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Star Trek: Discovery

Sunday saw the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, the latest installment in the Star Trek franchise. The first story was a 2-parter, only the first part of which aired on CBS; the rest of the season will air on the new “CBS All Access” subscription streaming network, which I have no interest in subscribing to, so I only saw the first episode, which ended on a cliffhanger.

As my readers may know, I’m working on over 30 years of disappointment in Star Trek. Despite the occasional good story here and there, Star Trek has been a dramatic, storytelling and characterization wasteland since Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987. I guess it’s a testament to how wonderful the original series (and Star Treks II and III) were that I keep trying the new series. (Well, okay, I passed almost entirely on Voyager, since Star Trek was entirely superfluous from 1994-1999 due to the presence of Babylon 5.)

Despite hoping that the decade-plus since Enterprise went off the air would lead to some philosophical changes in the Star Trek TV franchise, the first episode of Discovery, “The Vulcan Hello”, was about as mundane as ever. The series takes place in the original timeline (i.e., not the J.J. Abrams reboot timeline), approximately 10 years before the original Star Trek series (i.e., about 2 years after the events of “The Cage”, the one Christopher Pike episode), and it focuses on the (apparently last) adventure of the USS Shenzhou, which encounters an alien object while investigating damage to a remote yet apparently important satellite.

There isn’t really a way to discuss the episode without spoilers – frankly, there isn’t enough story here to discuss otherwise – so I’ll continue after the cut:

Read on, Macduff! »

Doctor Who, Season Nine

Doctor Who didn’t have a lot farther to sink after last season, so season nine was almost by definition something of a rebound. With Jenna Coleman having announced beforehand that she’d be leaving the series, many stories seemed to tease her departure by putting Clara in positions where she could be plausibly killed off.

(Much) more – with spoilers – after the jump.

Read on, Macduff! »

Beyond Belief

The biggest revelation for me from the election has come from pieces like this:

The revelation is this: People can be told something, understand what they’re being told, be presented with evidence of it, even have the speaker say that this is something they want to and are going to do, and just flat-out not believe it. In this case, Trump saying that the Affordable Care Act needed to be repealed (and replaced, but with no suggestions as to what it would be replaced with), which is entirely plausible considering repealing the ACA has been a cornerstone of Republican priorities in Congress for the last 4 years. There’s no good reason to think the Congress and Trump wouldn’t repeal it, yet people voted for him despite feeling the ACA is valuable and important.

Maybe this characteristic of voters has been obvious to everyone else, but it was a surprise to me. (And, frankly, I haven’t generally observed politicians, analysts, pundits or other voters acting as if they realized this.)

Most voters I think vote for a candidate expecting they will renege on – or may be flat-out lying – about some of their campaign statements, since that is, unfortunately, part and parcel of politics (and political reality) for most candidates. But it seems remarkable to me to vote for someone expecting that one of their key statements, about something which is important to one’s life and health (literally), is something they’d go back on.

(It’s easy to feel schadenfreude for people in the articles, but I think we should have more empathy than that; I think things are going to get pretty rough for a lot of Trump voters in the next few years, and no one should take joy in that.)

To my mind, this puts a stake through the heart of any “best interests” argument about voters (most of which I’ve found pretty weak anyway): Clearly large numbers of voters either don’t vote in their best interests, and one reason is that some of them simply don’t believe that a candidate will act against those interests even when the candidate flat-out says that they will.

I don’t know what this means for candidates’ campaigns, elections, political organizations, analysis, punditry, or just plain watching all of those. But I find it unnervingly weird that many people voted to delete Obamacare (much as they voted for racism) even when that’s not what they wanted. I know that choosing a candidate is a matter of compromise, but geez.

Aftermath

A week ago, as the Cubs and Indians were heading down the stretch of the final game of this year’s World Series I tweeted this:

So everyone realizes that we could have EITHER the Cubs win OR Trump lose, but not both, right?

If you’re the kind of person who believes in karma or other such things, there’s an explanation you can consider. Alternately, maybe the gods just decided to stick a metaphorical fork in Nate Silver’s eye.

I, myself, do not believe in such things – I was making a joke since I was rooting for the Indians. So my topics today are: What happened, and what happens next?

What happened?

I have a pretty simple – even reductionist – view of how Presidential politics works: That the largest single factor is how the electorate views the state of the economy at the time of the election. There are a lot of voters who are “locked in” to one party, and among those who aren’t, the state of the economy is the biggest determining factor in whether they turn out to vote, and who they vote for. In particular, I believe that if they perceive the economy to be bad – especially in their region (“all politics is local”) – then they will tend vote for the major party candidate who is not from the party of the sitting President. Regardless of what’s going on elsewhere in government, in a Presidential election, the party of the sitting President gets the blame.

I also feel that incumbency is a significant factor, so even if the economy is bad, the incumbent has a built-in edge which a non-incumbent candidate of the same party of the sitting President does not have.

There are some other nuances, but fundamentally I think Bill Clinton’s campaign got it right in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

So, I think that the Republican Congress has been engineering the recovery from the last recession to be weak, so that large swaths of the electorate felt that the economy basically sucks, even though it doesn’t suck for a lot of people. Yeah yeah, lots of job growth, but it’s been not so much tepid job growth as growth of tepid jobs. So the marginal voters who turned out to vote – i.e., the ones that matter – came out and held the Democrats responsible, because the sitting President is a Democrat. I think this has been a deliberate strategy on the part of the Republican leadership, and while Trump displacing their establishment candidates isn’t what they’d planned (primary politics is a very different kettle of fish from the general election), they’re probably pretty happy with the outcome overall.

Would Bernie Sanders have won where Hillary Clinton lost? I doubt it. And I think polls showing otherwise are no better than wishful thinking for his supporters. (I voted for Sanders in the primary.)

Why did the polls and analysts get it wrong before the election? Heck if I know. But the economic news over the last 2 years made me think that the Republican nominee – whoever it was – would have a better chance of winning this election than a lot of people gave them credit for.

Anyway, here we are: President-Elect Trump.

What happens next?

As usual John Scalzi said a lot and said it better than I can. But I have a few more things to say:

First, I think people who voted for Trump for economic reasons are – ironically, tragically – the least likely citizens to be helped by his programs. Trump doesn’t care about the little guy, and I think his talk about bringing back jobs was just rhetoric; he’s interested in helping himself and his fellow tycoons to make money off of everyone else, legitimately or not. Trump isn’t an “outsider”, people like Trump are the reason government has insiders – they exist for people like Trump. If you’re not like Trump (white, male, rich), then don’t expect to see a whole lot of help from the government in the next four years.

Second, while the Supreme Court and the repeal of Obamacare are getting a lot of the press, what really scares me is that in the next 4 years the Republicans might turn their attention to repealing Social Security and Medicare, two of the greatest and most successful government programs in the history of humanity. Certainly I’m not counting on them being around when I retire, at this point. And after helping care for my mother these last few years, I really cannot stress enough just how wonderful a program Medicare is.

(A friend said that Trump has pledged not to abolish Social Security and Medicare. Even if he said this, I bet he doesn’t care enough to stick to that. And the Congressional Republicans definitely want to get rid of them.)

Finally, this:

Every Presidential election I’ve voted in has been tremendously stressful to watch the night of the returns. When Clinton and Obama won each of their two terms, it was a big relief because, although I found them each far from perfect, they were better than the alternative. When George W. Bush won each of his two terms, it was difficult to see how I was going to get up in the morning. Last night was like those two Bush elections times ten.

It’s prosaic to say, “we have to go on, because what else can we do?” I was able to get up this morning and mostly do my usual routine. But I fear that a lot of people are going to decide they can’t keep going. I bet we’ll see rising suicide rates among minorities, LGBT folks, and maybe even women.

I have no comforting words. My mental-compartmentalization skills are working overtime to help me adjust to this, and they’re doing pretty well – but I feel guilty because it makes me feel emotionally detached from how I think many people are feelineg.

The next few years are going to be brutal for many people whose wealth is counted in less than 8 figures. I hope we all survive them.

A Little TiVo Trouble

We got a Tivo Bolt late last year, and we’ve been enjoying it a lot. We’ve been able to time start watching some TV shows that were inconvenient for us to follow at their air times, watched some movies we otherwise wouldn’t have caught, and Debbi has discovered a couple of shows suggested by the machine which she wouldn’t have found otherwise, in particular Murdoch Mysteries, a police procedural taking place in late 19th century Canada.

We’ve had a few problems with it, though. Our TV provider is Comcast, which means we had to go through the process of setting up a CableCard for the TiVo, which means dealing with Comcast’s quixotic customer service line, and sometimes long hold times at Tivo’s help line. We never managed to get Comcast channel 1 – On Demand – to work, but we later learned that Tivo shows On Demand programming as one of several streaming options.

More annoyingly, recently we noticed that a few channels were no longer coming in. Sometimes they’d drop out for a few days, and then come back. Last week it got bad enough that we missed the last episode of season 2 of The Flash because it couldn’t get the signal. We tried to watch it via On Demand, but we couldn’t get that to work either.

The channels that were missing all had error messages that read, “Searching for a signal on this channel (v52)”. So I did web searches for that phrase, and found this page, where someone fixed the same problem by “re-seating the CableCard”. So I powered down the Tivo, removed the CableCard, inserted it again, and powered it up again. And lo and behold, not only were the missing channels back, but On Demand was working! So we managed to see the conclusion of The Flash at last.

It seems like a remarkable fragile system, and man, I dread having to call Comcast for support, especially since my experience so far is that as soon as they hear I have a TiVo they’ll ship me over to Tivo, where I’ll have a long hold time, and eventually connect with someone helpful who will nonetheless have both of us call back to Comcast.

So, mostly I blame Comcast for it all. Just like I suspect everybody does.

But at least I should be able to fix this particular problem if it happens again.

Arbitron

Back in February of 2014 Debbi and I were selected to join Arbitron ratings (who have since acquired by their competitor Nielsen and are now named Nielsen Audio).

I imagine back in the day that people in this program would need to note which programs they watched and when on paper and then mail them in. (I think I’ve heard of this, and no doubt someone who participated back in those days could explain in detail.) Today it’s different: You get a little device (“meter”) to carry with you which is connected to the cellular network, and it would listen programs you watch or listen to for a signal which identifies the program, and report back to its home base. All we had to do was charge it each night, and notify Arbitron if we were going on an extended trip away from home. Well, and not tell that we were in the program on social media while we were in it. (I doubt we told very many people at all, in fact.)

In return, beyond being counted directly, we also received a small check every month for our troubles. Coincidentally, we also signed up for Graze around the same time, and I noted that the checks we got from Arbitron would just about cover the cost of the Graze boxes. Convenient!

Debbi watches a lot of television in the background, especially police procedurals, while I tend to throw on sports. We also had some regular shows we watched. While I doubt I can remember it all, here’s a rundown of what we watched while we carried our meters:

  • I listen to public radio, and Debbi listens to country.
  • NCIS and NCIS: New Orleans. Probably also some NCIS: Los Angeles, though we have run out of gas on that show.
  • Doctor Who, of course.
  • The Big Bang Theory.
  • We started watching Elementary during that time. (Did I mention police procedurals?)
  • Ascension
  • Baseball and football.
  • And a random assortment of films which aired on cable.

Last September Arbitron contacted us that we had been randomly selected to leave the program – a little early, since we’d been told at the start that it would be at most a 2-year term. Apparently we’d been among the most diligent participants in the program. It was kind of weird for a couple of weeks to no longer be carrying our meters with us everywhere.

Anyway, it was a neat little perk for a while, easy to do, and maybe helping keep some programs we enjoy on the air. I rather wish we’d gotten a TiVo while we were in the program in order to support a few other shows, such as Person of Interest, which I’d been interested in but which aired at an inconvenient time slot to watch live. But, so it goes.

A Long Birthday Weekend

My birthday weekends get a little more low-key over time. Having a big to-do of a party seems less appealing than it used to. Maybe for my 50th.

This weekend I decided what I mainly wanted to do as play poker, so Friday night I had five friends over for an evening of our low-stakes game. Rooting around for the new deck of cards I knew I’d bought, I looked at my order history on Amazon, and found that it had been over two and a half years since I’d hosted a game. Probably almost that long since I’d last played no-limit, too. But it was a successful evening for me, more than doubling my buy-in. I was particularly pleased with a hand where I turned two pair with a 4-straight on the board, and realized no one had the straight when they didn’t bet the turn, so I was able to make a little more money on the turn and river.

(I’ve been listening to the Thinking Poker podcast, and find it’s maybe even more instructive to learn about hand-reading by listening to it than by reading a book about it.)

Saturday was my actual birthday, and I’d thought of going to the Magic Oath of the Gatewatch prerelease, but decided that poker was probably enough gaming for the weekend. Instead I opened presents, talked to my Dad on the phone for a while, and then watched the Patriots beat the Chiefs in the playoffs.

In the evening we went to Amber India with some friends for dinner. They moved a few months ago (I think their old strip mall is going to be redeveloped soon), and their new spot has a nice outdoor patio (not suitable for this rainy weather, but should be great in the summer). The inside feels a little cramped and warm, but possibly they just have a few kinks to work out. The good news is, the food is still awesome!

Sunday was had a relatively quiet day, though in the afternoon we drove over to Half Moon Bay hoping to catch some of the rain showers we were supposed to be getting. We stopped for lunch at Cameron’s British Pub, whose English pastie was exactly what I was craving. Then we drove down the side street the pub is on and ended up at the Wavecrest open space preserve, where we hiked around for about an hour, getting our sneakers muddy and (in Debbi’s case) soaked. But it was a pretty – if blustery – day, and we had a good time. We then drove up to Point Montara Lighthouse where we sat in the car and watched the waves crash on. Alas, we never got more than some drizzle on the whole trip, which was a bit disappointing.

In the evening we started watching Person of Interest, which I’d been curious about for a while, but it never aired at good time for us. (Now that’s a concern we won’t have in the future now that we own a TiVo.) It’s good stuff, a little over-the-top, but at least as good as other police procedurals, and I understand it gets more sophisticated over time.

Oh yeah: And my company’s “gift” to me for my birthday was that we have Martin Luther King day off for the first time. So today we took care of a bunch of chores in the morning, including having a plumber over to fix two of our toilets whose gaskets were having problems. In the afternoon we had some other friends over, who hadn’t been able to join us for cupcakes on Saturday, and I played with the kids for a bit, and they chased the cats and Debbi’s BB-8 robot around for a while. We wrapped up the weekend with dinner, some more chores, and some more Person of Interest.

A pretty busy weekend in a lot of ways, but also some nice quiet time. And we did get that rain I was hoping for, but it came in last night. Wish we could get a good solid day of rain during the daytime on a weekend. But for now it looks like I’ll have to be satisfied with another shower tomorrow.

Doctor Who: Heaven Sent

Because I Have Opinions, I’m going to write about this past week’s Doctor Who episode, “Heaven Sent”.

In isolation, the episode instantly became the best of the Peter Capaldi episodes to date. Not that that’s saying a lot, since his run has been extraordinarily weak so far, with only “Under the Lake”/ “Before the Flood” being above average. (Most of last season was completely forgettable.)

What sets this episode apart is that it seems Steven Moffat remember what made his four stories during the Russell T. Davies period among the best of that era: While his stories didn’t always hold up to close scrutiny, they always had a successful emotional resonance and felt true to the characters and situations. But as show runner, Moffat’s stories have lost that emotional resonance and often feel downright manipulative. And his plots have gotten increasingly contrived, and just needlessly complex. While there is some of that here, fundamentally “Heaven Sent” is a simple story which works on an emotional level, relying heavily on Capaldi to pull it off, which he does, in perhaps his best performance in the role to date.

Much more spoilery discussion after the break. No plot summary, though; read the Wikipedia article if you need a refresher.

Read on, Macduff! »

Supergirl

We watched the premiere of the new Supergirl TV show last night. I’m not sure why I decided to watch this one while I sat out The Flash last year. Maybe because Supergirl isn’t up against shows I already watch (my interest in Gotham is somewhere south of zero), and I sometimes feel like I watch too much TV anyway.

The pilot episode’s first act was the closest thing I can recall seeing on TV to a true cinematic experience: The staging, the pacing, the effects, even the particular wittiness of the dialogue, all felt like I was watching a movie. If that’s what they were going for – and, frankly, I thought it worked really well – then they nailed it.

I’ve seen a little criticism that Kara’s secret identity is too close to that of Clark Kent’s, but I’m okay with it, especially since Melissa Benoist carries the role off with a fair bit of nuance (I actually liked her better as Kara than as Supergirl). Of the people at her workplace, Mehcad Brooks as James Olsen is the clear standout. I haven’t seen Man of Steel so I have no idea how much Supergirl’s world matches up with that one, but I thought this was the best portrayal of Jimmy Olsen since, well, maybe the 1970s (thought the version in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman was also pretty good). Calista Flockhart has a one-note role (in this episode, anyway) as Cat Grant, and Jeremy Jordan is fine as her cow-orker and would-be romantic interest Winn Shott.

But the episode kind of went to pieces in the second act. Already overburdened with too many oblique references to Superman, the series throws us both a spaceship of criminals who have escaped onto Earth (with the attendant feelings of guilt since they followed Kara out of the Phantom Zone, not that she had any control over any of that), and the Department of Extra-Normal Operations, which Kara’s sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) works for. Presumably intended to provide some structure to the first season (giving Supergirl some people to work with and also feel suspicious of, and some people to fight every week), both of these elements are really just cheap contrivances, and it immediately made the show feel more run-of-the-mill. If the series turns into monster-of-the-week even for just a few episodes, its quality is going to sink like a stone. And I’m so done with Superman and his cast being threatened by menaces lingering from Krypton long after it’s destruction. Doing away with all that was one of the best parts of the 80s reboot of the comic book, and staying away from it (except for Brainiac) was important in the Superman cartoon of the 90s. Just say no.

Also, while I don’t mind repurposing names of minor comic book characters for a new medium, the fact that Winn Shott and Hank Henshaw both ominously share names with Superman villains is not at all welcome. Another thing that sucks the life out of adaptations like this is the slow reveal of some character we know about from the original material. (This is one reason I have no interest in Gotham.) If Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) turns into the Cyborg Superman, you’ll know the series has jumped the shark.

The third act was a fairly run-of-the-mill “heroine overcomes self-doubt” resolution, with a lot of punching and things blowing up. Which is not bad – before seeing this episode I felt the keys to the series would be a witty script and not welching on the superhero action (which is what sunk Lois and Clark back in the 90s). But the back end of the episode did not live up to the execution of the first 15 minutes.

Overall it was a pretty good episode, but I think they missed the boat by throwing Kara into the mess of the DEO and the ship of escaped criminals, which essentially prevents her from finding her own way to being her own hero. The premise is already burdened by her living in the shadow of her famous cousin without being able to ever show him on-screen in a satisfying manner. So the show should be about her establishing herself and building her self-confidence, not rounding up someone else’s criminals or worrying that the DEO is going to capture her again. I think it’s going to try to do both, and I worry that it’s not going to work.

Good Samaritan

This morning I did my good deed for the week. Maybe even more than one, in the space of 10 minutes.

I was biking to work on the Stevens Creek Trail, when I came across a guy helping another guy up who had apparently fallen over while on his bike. I stopped to see if they were all right, and it turned out that the first guy had pulled over to change a flat tire, and the second guy had stopped to help, and somehow lost his balance and fallen over.

Fortunately, no one was hurt (the second guy said one time he’d fallen over on his bike and broken his arm – ow!). The second guy’s seat had turned 45 degrees and he needed a hex wrench to get it straight – which I loaned him since I carry one in my seat pack. The first guy had finished replacing his tire, but needed a pump to inflate it, and I have a frame pump on my bike, so I loaned that to him. In fairly short order they were both on their way, and so was I.

Then, just about a hundred feet up the trail a guy hit his brakes and came to a sudden halt, burning rubber on the pavement. So I stopped again and asked if he was okay. He was, but his chain had somehow slipped off his gears. I’m not sure why that required coming to a sudden stop on a downhill, but I suggested he continue along to where the other two had stopped since there was a turnout there, and where he’d stopped was just on the wrong side of a blind curve (bad enough that the city mounted a convex mirror at it). Since I was also stopped on the wrong side of the curve, I got back on my bike and continued on – hopefully he took my advice.

I don’t know if it was the short rest break or just feeling good about myself, but I powered my way through the rest of my ride and made up a little of my lost time. But hopefully I earned some karma points today.