Jun 162024
 

Warning: Spoilers follow.

I am not what you would call a Trekkie, but I always enjoyed Star Trek. The original series remains my favorite, but TNG had its moments, as did Voyager, even Enterprise, for all its flaws. Picard was good, and Strange New Worlds has a chance of being on par with the original series.

But Discovery? I am presently about two thirds of the way through its penultimate episode and it’s… just painful. The tension is artificial, the writing feels shallow and preachy and… what’s this with, “We’re on a clandestine, dangerous mission, one misstep and we’re dead quite possibly along with the entire Federation, so why don’t we just stop and talk about our emotions?”

Seriously, I can only watch this abomination in five-minute chunks. I’ll suffer through the end now that barely more than an episode remains but… Oh well. I know, I know, another first-world problem.

Perhaps the least unsuccessful attempt by ChatGPT/DALL-E to illustrate the divisiveness of forced wokeness on television

And then there’s Dr. Who. I find that I actually like the latest season. Ruby Sunday is a delightful Companion, and Ncuti Gatwa has a chance to be ranked among the best Doctors. That is… if the series’ writers let him? Take the latest episode, Rogue. Within minutes, the Doctor falls in love. Same-sex love. The Doctor! The same Doctor who, in the past history of the series, almost never engaged in romantic relationships. Romantic teases, maybe… But not much more, except perhaps with River Song. But now? Instant infatuation, which, sadly, felt like little more than a cheap excuse for the writers to engage in dutiful woke virtue signaling, you know, same-sex kiss and all. To their credit, in the end they somewhat redeemed themselves, as Rogue’s (the love interest’s) feelings towards the Doctor and respect for the Doctor’s humanity led him to sacrifice himself… And save the episode from self-inflicted doom.

Even so, I wish television writers dropped the urge to outdo one another when it comes to virtue signaling. It’s just too painful to watch at times, even if I assume that it is about more than just ticking some boxes in a checklist, meeting a quota somewhere; that their intentions are the purest and their hearts are in the right place. Not to mention that it is grossly counterproductive: the only thing such blatant wokeness accomplishes is a knee-jerk trigger response by those on the political right, who are already convinced (in the words of someone I know) that “these are not normal times” anymore.

And you know where that leads. If these are not normal times, that means extraordinary means are justified. The autocrat wins in the end, presenting himself as the sole savior of all that is good and decent, in these abnormal times.

So let’s please just stop the forced, virtue-signaling wokeness. It’s not helping to make the world a better, more tolerant place. If it accomplishes anything, it’s the exact opposite.

 Posted by at 6:05 pm
Jun 102024
 

I just finished watching the first season of a remarkable television series on Apple TV: Silo.

I say remarkable because it achieved for me the near-impossible: From the very beginning of the very first episode, I cared about the protagonists. I could identify with them, root for them. Including those who didn’t make it.

I shall try very hard not to spoil the show for those who have not seen all ten episodes yet, but…

It’s like Fallout, except that it’s even better. Fallout is great. I loved the games, I love the TV show. It captures Fallout‘s quirky cynicism and it truly feels like part of the same game universe.

Like Fallout, Silo also depicts a post-apocalyptic world. There is plenty of mystery. Unlike Fallout, there is no quirky humor in Silo. It’s more serious, and also more mysterious. In Fallout, we know right from the onset what caused the devastation. In Silo… let’s just say we know a lot less, and we may not even know what we don’t know.

I can’t wait for season 2 now. If they can maintain the quality of the show, the storytelling, the characters, the visuals… Damn, I sound like some stupid know-it-all TV critic, so let me just say that I liked the show. I wonder if Silo ever gets turned into a (preferably open-world) computer game.

 Posted by at 1:32 am
Apr 302024
 

One of the reasons why I find the sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, as well as its spinoff, Young Sheldon, enjoyable, is the fact that they respect the science.

That is to say, the science that we see pop up in the series from time to time is, well, it may be fictitious but not bogus. Not gobbledygook.

Here’s the latest example. In the most recent Young Sheldon episode, we see Sheldon’s first paper, published in the fictitious journal, “International Physics Review”.

The journal may be fictitious, but the format is not: It’s the standard Physical Review layout, pretty much. Looks quite legit!

The title actually makes sense. The Calabi-Yau manifold is a popular mathematical tool, used to deal with, or “compactify” the unwanted excess dimensions of 10-dimensional supersymmetric string theory.

The abstract cannot be read in full, but the words that are visible are not nonsense. OK, as far as I know there is no “Vail-Walker metric compactification”, but the fragments of text that we can read actually make sense, sort of: which is to say, the words are not randomly strung together, they actually form expressions that you might encounter in entirely legitimate physics texts.

I mean, usual Hollywood would have something like this Midjourney creation on a sheet of paper or a blackboard:

Midjourney’s response to the prompt, “A gentlecat physicist in front of a blackboard discussing the Schwarzschild metric”.

I mean, Midjourney draws lovely physicist cats, but it certainly knows nothing about the Schwarzschild solution. The creators of The Big Bang Theory do: If Sheldon Cooper talks about the Schwarzschild solution, you can bet that in the background, on the blackboard you’d see something like \(ds^2=(1-2GM/r)dt^2-(1-2GM/r)^{-1}dr^2-r^2d\theta^2-r^2\sin^2\theta d\phi^2.\)

 Posted by at 11:43 pm
Apr 172024
 

I just finished watching the first (but hopefully not the only) season of the new Amazon Prime series, Fallout.

There have been three modern game franchises that I became quite fond of over the years, all of the post-apocalyptic genre: S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Metro, and Fallout. Metro has incredible storytelling: For instance, meeting the last surviving theater critic or the shadow artist at the half-flooded Bolshoi station of the Moscow Metro are moments I’ll never forget. And the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series has its own incredible moments, foremost among them when I finished the main storyline of the third installment, Call of Pripyat, by accident in the middle of the night, in-game time, and found myself alone, in the dead silence, near the center of a deserted, pitch dark Pripyat, with my comrades gone. The relief I felt when I retreated to the Laundromat and found that it was now full of lively stalkers like myself, eating, listening to music, sleeping… A reaffirmation of life in that dead city.

And then FalloutFallout is in a league of its own. I admit I only played the 3D open world installments of the franchise, starting with Fallout 3. A game that begins with The Ink Spots singing how they don’t want to put the world on fire… with the burned-out, post-nuclear ruins of the DC Mall serving as background scenery. A game in which, after “growing up” inside an underground Vault, you experience true daylight for the very first time, with eyes that never saw anything other than artificial lighting.

So it is this Fallout universe that was turned into a television series on Amazon Prime, and what a series it is. It captures the vibe of the game franchise perfectly, but it also stands on its own as a darn good television series.

The first five minutes of the first episode already contain an instant classic: The line uttered by a little girl as she, horrified, is looking at the growing mushroom cloud enveloping Los Angeles, trying to measure it by holding out her thumb, as taught by her dad. “Is it your thumb or mine?” she asks innocently.

But the real motto of the series is a statement made by one of the main protagonists, Maximus, in episode five. “Everybody wants to save the world,” Maximus observes, “they just disagree on how.”

Doesn’t that perfectly capture our present-day world of 2024, too, as we are slowly, but inevitably, stumbling towards a new “chaotic era” (to borrow an expression from another recent television adaptation, the 3 Body Problem)? I can only hope that we don’t all end up like Shady Sands, the one-time capital city of the New California Republic, pictured above. Because, as all Fallout players know, war… war never changes.

 Posted by at 4:32 am
Aug 202023
 

Even before I began watching the penultimate episode of the current season of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, I already considered this series, more than any other “Trek”, a true successor of TOS, The Original Series (or Those Old Scientists, the in-universe meaning of the acronym as revealed in the Lower Decks crossover episode.)

Then came this. A musical.

A bleeping musical! That they had the guts!

And they pulled it off. They actually pulled it off, without turning it into a farce, a ridiculous caricature.

In fact, the episode was actually… good.

Yes, perhaps it was unnecessary. One critic even called it “vapid” I think, though I certainly don’t think that’s accurate. Silly? Yes, but think The Trouble with Tribbles. Or even The Squire of Gothos. Silly is permissible in Star Trek. It doesn’t have to be all-serious, all the time. Not everything that happens in space on a 23rd century starship is about the future of humanity if not all life in the galaxy. Sometimes it’s about just… singing. (Or saving the galaxy from a subspace improbability quantum whatever event that all this singing was about.)

Sure, Subspace Rhapsody is by no means the best of Strange New Worlds. But the fact that they had the guts to make this episode and the talent to pull it off… I think that cements SNW as perhaps the best Star Trek series ever (at least to date), certainly the best since TOS.

 Posted by at 10:17 pm
May 092023
 

Several years ago, Chinese author Liu Cixin’s novel, The Three-body Problem, became a bit of a sensation when it became the first Asian (I thought it was the first foreign, but never mind) novel to win the Hugo award for best science-fiction.

It is a damn good book, part of a damn good trilogy.

And now there is a television adaptation. A Chinese television adaptation.

And it is superb.

Its creators at Tencent Video made the entire series (30 episodes!) available on YouTube. In recent weeks, this series consumed all my television time, even at the expense of Picard (which now, I fear, pales in comparison despite my love of the series and Patrick Stewart.) Excellent acting, excellent directing, great actors, superior special effects (that ship!) What can I say? Had it been made in Hollywood, it would rank among Hollywood’s best.

I hope the creators are not abandoning the story and that the second and third book of the trilogy are also in the works.

 Posted by at 12:49 am
Oct 012021
 

One of the issues that plagues our present-day world is distrust in the media, distrust in particular in American media.

There are many reasons for this distrust. There is all the “fake news” spread by social media. The source, in a fair number of cases I guess, is agencies ran by hostile foreign governments, like Putin’s infamous Internet Research Agency or his cable news channel RT, whose purpose often seems to be precisely this, undermine trust by spreading disinformation. At other times, it is domestic politicians, including a certain former US president who spent his four years in office denouncing anything he didn’t like as fake news, thus blurring the line between bona fide fake news, political bias, and straightforward reporting of facts that he just plain didn’t like.

The flip side of the coin is that unfounded accusations and bona fide fake news from foreign sources do not automatically guarantee that the actual “mainstream media” is truthful. And every so often, I feel compelled to question the prevailing narrative. This is especially true when it comes to American news television, which over the years has become exceedingly partisan. (I pretty much stopped watching US news networks for this reason, except in case of major breaking news events.)

Just over a month ago, America’s war in Afghanistan came to an ignominious end. Much of the news media denounced the chaotic withdrawal, presenting it as both unexpected and avoidable. In reality, if you spent any time watching the efforts in Afghanistan, it was neither. The military presence in Afghanistan never had a well-defined, achievable military goal. And the withdrawal inevitably meant a collapse of institutions that had no legitimacy in the country other than the Western military support on which they relied for their very existence. So while the actual details can always be surprising, the collapse was both predictable and unavoidable.

But then comes the second part of the narrative, about the nature of the Taliban’s rule. No, I have no delusions about them. If you are a young woman in the Taliban’s Afghanistan, your future just became a lot darker. And if, heaven forbid, you are a member of the LGBTQ community, flee while you still can. But… Western media narratives notwithstanding, the Taliban seem genuinely interested in restoring law and order. Yes, it will be their version of law and order (but then, how exactly does it differ from the Islamist law and order in our friend and ally, Saudi Arabia?) but law and order nonetheless. Case in question? The Globe and Mail just published this view of Canada’s shuttered embassy in Kabul, guarded by Taliban security, who claim that they’ll guard the building until Canadian diplomats return. How do we know? Because the Globe and Mail’s international correspondent, a Western journalist, was able to visit the place. Harsh Islamist regime? I am sure. A terror regime that beheads stray Westerners? Doesn’t look like it.

And then there was something else today, completely unrelated to the above: the shutdown of a news media startup in the US, Ozy. Now I don’t know much about Ozy, except that a few months ago, they started spamming me. I say spamming because I never signed up for their daily news briefs, but I ended up receiving them anyway. Having said that, the briefs seemed sufficiently interesting and original so I decided not to block them. But now Ozy is shut down, in response to an investigative report by The New York Times that claimed serious (possibly even criminal) behavior by Ozy’s leadership. Earlier, there were also claims that Ozy had inflated audience numbers and little original content. I obviously cannot comment on the first two points, but the content? The only reason I allowed the Ozy newsletter to continue arriving in my Inbox was that it did have original content that I found mildly interesting.

So now I am torn. Can I take the allegations at face value? Or was it simply a successful attempt to fatally wound and destroy a competitor in the cutthroat world of news media? Perhaps something in between, a more nuanced picture?

Groan. Have I also been infected by this insidious distrust-all-media pathogen?

 Posted by at 10:19 pm
Apr 132021
 

Stereotypes hurt people.

Television, sitcoms in particular, often rely on stereotypes. But it’s not always a Bad Thing. When the stereotype itself is the object of ridicule, kind of holding up a mirror for the audience to look into, stereotypes can actually help turn ours into a better society. The Big Bang Theory is a good example: its Jewish (Howard Wolowitz) and Indian (Raj Koothrappali) protagonists mock not Jews and Indians but our prejudices.

But other stereotypes are more troubling. One notable example, discussed recently, is the character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in The Simpsons: a stereotypical Indian-American running a convenience store, speaking with a funny accent.

Yes, I recognize that the line between mocking people being stereotyped vs. mocking people who stereotype others is a thin one. But I think it is drawn somewhere between The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons. The Big Bang Theory‘s humor is defensible because it does not dehumanize the protagonists. The Simpsons, sadly, doesn’t fare that well. No wonder Hank Azaria no longer wants to be the voice of Apu.

However, when it comes to the point of a Caucasian voice actor voicing a non-Caucasian character, I think we are going one step, no, make that one giant leap, too far.

You see, I thought actors, you know, act. That is, pretend to be something they are not.

But now you are telling me that a naturally blond actress cannot play a brunette? Or a Jewish actor cannot play a German officer?

Or is this concern specifically reserved for, I don’t know, “race”? Or what’s the new catchphrase, people who are “racialized”? (Whatever the devil that means.) Because somehow, the color of your hair doesn’t matter but the color of your skin makes you… different?

And does it go both ways? Are Indian actors forbidden to play Europeans? Are black actors forbidden to play white roles? In any case, who decides what kind of acting is acceptable, and what crosses the line? Heaven forbid, into the territory of “cultural appropriation”?

In my all time favorite movie, Cloud Atlas, several actors play as many as a half dozen different roles, in different eras and cultures. These include a Korean actress playing, in one storyline, the role of the wife of a 19th century San Francisco lawyer. Another Korean actress, in a male (!) role, plays as a bellboy in 1970s San Francisco. Hugo Weaving plays the role of a sadistic female nurse in early 21st century Scotland, but also the role of an authoritarian Korean politician in 22nd century New Seoul. And so on.

You can guess which of these roles were criticized by some. “Yellowface” we were told, as if Cloud Atlas had anything to do with Hollywood’s racist past from many decades ago. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Rather, what that movie told me with its choice of actors and roles is that skin color, this so-called “race”, matters as little as the color of your hair or your eyes. It means nothing. We are all members of the one and only human race. And just as a blond actress can play the role of a brunette or a male actor can play in a female role, a black actor can play as a white person while a person of European descent can credibly play a Korean. Because these superficial differences in appearance mean nothing.

The suggestion that a white actor cannot lend his voice to an Indian character in a cartoon is preposterously backward. It seems designed to maintain racial discrimination. It, to use that fashionable phrase again, promotes and preserves racialization, instead of helping us progress towards a post-racial society in which all human beings are judged by the strength of their character, and the color of their skin matters no more than the color of their hair.

 Posted by at 4:17 pm
Mar 152021
 

The cartoon series The Simpsons is into its 32nd season this year. It has been picked up for at least another two seasons by Fox.

The Simpsons depicts a “typical” American family of five: Homer the breadwinner, with only a high-school diploma, holding a dead-end but secure job as a safety inspector at the Springfield Nuclear Plant, Marge the housewife, mother of three children and the three kids, two of them school-age, one still a toddler. The Simpsons live in a detached house in a suburb and own two cars. They are not rich, but they do have disposable income: Homer spends his evenings gulping down beer as Moe’s Tavern, Marge never seems to have a problem paying for groceries.

In other words, The Simpsons live the American dream: a comfortable North American middle class lifestyle from a single income.

A dream that, as lamented in a recent opinion article in The Atlantic, is no longer attainable.

This, I think, really explains it all. The polarization of American politics. The emergence of extremism. The appeal of slogans like “Make America Great Again”. The “we have nothing to lose” attitude that led many to vote for Trump, despite their misgivings.

And it is by no means a US-only phenomenon. Income inequality may not be as bad in Canada as it is in the US, but the middle class is not doing spectacularly well here either. Europe, too, is not heading in the right direction.

Lest we forget the lessons of history, this is precisely what provides fertile ground for totalitarian ideologies like fascism and communism. When liberal democracy fails to deliver on society’s most basic promise, the ability to provide a life as good as, but preferably better than your own for your children, people turn to other ideas. That was just as true a century ago as it is today.

 Posted by at 10:52 pm
Apr 272020
 

The other day, I ran across a question on Quora asking why Einstein didn’t support his country, Germany, during the Second World War. Thinking about this question reminded me of an old Star Trek episode and one of the root concepts (or, at least, my reading of it) of the Abrahamic family of religions.

In answering the question, I pointed out the difference between supporting a country vs. supporting a regime. I argued that Einstein, though not even a citizen of Germany at the time (he gave up German citizenship after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, and became a naturalized US citizen in 1940), did, in fact, support his country of birth, precisely by the act of following his conscience and opposing the despotic, murderous Nazi regime.

And that takes me to the Star Trek episode Bread and Circuses from 1968. In this episode, the USS Enterprise encounters a planet governed by a regime not unlike the Roman Empire, but with 20th century technology, broadcasting gladiatorial matches by analog television. In due course, the crew of the Enterprise gets into trouble and link up with a group of rebellious Sun-worshippers. When at the end of the episode, after the conflict is resolved and the good guys prevail as usual, Spock expresses surprise over the fact that such a primitive religion could have survived on this planet into its modern era, Uhura corrects him by clarifying that they were, in fact, worshippers of the son of God. In other words, this planet’s version of early Christianity arrived two thousand years later than on the Earth.

Christianity borrows its creation mythology from Judaism, including the notion of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge, the fruit of which let Adam and Eve understand the difference between good and evil. In my reading, this is what it really means when the Bible proclaims that humans are created in God’s image: that just like God, humans are free agents with a conscience, capable of acting independently, not robots blindly executing a predetermined divine script. They even have the capacity to act against God’s will.

Think about this, just what a revolutionary, what a deeply subversive concept this really is even today, never mind ancient times. The Book of Genesis is probably about 3,000 years old if not older. Egypt, in its third intermediate period, was ruled by pharaohs, seen as intermediaries between gods and ordinary people, whose words must be obeyed. Whether or not the Egyptian captivity happened (there do appear to be reasons to doubt), it’s no wonder Egypt’s rulers didn’t look kindly upon these pesky Jews and their subversive religion that claimed that it is more important to listen to your conscience than to blindly follow the orders of your divine ruler.

Despots can claim whatever they want: They can claim to represent the state, they can even claim to be the earthly representative of a divine power, like the pharaohs of old, but you have something over which they have no power: your conscience, which allows you to defy the will of any ruler, even God’s will, just as Adam and Eve have done back in the Garden of Eden.

And this is precisely what Einstein did when he lent his support, for instance, to Leo Szilard’s letter to Roosevelt that arguably launched the Manhattan project: Instead of slavishly following a despot claiming to represent the country of his birth, he listened to his conscience.

 Posted by at 7:07 pm
Jan 242020
 

A terrible sickness is upon us.

As of mid-January, just in the great United States 13 to 18 million people have been inflicted. Nearly 6 million required medical visits, and some 120,000 have been hospitalized. Worse yet, though the numbers are uncertain, somewhere between 6,600 and 17,000 people died. And that’s nearly two week old data; since then, I am sure there have been more victims.

Oh, you thought I was talking about the coronavirus outbreak that leads the evening newscast?

No. I am talking about the flu. Specifically, the 2019-2020 flu season, with data from the Centers for Disease Control.

As for the coronavirus, there have been a grand total of two confirmed cases so far in the US. None in Canada.

And that sums up the problem that I see with how we are being informed nowadays. Things that are exceptional and sensational lead newscasts. Things that are mundane are left forgotten, even when they are orders of magnitude more likely to affect you.

That is not to say that I disregard the threat that the coronavirus represents, or that I blindly criticize the response of authorities (in China and elsewhere) who are trying to contain a virus before it becomes more widespread. But keeping things in perspective is important.

 Posted by at 5:39 pm
Dec 082019
 

I just visited Twitter.

This is Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation, played by Marina Sirtis.

Deanna Troi was not my favorite character, but I always respected Marina Sirtis. So I was very sad to see the death of her husband, Michael Lamper, announced on Sirtis’s Twitter account. They have been married as long as my wife and I.

And then this is Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, played by René Auberjonois.

According to his Twitter account, René Auberjonois passed away today, at the age of 79.

As I said, a sad day.

 Posted by at 8:34 pm
Sep 302019
 

One of the few news shows I still watch is Reliable Sources on CNN, a weekly backgrounder on Sundays.

Yesterday, Robert De Niro was interviewed in one segment.

He certainly did not hide his opinion about Fox News. Gave me a good chuckle, too, but then I remembered why he was saying what he was saying and it no longer felt funny at all.

 Posted by at 9:26 am
Jul 152019
 

In 1929, probably just weeks before the great stock market crash, people were entertained by the sight of thousands of burning radio sets.

Some suggested that the apparent zeal with which these poor radios were burned had to do with the fact that they were obsolete regenerative receivers, notorious sources of radio frequency interference.

But no, the pictures make it clear that many of these old radios were simple tuned radio frequency (TRF) sets, not regenerative units. Besides, it was not until the early 1930s that superheterodyne receivers began to dominate the market.

No, this was just good old capitalism. People were encouraged to trade in old, “obsolete” radios and purchase new ones. And the wanton destruction of the old sets became a public spectacle.

One can only wonder about the amount of toxic smoke that was produced by this stunt. Not that anyone cared back in 1929.

 Posted by at 10:40 am
Mar 242019
 

Yes, it can get cold in Toronto. Usually not as cold as Ottawa, but winters can still be pretty brutal.

But this brutal, this late in the season?

Yes, according to The Weather Network earlier this morning, the temperature overnight will plummet to -59 degrees Centigrade next weekend.

Yikes. Where is global warming when we need it?

 Posted by at 7:01 pm
Jan 112019
 

I first read about this in George Takei’s Twitter feed. Then I checked it on Snopes, and it is true.

There really was a 1958 episode of a television Western (an episode titled The End of the World, of the series Trackdown), in which a character named Trump, a con artist, proposes to build an impenetrable wall to protect a town’s inhabitants.

Snopes confirms: the episode is real. In fact, the full episode is available on YouTube.

 Posted by at 1:21 am
Apr 172018
 

This stunning young lady is none other than future First Lady of the United States, Barbara Bush, back in 1943.

Alas, Barbara Bush is no more. She passed away today after a prolonged illness.

She was genuine, she was funny, and she was noble. Her husband for more than 70 years, George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush were clearly a loving couple until the very end.

And she even appeared on The Simpsons.

May she rest in peace.

 Posted by at 8:10 pm
Mar 202018
 

Breaking news on CNN: Another school shooting in America.

My only problem with CNN’s reporting is… why do they call this “Breaking News”?

That label should be reserved for news that is, well, unexpected and breaking. School shootings happen with such regularity, they should be part of CNN’s regularly scheduled programming.

 Posted by at 10:09 am
Mar 012018
 

No, it isn’t Friday yet.

But it seems that someone at CTV Morning Live wishes it was. Why else would they have told us that yesterday, February 28, was a Thursday? (Either that or they are time travelers from 2019.)

Then again, maybe I should focus on what they are actually saying, not on a trivial mistake they made: that even as parts of Europe that rarely see snow are blanketed by the white stuff, places in Canada and Siberia see unprecedented mild weather. A fluke or further evidence of climate change disrupting the polar vortex?

 Posted by at 8:13 am