of it as a lovely intangible. I was very interested to learn about how music affects our perception of time — and in general, I’m pretty sure I’ll be reading more about the study of time perception in the near future. It seems it often explores the nature and limits of what could be termed the Rashomon effect.

Eventually, I found a satisfying piece by Alan Burdick in the New Yorker that is, in the end, far more personal and philosophical than what I originally intended from a scientific assessment. So perhaps I’ll seek out that Proust after all.

 

 

Living a Lie: Pumpkin Edition

Look, we all know it’s decorative gourd season. Pumpkins and, especially, “pumpkin spice” items are everywhere.

However, in the interest of sharing information and –let’s be honest– giving you a Halloween scare, you should know:

  1. You live in a world where clear pumpkin pie is a thing.
  2. In this world, pumpkins may not actually be pumpkins!

I mean, if you thought David S. Pumpkins gave you unsatisfying answers, wait ’til you get in the weeds on this. The weeds are full of Zima.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Tuesday Tech Tale of Terror: Sinister Smartphones

Really, I had to post something for Halloween, didn’t I?

Jean Twenge’s longform article in the Atlantic about the damage of smartphones has been making the rounds on my social media channels since it came out in September. It’s stayed with me perhaps because it’s another parenting conundrum to keep one up at night.

I was reminded of the article as well because of a recent piece in the Independent that pointed out how Bill Gates and Steve Jobs kept their kids low tech.

Hey, at least whatever parenting choice I make, they’ll be someone and some article to tell me I’m doing it wrong. So, there’s that.

Flash will not be Savior of the Internet Universe

Okay, this is old news for most of you. It should be noted that –despite what I’m sure at some point were Adobe’s (and Macromedia’s) intentions– Flash was never going to be the savior of the Internet universe.

Nevertheless, if you need some good news this Friday, be reminded that Flash is will be, as of 2020, not just merely dead, but really most sincerely dead.

Fandom, Umbrage, and IP

I’ve been thinking of writing a longer post about fandom and perceived ownership — all the more so with the launch of Star Trek: Discovery.

Mark Evanier’s post, aptly titled “Creative Custody,” refutes the notion of fans “owning” comic book characters, but it can be applied to lots of other fan-beloved intellectual property (IP), such as IP that involves warrior races called Klingons.

Much of what Mark Evanier says could be said by someone who hasn’t been an avid comic books reader for about 60 years and a continuously working comic writer for about 40 years… but that authority helps.

The Future of Netflix in the Fall of 2017

Last night, CBS made its play to remain relevant in the streaming sphere by using Star Trek: Discovery as a carrot for viewers to sign up for its CBS All Access service (which has actually been around for three years).

It’d be unfair to ask any one show to sell a streaming service, but of course that’s some of what HBO Go has done with Game of Thrones and Hulu has done more recently with Handmaid’s Tale. When Netflix was first getting into the original content game in a big way, it could be said they did that with House of Cards.

Netflix has spent so much on original content now that the shows added are benefitting from being on Netflix. Ironically, outside of the U.S. and Canada, Star Trek: Discovery benefits from being another hot, new show on Netflix: the streaming service helps sell the show.

But this doesn’t mean Netflix isn’t dealing with struggles. In fact, it’s planning to up its spending on content with the looming 2019 departure of evergreen Disney content from its service. And it hasn’t backed down from trying to get A-list names to create that content, what with this summer’s announcement that the powerhouse writer-producer Shonda Rhimes has decided to move to Netflix.

David Sims explores Rhimes’ reasoning in an article for The Atlantic. There’s creative freedom and less of a workload with Netflix series, which usually doesn’t top 13 episodes for a season while broadcast usually remains around 22 or 24 episodes. That is, as project managers like to say, a non-trivial amount. And Netflix is clearly hoping to copy something of brand management with its luring of creative talent to helm projects — since it doesn’t own copious IP like Disney.

Hollywood hand-wringing about what nightmares may come is explored further by Todd VanDerWerff in a piece in Vox, which also details the challenges the streaming services like Amazon and Netflix are having. Cancellations are now possible and debt is mounting. Nevertheless, does anyone really think we’ll go back to broadcast or even a streaming replica of it?

One of the biggest fears I hear voiced is that various streaming services will present the worst possible version of a la carte pricing — long the dream of consumers dissatisfied with bloated cable bundles full of channels they didn’t use. If CBS All Access succeeds, who else will follow suit? True, NBC is linked to Comcast and ABC is linked to Disney, but will new, more labyrinthine bundles appear de facto? For example, will Disney apportion streaming services for ABC and ESPN and Disney and, perhaps have a Marvel channel and Star Wars channel? How many nickels and dimes will come into play?

In the next two years, I think we’ll get a whole new idea of how “channels” and “networks” and “streaming services” are defined — and most of the definition will come from the media corporations eyeing profit over service or convenience. I’d love for their to be 21st century aggregators curating content, but so many of the players want as close to complete vertical integration that I don’t know if that kind of consumer-centric model will be allowed. And in fairness, I’m not sure consumers agree on a model beyond “I want to watch what I want to watch when I want to watch it,” which will likely never work 100% of the time.

If readers have additional articles and analysis they want to share, I’m sure to be writing more about this in the months to come.

(BTW, for those wanting more on Star Trek: Discovery, here’s a review from Nerdist and a review with clearly marked spoilers from Vox. I liked it, flaws and all, and will be checking out episode 3 next week).

 

Somewhere between the Nexus and Planet Hell

This is the 31st entry in a surprisingly long series of posts about Star Trek’s future and its fandom called Crisis of Infinite Star Treks. In some ways, I hope this is the penultimate entry.

And so, in a few more hours here in the United States, we’re about to see the launch of Star Trek: Discovery, the seventh (!) Star Trek TV series (yes, I’m counting the animated series, too).

I had planned on having a longer Star Trek retrospective finished by now. I’ve been working on it for a good chunk of the summer as readers may recall, but I’m still wrapping that up. In the meantime, you may be interested in my July post about what to look forward to with Star Trek: Discovery.

The stakes for Discovery are uncomfortably high. Perhaps not since The Next Generation (TNG) first aired 30 years ago has a Star Trek series got the same scrutiny about its potential success or failure — and I doubt fans will be as forgiving as they were back in the 80s, when many TV shows could try and “find their audience” for the first season or two. This was easier when you had less channels. Even TNG, which was syndicated, didn’t have the multi-faceted media competition Discovery will have now.

I’m happy to hear the beginning buzz is positive. Nevertheless, the expectations are very high both by longtime Star Trek fans and modern audiences. Many doubtless want to experience sci-fi bliss akin to being in the Nexus, that other dimension of delights favored by El-Aurians and Enterprise captains.

It’s almost certain that Discovery won’t be perfect. None of the series are. Nevertheless, it feels like knives are already being sharpened on social media, either to defend or attack the series (it’s probably because I visit a “briar patch” of Star Trek sites and Facebook pages). The dissection, dismissal, and defense of Seth MacFarlane’s recent Trek-inspired series, The Orville, almost feels like it’s a Spanish Civil War for fans looking forward to Discovery and those just waiting for it to let them down. I doubt it’ll be “Planet Hell,” but it sounds like anything less than 90% Nexus won’t do.

Adam Rogers has a great piece in Wired which charts out the very tricky bit of navigating Star Trek: Discovery needs to do as it attempts to win over longtime fans, fill corporate coffers, and become the poster child for how to be a flagship show for a streaming service. Check it out before you check Discovery out. I’m sure I’ll compare notes with some of you on the aforementioned social media.

I’ll be back for at least one more Crisis entry.

Questions of Quality and Quantity in Prestige TV

So now that summer is over, including that show with the dragons, you may be wondering, “What shows are actually coming back this year?”

Jen Trolio and Caroline Framke over at Vox have answers.

This is one of those perennial Vox pieces I’m glad they do every year, because there’s a lot of shows. In fact, some might say there’s a glut of shows out there, which has led to occasional questions of whether we’re at “peak TV.”

Incidentally, I previously linked to a piece discussing what “peak TV” might mean anyway, but I find the way Variety tracks it is works for me: the number of scripted series. The concern, then, is not necessarily that we would exhaust the supply of talented storytellers making the various series, but that the series become so numerous that too many of them fail to find an audience and economic security (i.e., continued survival).

Todd VanDerWerff explores this more in-depth (also in Vox), including both the cyclical nature of notions of TV being horrible and then wonderful as well as the ways in which the quantity of media coverage on a particular TV show does not necessarily track to its quality.