Sunday, 30 March 2014

In Praise of the Mission Log Podcast

Following on from last week's paean to podcasts, I feel I missed out on mentioning another podcast I listen to regularly. Mission Log bills itself as a Roddenberry Star Trek Podcast (Gene's son Rod is one of the executive producers), and features two hosts, John Champion and Ken Ray, talking about the show episode by episode.

They started in 2012, with the famous lost pilot, the Cage, and have done an episode per podcast since then. Each week John and Ken discuss that episode's plot, message and whether it still holds up, nearly fifty years later. They've given themselves 13 years to go through every single episode of every single show (and probably the movies). While they're already done with the Original Series and are tackling the Animated Series, I'm still languishing in Season 1.

While it's fascinating to see the genesis of a lot of the tropes (and cliches) about Star Trek, which I'm well familiar with after about three decades, on and off, of watching its various incarnations, it's pretty slow going. For me, the production values frequently distract from the action on screen (which is also why I've always had trouble getting into Doctor Who); and a lot of the time, the storytelling is pretty antiquated, too, from the treatment of women to the childishness of a lot of the characters.

In the latest episode I heard, deconstructing the time travel episode "Yesterday is Tomorrow", one of the hosts referred to it as a "Fisher-Price" treatment of time travel: for instance, Kirk welcomes aboard a fighter pilot from the 1960s and shows him around, only to be reminded that he's messing up the timeline and that they'll have to keep the pilot on board forever. And "Fisher-Price" seems to be a fair assessment of a number of episodes, though by no means all.

But another important point to make is that Star Trek, for all its faults, is probably the only show that can support this kind of close scrutiny or study. Not because other candidates are particularly bad (I keep thinking I'd love to listen to a similar podcast about the X-Files), but because I feel few shows have tackled storytelling the same way.

As I said, John and Ken spend a portion of each podcast talking about that episode's message. Messages are, frankly, pretty uncommon in most shows, particularly these days - the hour-long drama has been taken over by serialized shows, so each episode rarely has to stand on its own. This isn't to say that modern drama is shallow, by any means, but it's become more novelistic, and so there's less room to discuss the issues of the day.

The other interesting thing, which I've discovered from recent episodes of Mission Log, is that Gene Roddenberry intended for Star Trek to be more of an anthology series, in the same vein as the Twilight Zone or the Outer Limits. Viewed through that lens, the fact that Star Trek had a message each week makes more sense - after all, many of the famous Twilight Zone stories are vehicles for some greater metaphor, if not commentary.

What's fascinating then - at least to me - is how later incarnations of Star Trek have kept doling out a message of the week. The Next Generation was probably the most successful, with episodes like "The Measure of a Man" or "The Drumhead", but even Enterprise - which was mostly nonsense - had a good run of a few episodes looking at how the characters dealt with a 9/11-style attack on Earth by mysterious and hostile aliens.

Some were thirsty for revenge, while others were numbed with grief at the loss of loved ones. But by the end of the storyline, we'd also learned who these aliens were, and why they were hell-bent on destroying humanity, leading to a greater understanding by both sides, rather than a genocidal war. For something made during the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks, that's pretty brave.

Of course, I've kind of gone out of order in my own rewatch (or first viewing, in many cases) of the entire Star Trek canon, having finished all of TNG and Enterprise. I don't know if I really want to go through Enterprise again, given what an awful start and abysmal final season it had - but I do want to hear what John and Ken have to say about, whenever they get there.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Toward a Unified Theory of Podcasts

I was on the phone to a friend from work recently, talking about the job I was doing now that I've moved to California. I was telling him that I kind of missed having afternoons to do data entry, and without missing a beat, he said, "Oh, because you miss listening to your podcasts!"

I hate being so transparent, sometimes. But he was right - for the past two years, whenever I had some easy, repetitive work, my coworkers were treated to the sight of me, more or less surreptitiously, slipping some earphones in and occasionally laughing quietly as I clicked away at the multitudinous spreadsheets that make up the work of a data consultancy. This friend, in particular, was prevailed upon to go see Chris Hardwick when he did a show in London, last May, so he became my official Nerdist sounding board, much to his bemusement.

But sometimes, when God closes a door, He opens a window.

Not that I really believe in God. But the point is, even though I don't have to do data entry as frequently as I used to, I do actually have another opportunity to listen to the Nerdist or any other podcast that takes my fancy: whenever I'm driving.

I realize this puts me one step closer to having NPR as my default station, and therefore to middle age and obsolescence. However, listening to the Nerdist or Marc Maron's WTF on my commute or whenever I'm driving around running errands, is actually kind of nice, especially because my CD player doesn't work anymore and the radio pretty much blows.

Of course, an interesting thing that I've noticed since I started listening more regularly to Maron or to Pete Holmes' You Made it Weird, is how well the form seems to work for comedians. Sure, there are podcasts of all kinds - I've listened to and enjoyed podcasts about travel, history and SF writing. Also, James Richardson's Football Daily podcasts for the Guardian during World Cups or European Championships are epic.

But somehow, if you look at it in evolutionary terms, comedians appear to have become the most successful animals on the digital landscape, occupying more niches than pretty much anybody else. I think it's telling that the AV Club's weekly roundup of the latest podcasts sits in the comedy section of the site, and that most are run by comedians (with the exceptions of Freakonomics and Stuff You Missed in History Class).

Maybe that's selection bias, or maybe comedy's just what rises to the top. It wouldn't be the first time a single genre comes to dominate a particular medium - superheroes are pretty much synonymous with comic books these days, but it wasn't so at the very start of the medium.

The other thing that's struck me since I started branching out from listening only to the Nerdist is how Hardwick, Maron and Holmes (btw, off topic, but doesn't that sound like an amazing legal firm?) seem to approach interacting with their guests, and navigating their own lives, in very similar ways.

It may not be that surprising, on reflection. I got into Chris Hardwick's stuff because of his book, and only started listening to his podcast after devouring the Nerdist Way and a couple of the other self-help books he referenced in it. In the book - and on the podcast - he talks about eating better, using time more productively, relating to people and dealing with addiction. These topics all crop up pretty frequently in the other podcasts I listen to - Maron, for example, is also a recovering alcoholic, while Pete Holmes spent a lot of time in his early podcasts asking his guests about their relationships and their beliefs.

I feel like it's a good bet that they've all read the same self-help books - and in any case, as I've mentioned before, a lot of self-help/productivity literature passes on the same ideas, in more or less similar forms. But because most of my podcast-listening is of the Nerdist, it feels like a strange parallel world to hear Marc Maron, who's not on the Nerdist Podcast Network, talk about similar topics and ask his guests similar questions.

And of course, they all know each other - Pete Holmes and Chris Hardwick have both appeared on Maron's TV show - so I'm sure they circulate their ideas quite easily among one another.

But it's still interesting to me, and even if they overlap quite a bit in terms of guests and subject matter, it's also interesting to see how different one person sounds on different podcasts. My favorite example is Tim Ferriss, who sounds a bit more douchey on Joe Rogan's podcast but comes off funnier when he appeared on the Nerdist, and revealed more of himself on Maron's podcast.

In any case, it'll be interesting to see how the form develops, now that these guys are seeing their profiles raised - after all, as every good biologist knows, evolution is a constant process. If this current generation looks a certain way, I'm looking forward to seeing what the smaller and nimbler ones who come up in their wake will look like.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Assault on Precinct 13: The Original Version

Just caught most of the original Assault on Precinct 13 on Netflix (I say "mostly" because less than 5 minutes from the end Netflix decided to stop working; thanks a lot, lack of net neutrality in America). It's not usually billed as a horror movie, but it's just as claustrophobic and full of creeping dread, and with the scenes of the gang members converging on the precinct or climbing in through the windows, it might as well be a zombie flick.

I guess that's John Carpenter's genius, though - it's present in Halloween, the Thing, Escape from New York... pretty much everything I've seen of his. If his characters aren't skulking around a post-apocalyptic landscape, then they're barricading the windows. And he scored Assault, just as he did with Halloween and the others, so it retains even more of his atmosphere, although the music isn't as distinctive as Halloween.

But the other thing that struck me was how raw it all was. Ignoring for a second that the inciting incident (SPOILERS, I guess) is some guy shooting a little girl in the chest, the acting and cinematography and especially the sound are like nothing you'd see in theaters today.

I say "especially" the sound, because most of the time the actors' voices sound like they're actually in the rooms where the action takes place. They echo a little bit, or are slightly drowned out by engine noise (for instance, when they're on a bus at the start), and there's a constant muted roar from LA's traffic - a sound that I recognize immediately having grown up in the Bay Area.

But let's get back to that shooting - "holy crap" was pretty much the sum of my reaction. I struggle to think of a movie that would show you that - a little girl running up to an ice cream truck, only to be gunned down in cold blood by a gang member, who utters no lines in his short time on screen and is soon dispatched by the girl's father.

Another thing that shows Assault is of its time is the fact that it dares to have a black lead. I haven't seen the remake, but during one of Netflix's numerous buffering breaks, I went on Wikipedia to see who played whom in the version with Ethan Hawke and Lawrence Fishburne. Interestingly, the role of the heroic cop and the criminal are completely reversed, in racial terms - which I find a little weird.

We're pretty self-congratulatory about how much less racist and homophobic and misogynist we are than our forebears were in the 1970s, but we don't have movies about black cops as lead characters anymore? I guess in 1976 it was kind of shocking, just like Charlton Heston's interracial romance in The Omega Man, but looking at it now it doesn't seem like we've progressed that much.

I won't deny it's a flawed movie, of course. The bad guys don't seem to have any motives, and they certainly don't have a lot of lines; the only thing that saves it from being creepily racist (apart from the black lead, of course) is the fact, mentioned in the film, that they're "unusually multiracial". Yep, there are even Asians in the gang! And not a karate kick to be seen from them, which is also pretty far ahead of its time, if you think about it. The acting, in places, is also pretty spotty, and I kept looking up at the top of the screen to see if the boom mike ever entered the shot.

But I soon stopped, because the story rumbled along at a pretty good pace - I was so sucked in, in fact, that I paused at one point to take a break and maybe make myself a drink, but was surprised to see that there were less than 15 minutes left. How's that for engaging the viewer?

I guess it's a cliche to say that they don't make movies like that anymore, but it's true. Assault seemed to break all of the conventions of modern scriptwriting I've read lately, from not putting the inciting incident in the first ten minutes, to not showing what kind of person the hero is by having him save a cat or something in the first scene. You certainly wouldn't see something like that shooting of the little girl, I feel - not unless it was a serious look at violence in our society (read: Oscar bait).

Well, it's late and this seems to be drifting into curmudgeonly territory, so I'll sign off and go back to trying to catch the last two or three minutes. And I suppose I'll have to catch the remake at some point, if for no other reason than to see what they've done to it.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

In Defense of Swearing

In the list of things that the UK does better than the US, one of my favorites has to be the fact that you can see swearwords in British newspapers, like the Guardian. Even the venerable Economist is willing to use words like "bullshit" when quoting a source, whereas American papers like the New York Times tend to tie themselves up in knots to avoid it. This usually takes the form of verbal acrobatics describing what the person in question said without quoting them, and then ending with a phrase like, "and used an expletive".

I think this is a great shame, not because I particularly want to see the word "fuck" appear every other word in the New York Times, but because it shows how the editorial staff (and the wider culture) in each country regards its respective readership. Whereas the Economist or the Guardian accept that people swear, and to achieve a more powerful effect will reflect that reality when they quote a source, the New York Times seems to operate on two assumptions: that a child reading the paper might see the word and repeat it, leading to lawsuits against the Times; and that readers in general can't handle that type of language.

Both are kind of insulting. It's a cliche, but kids really do hear that kind of language all the time in real life, whether at school, on the street or simply on the internet. And adults, by and large, hear and use that language all the time too - they can choose to be offended by it or not, but realistically, it won't incite them to bad behavior, the way they imagine would happen to children.

It is, however, a tiny bit more insidious than that. By banning swearwords in print, we play into this idea that everything has to be "child-safe", thereby infantilizing adults as well. We're treated like creatures who can't make decisions for ourselves, and so we have to be "protected" - all because there will be someone who takes issue with that kind of language.

To use another cliche, this really is a free speech issue. When the FCC fined CBS for the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" during the NFL halftime show in 2004, it led to, in effect, a chilling of speech on public airwaves - TV stations were suddenly afraid to air movies like Saving Private Ryan, for fear of being fined again (even though the FCC ruled it wasn't indecent). More generally, it also led to an unfortunate blacklisting of Janet Jackson by CBS and its affiliates, according to former FCC chairman Michael Powell, who also noted that the backlash didn't affect Jackson's co-star, Justin Timberlake.

The real problem with the US's stance on indecency, however, is that it's so inconsistent. As shocking and complaint-inducing as Saving Private Ryan's opening scene is, it's still defended by people across the political spectrum for its artistic merits. Yet it's hard to imagine anyone defending the idea of nudity on TV (outside of premium channels, like HBO, I mean).

To give another example, at the gym the other day, for some reason, someone had put one of the Final Destination movies on one of the TVs by the treadmills. In the half hour that I was running there, I saw two gruesome deaths depicted on screen - the channel was FXX - and nobody seemed to object. It's a legitimate question, though, whether Final Destination 3, which has some pretty extensive nudity, would have been okay to show on TVs in a public place like that. I also question whether FXX would have permitted use of the word "fuck" in the transmission, or if it censored that out (the sound was off, so I couldn't tell).

Realistically, it would be nice if the US could just move on to airing movies uncut after a certain time of day (say 9 or 10pm), the way they do in Britain. It would also be nice if American broadcasters stopped assuming everybody was so squeamish about sex, but so blithe about violence. Frankly, it should be the other way around.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Another BRIC in the Wall: Enlightenment Ideals Under Threat as Russia Invades Ukraine

So it would appear that Vladimir Putin is celebrating a successful closing of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi by invading its neighbor, Ukraine. As I've been suggesting on various forms of social media today, this looks like it's pulled straight from Adolf Hitler's playbook - lest we forget, Germany hosted the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and two years later annexed the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, ostensibly to protect the German-speakers in the region. Of course, like the current fracas, that was more of an excuse to flex Nazi Germany's power.

The parallels are interesting, but I don't think we should take them too far, either. Even despite the outcry caused by Russia's (rather provocative) stance on gays prior to the Olympics, I doubt that the Russians are about to embark on a vast pogrom against gays or Muslims or ethnic minorities within their borders.

But it's a little disheartening how easily geopolitics falls into the same old patterns. Ever since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has been seeking to retain its influence over its former satellite states - after all, this isn't the first time Russia's interfered in Ukrainian politics since then. More instructively, this interference appears to follow more or less exactly Russia's intervention into Georgia, another former Soviet republic that had attempted to forge a more westward path.

This should also be a continuing rebuke to American triumphalists who declared the "end of history" when the USSR collapsed. While I'm aware that Francis Fukuyama, the originator of that phrase, has modified his stance somewhat, I don't think anybody in a policymaking position, either in the US or more generally in the West, has really followed him back to a reality-based view of the world.

It may be true that we've seen the end, at least for now, of clashes between political ideologies, but the enemy of liberal democracy seems to be, not totalitarianism, but a deeply cynical political nihilism. You can see it in China as well as Russia, and potentially in places like South Africa, which also sometimes get held up as future model economies.

Note that "economies" is an important word here - the cynical political nihilism I speak of comes from the fact that everybody seems to have decided that the only aspect of a country worth working on is the economy. In his rather magisterial History of the World, Andrew Marr notes that humanity's technological advancement has handily outstripped its political advancement. He's right if you think about it - we may be running around with phones in our pockets that are better than what put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, but when we go to vote we're doing so within a system put together just over 200 years ago and modeled on something invented over 2,000 years ago.

(Incidentally, I'm referring to the republic, as practiced in Rome, rather than democracy as practiced in Athens; but for purposes of time comparison, effectively, same difference.)

But I'd go a step further than Marr, and suggest that our economic development has also outpaced political development, with equally dire effects. In fact, it may be the more pressing problem, in the short term.

In practical terms, countries like China have realized that liberalizing the economy doesn't mean they have to cede any political power to the masses, they just have to ensure that people have access to internet (to play World of Warcraft) and cash (to periodically despoil the shelves of Hong Kong's boutiques). Russia and its satellite countries have discovered that their political elites don't even need to cede economic power to a very wide section of the population - just a couple of oligarchs who can be conveniently thrown in jail whenever the folks in charge like.

It's worked for them, to the extent that in recent years there's been a lot of talk of the BRIC countries running this century. But that's true only if you value nothing but economic growth - and it's worth noting that Brazil and India, the other two BRICs, suffer from some huge wealth gaps and social problems that don't look like they're being alleviated by this notional growth into economic behemoths.

At the same time, the US seems to be turning into a BRIC itself, as it cedes political power to corporations (the modern purveyors of feudalism) and builds up a wealth gap as wide and unpleasant as that in Sierra Leone (at least, if you use New York as a benchmark for the whole country). And bricks, I hardly need remind you, tend to sink.

Sorry for the pun, but in chasing some vision of "perfect" free-market capitalism and treating economic laws as being as immutable as physical ones (I can't remember the source of that quote, but in lieu of it I'll note that economics doesn't even have laws), we're shedding our democratic and, more generally, our Enlightenment principles. You may not agree, but I certainly hold these principles to be a force for good in the world, and applicable worldwide - even if we haven't always lived up to the principles, and even if the US Founding Fathers were a bunch of slave-owning racist oligarchs, the idea of giving everybody a say in their own fate is a principle we should continue to aspire to.

Unfortunately, this principle is continually under threat, and never more than it is now, today, as Russian tanks roll into Ukraine and the US government continues to spy on the entire world's online activity. But let's at least start by recognizing the problem, all of us - and then we can start fixing it.