Category Archives: entertainment

These are the lessons of the starship Enterprise

I’m grateful to Wired for publishing the article about Star Trek on its fiftieth anniversary that I would have if I’d had the necessary time and insight. It argues that the incoherent spectacle presently being peddled under the “Star Trek” name takes merely the set dressing from the original and discards what made the original a classic: its point of view.

I’d only like to expand on that article’s point a bit, to say that the show’s point of view was not limited to politics. At its best, Star Trek was not merely a “blueprint for how to govern,” but a blueprint for how to live, teaching lessons about leadership, about balancing the head and the heart, about how to approach the unknown, and other evergreen questions about the human condition. These lessons were simplistic and moralistic, but to a young kid in Queens learning to make his way in the world during the golden age of nightly Star Trek reruns, they landed with all the more force for their simplicity.

The lesson of “A Taste of Armageddon,” in which Kirk forces a society to confront the true horrors of a centuries-old war that’s been mostly out of sight and out of mind? “War is hell.”

Of the time-travel story “The City on the Edge of Forever,” in which Kirk learns that to repair the broken timeline he must let the woman he loves die? “Leave well enough alone.”

Of “Amok Time,” in which Spock grieves, briefly believing he has killed Kirk in ritual combat while in the grip of the Vulcan mating fever? “Bros before hos.”

Of “The Ultimate Computer,” in which the advanced automation being tested to replace Kirk is revealed to be as deranged as its creator? “Garbage in, garbage out.”

Even after Star Trek graduated to the big screen, its best incarnation there, The Wrath of Khan, also embodied a simple lesson, suited to its maturing fan base: “You’re only as old as you feel.”

These are not merely glib captions. All the good episodes of classic Trek can be boiled down in this way, and taken together (and looking past the rubber alien costumes, the styrofoam rocks, the gauzy lenses used to shoot the occasional glamorous guest-actress, and the fair number of Trek episodes that were… less than classic), they amount to a viable, if patchy and now somewhat dated, handbook of manhood that shaped me and a whole generation of sci-fi nerds.

What can impressionable young fans take away from the current Star Trek films… other than how grumpy they make grandpa?

The flip-around thing

After seeing the film The Martian, my sister Suzanne posed a science question about it to me, one that I can imagine many other moviegoers had as well. Here’s (an edited version of) her question and (an elaborated version of) my answer. Spoilers ahead!

Q: ‎My very first thought when NASA finally realizes Watney’s still alive was, great! It’s only been 40-something days. Surely there’s a way for the Hermes crew to go back for him. And then I waited another hour before the movie caught up.

What I don’t understand is why that idea became such a big aha/eureka moment for that dude who thought of it, why the “top minds” at NASA rejected it, and why it took so long to get behind it as a plan. Why didn’t anyone think of it sooner? Why couldn’t they expedite the rescue by boosting thrusters or whatever‎ to do the flip-around thing earlier?

A: The movie was great (and very faithful to the book), but it could have done a better job of explaining why the Hermes-return solution was such a big deal.

Star Trek makes space navigation seem like steering sea vessels. Star Wars makes it seem like driving hot rods. Other movies, video games, etc. – and even Interstellar, which took pains to depict some exotic science accurately – give the impression that it’s just a matter of pointing your ship where you want to go, and going there. For better or worse, that’s the mental frame of reference that audiences bring to movies about space.

In fact space travel (given our present technology) is much more like firing a gun. The spaceship is the bullet. You get one main chance to aim correctly, and then BANG, off you go. After that there is no changing course. Tom Hanks puts it like this in Apollo 13: “We just put Sir Isaac Newton in the driver’s seat.” (Something no real astronaut would say, understanding that there is no time Sir Isaac Newton isn’t in the driver’s seat).

In fact it’s even harder than aiming a bullet because a bullet reaches its target, or misses, in fractions of a second. A spaceship bullet is aimed at something that’s months away, at a target that’s in motion, and it travels – or more precisely, falls – through a medium governed by gravity, where the sources of gravity – the Sun, the Earth, Mars, etc. – are all in motion relative to each other, creating ever-shifting “currents” tugging the spaceship this way and that.

Once the Hermes fired her engine for the return trip to Earth, that was pretty much that. It had almost no fuel left for other maneuvering. There was no “doing the flip-around thing.” It would have taken a fair bit of inspiration even to think of looking for a return-to-Mars trajectory (let alone a return-to-Mars-and-then-Earth-again one!) plus a lot of luck that one existed, plus a lot of work to actually find it, plus a lot of daring to attempt a critical resupply during the high-speed gravity-assist Earth flyby, all of which the movie depicts a little too simply.

Hopefully, the many cool science things that the movie does depict accurately will whet audiences’ appetites to learn more and thereby discover for themselves just how audacious and unlikely the rescue plan was. Meanwhile, go play with NASA’s interplanetary trajectory browser!

Kill Ralphie! saved!

[Cross-posted at kill-ralphie.blogspot.com/2015/06/kill-ralphie-saved.html.]

In the 1980’s, students and faculty at Carnegie Mellon University were on the Internet, but there was no World Wide Web yet – no browsers, no websites, no Google, Facebook, or YouTube; in fact, no video and almost no graphics, just text. But there still existed social communities online, organized into discussion forums on numerous topics. Usenet was the biggest of these. Carnegie Mellon had its own internal collection of discussion forums called bboards.

One bboard was called “Kill Ralphie!” When someone posted to Kill Ralphie, they were contributing a chapter to an ongoing story about a hapless lad who is alternately placed in immediate mortal danger, then rescued, both in the most creative and entertaining ways possible. I was an enthusiastic participant back then, along with many others at CMU. Writing for an audience of fellow contributors was a formative experience for me that improved my prose and humor skills from “immature” to “slightly less immature.”

Well, guess what? Kill Ralphie! lives again! I’ve taken that old pastime and turned it into a fun new website. Please check it out, contribute chapters, and enjoy: kill-ralphie.com.

From the home office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

There is nothing I can say about David Letterman that isn’t already being said in tremendous quantity, and occasionally quality, all over the Internet. (Example.) Nothing, that is, except to relate my David Letterman Dream.

Background: I was a David Letterman fan from the very start of his national TV career. I saw him as a new comic doing stand-up on The Tonight Show. I rejoiced when a snow day meant I could stay home from school to watch his short-lived daytime program. His HBO special, “David Letterman: Looking For Fun” seemed designed to appeal especially to me, personally. I was there for the first episode of Late Night, and many more thereafter. His arrival on late-night TV just as I began the slow transformation to adulthood assured me I was inheriting a hipper and more interesting world than the genteel one inhabited by Johnny Carson and my parents. I didn’t know then to call it “postmodernism,” I just knew that there seemed to be a secret joke at the heart of pop culture and Dave and I both got it.

A few years later, halfway through college and finally living in a place of my own, feeling alternately independent and lonely, my sleep-wake cycle shifted crazily late and life an unpredictable whirl of schoolwork, friends, and cherchez la femme, Letterman became my reliable daily refuge. His frequent willingness to expose the machinery behind Late Night — the offices, the studio, the local environs, the staff and crew — was the first clear indication I ever had, and a strangely reassuring one, that a future writing top-notch TV comedy awaited me if I wanted it.

In a nearby parallel universe, Dave and I were buds.

I visited that parallel universe once in the most vivid dream of that sleep-deprived period. I got onto the elevator at the ground floor of Rockefeller Center with Dave and several others, some celebrities, some not. We all chatted amiably. As the elevator rose, it also shrunk, because 30 Rock, it turns out, was a pyramid, and that’s what pyramids do to elevators. So at each stop a number of people were forced to get out. Finally it was just me and Dave riding the last few floors to the top. Together we hatched a scheme where I would come on Late Night as a guest. Dave would introduce me as a big celebrity. (“Ladies and gentlemen, a man who needs no introduction…”) We’d make up movie premieres, charity events, and awards ceremonies for me to describe having attended. The joke would be on the audience as they tried to figure out where they were supposed to know me from.

To this day I half believe that if I had ever actually befriended David Letterman and pitched that idea to him, he would have gone for it, and I’m just as sure that no one else on TV from then until now would have.

When you click a YouTube link

Earlier today I gave a presentation about YouTube to seventh graders for “career day” at Jonah’s middle school. (Actually I gave it six times in a row to rotating classroomsful of kids, with the result that (a) I’m totally shredded and (b) I have even more respect for what teachers do all day every day.) Coincidentally it’s the tenth anniversary of the first YouTube video.

I thought fifth grade would be my last chance to appear cool to Jonah’s classmates on his behalf (and I’ve now given that presentation to Archer’s class too), but it looks like I have some coolness left after all. He even allowed me to walk to school with him and his neighborhood friends this morning:

Me: OK if I walk to school with you in the morning?
Jonah, shrugging: Sure.
Me: OK. Just wanted to make sure I wasn’t cramping your style or anything.
Jonah: What style?

Maybe YouTube lends me a little extra middle-school cred. Anyway, the presentation was well-received by most of the kids. It involved soliciting sixteen volunteers per class to read different parts aloud in a short little play I wrote. Each volunteer got a copy of the script with his or her part individually highlighted (which I did by hand earlier this week for all ninety-six copies I needed to hand out – eight pages each – and this in the middle of April, because I’m a glutton for punishment). I was a little worried about getting enough volunteers in each class, but I need not have been; the kids were down with whatever the YouTube guy wanted to do. I gave out my bribes anyway: YouTube stickers and pens.

I was the narrator. Everyone in the class who didn’t volunteer for one of the other parts became “All the buttons and menus.” After we performed the scene, the teacher displayed a web page I had prepared containing a YouTube link and we watched – hopefully with a little better understanding now of what was going on behind the scenes – as she clicked it and Dramatic Chipmunk played. It took a split second to perform all the actions we’d just spent eight minutes dramatizing.

We didn’t get to the song I included at the end of the script. I didn’t expect to but included it anyway as a little lagniappe for the kids. I hope some of them are singing it now; I know I am.

After the sixth presentation, I thanked the teacher for hosting me. She complimented me on the scene I had written. “Thanks,” I said, “but after six repetitions the words have lost all meaning.” She replied, “Welcome to the world of teaching.”

Performance anxiety

In 1998, when The X-Files was at the height of its popularity, I read an interview in Entertainment Weekly given by its star, David Duchovny. Talking about the fans who revered him as his character “Fox Mulder,” he took pains to point out:

It’s pretty workaday, people don’t seem to realize: You get up, you take a shower, you read the paper, you play Mulder.

I understand the impulse to demystify one’s profession, really. It’s embarrassing to be venerated by awestruck laymen. Modesty compels the likes of Duchovny and me to draw back the curtain and expose the workings of the machine — to prove that anyone could do what we do, it’s simply a matter of electing to.

Even though I have the impulse to demonstrate that to others, it turns out I don’t actually believe it myself. Not when it comes to acting, anyway. I find good acting to be mystifying, and actors themselves intimidating, be they never so humble.

There was a time when I thought I wanted to be an actor. In high school my new classmate Cynthia was one. She appeared in Afterschool Specials on TV, and in the 1980 movie Little Darlings (among much else later on). Although I wouldn’t have admitted it then, I was awestruck. I cluelessly pestered her for her agent’s name and contact info, so I could send a head shot and be discovered. When a talent scout visited our school once, hunting for someone to be the lead in My Bodyguard, I managed to insert myself in the interview schedule, and was peeved when they showed more interest in my best friend Chuck than in me.

Years later I realized it wasn’t acting I wanted to do. I simply wanted others to be as impressed with me as I was with Cynthia. I was jealous of my own feelings about her!

I should have known that my supposed desire to act was misguided when my close friend Andrew began showing signs of being a talented actor himself. Although I was his performing cohort on a few memorable occasions — we co-founded our school’s repertory group together with a few other friends and had a popular comedy act on the side — none of what I was doing was real acting (it was reading lines and playing for laughs), whereas when Andrew performed, he disappeared into his role, and it pretty well freaked me out. When he became a country bumpkin, or a Victorian gentleman, or a brash uncle, or an elderly Jew, it seemed to me there was no trace left of my friend. When we hung out together he would sometimes switch personalities and become someone I didn’t know how to relate to, exhibiting behaviors and emotions I knew weren’t Andrew’s. I was exactly as uncomfortable around him at such times as if a total stranger began emoting at me. In college I had another friend, Amy, a drama major, who had the same unsettling ability to abandon her usual demeanor on a whim and adopt an alternate one, fully realized.

I’ve often wondered why I’m so disconcerted by the abilities of actors. I think it must have to do with the fact that emotions are the raw materials of their craft. When I was young I was never especially comfortable with emotions, mine or others’. I was raised on 60’s cool; I identified with Mr. Spock. I suspect that for much of my youth I would have denied having very many emotions at all (evidence to the contrary notwithstanding), and would have considered that laudable. I became a computer programmer, and not without reason. Computers can be instructed with precision and always respond predictably — exactly the opposite experience of dealing with people and their emotions.

From time to time my emotions would get the better of me. An unrequited crush could send me into a tailspin for weeks. Feelings were to be feared and kept under control. But actors! Actors are so at ease in the world of feelings that they put theirs on display. They change them on demand, and make sport with them! Confronted with such mastery of such dangerous stuff, I felt like the caveman who peers into a rival cave and is terrified to discover fearless tribesmen putting food into fire and then eating it!

Of course I’ve enjoyed good acting all my life; it’s only when the actor is known to me, and the alchemical transformation happens before my eyes, that I’m flustered. It’s less true today than in the past. I’m older now and, like Old Spock, have come to grips a little better with my own emotional life. But I’m still mistrustful of feelings, which control me more than I control them, so my inclination still is to keep them submerged. I therefore continue to be mystified and impressed and, yes, a little frightened by those who are not only able but willing to surface their feelings, to shape them and amplify them to create performances — that can, in turn, affect my own.

The arrow that springs from the bow

In 1996, some friends and I started our own software company, Zanshin. But by 1999, suffering from a lack of focus and a tendency toward overengineering, we had still not managed to produce a salable version of our world-changing software. Luckily for us we got a consulting gig for Amazon.com (unrelated to my involvement with the Internet Movie Database). That contract went so well that after a few months of it, in early 2000, Amazon offered to hire us all. We would have to close Zanshin and move up to Seattle. Andrea and I, newly married, got as far as scoping out Seattle neighborhoods. We were leaning toward accepting Amazon’s offer. Zanshin clearly was going nowhere, and Amazon had interesting work for us.

We had a Zanshin company meeting to talk it over. Some of us wanted to accept, some wanted to keep trying with Zanshin. We had the frank discussion about our plans and lack of progress that we should have been having all along. In the process, we brainstormed some exciting new ideas. In the days that followed we fleshed those out. The uninspired daily grind that working at Zanshin had become took on a new feeling of hopefulness. My co-worker Steve, who had also been in favor of the Amazon offer, gave a stirring speech about continuing on our own.

When it came time to give Amazon our final decision, we voted unanimously to turn them down. Knowing I’d previously been the strongest vote in favor of the Amazon offer, my co-worker Greg asked if I was sure. I replied, “I’m like the arrow that springs from the bow. No hesitation.”

It was a line spoken by Michael O’Hare as Jeffrey Sinclair in Babylon 5. I have used that sentiment a few times since then as a way to gauge my readiness for something — starting a family, for instance. If I can’t say that line with conviction I know I’m kidding myself.

Today came news that Michael O’Hare died. Nerds all over the web are paying him tribute for his role in a beloved space adventure, but his legacy is a little more personally meaningful to me. His memorable reading of that one line has attended every important decision of my life since he spoke it.

Not Robert Culp!

Robert Culp, who died yesterday at 79, was one of my favorite minor actors. I was already a fan thanks to his distinctive delivery as Bill Maxwell in The Greatest American Hero when I discovered reruns of I Spy in college, and just in time too. I had soured on the juvenile humor and the self-parody in most of the James Bond films and was looking for someone new to teach me how to be cool. Culp’s Kelly Robinson was just the one.

I could go on and on, but the blogosphere is already full of encomiums about his wit, wisdom, and talent. I do want to mention, though, that among his many other achievements and memorable performances, he has the distinction of having given the best reading of the line “Oh shit!” in film history.

In Turk 182!, he plays fictional New York City mayor John Tyler, who is touting his “Polish the Big Apple” program for eliminating graffiti. Timothy Hutton plays a kid with a private grievance against the mayor that he takes public by defacing city property in increasingly daring and entertaining ways. Here’s what happens when the mayor tries to unveil one of his administration’s new “graffiti-proof” subway trains.

Fun With Fun With Dick and Jane

Ed McMahon died. Though I don’t believe in an afterlife, it’s nice to think about him and Johnny Carson together again.


Dicks and Janes

The news about Ed McMahon made me think of the one real acting role of his I’ve ever seen — that of Charlie, the aerospace executive who fires George Segal in Fun With Dick and Jane (the original, from 1977). He was surprisingly good in the part.

That made me think of the 2005 remake of that film, with Jim Carrey, which did poorly at the box office. Not surprising, considering that it was one of Hollywood’s many completely unnecessary remakes, but more to the point, it was made during an era of economic good times. The original was from the depths of the drawn-out economic malaise of the seventies, so its premise of a white-collar executive on the ropes and turning to a life of crime was relevant social satire. The remake was merely zany.

If it were remade today I’m betting it’d do better.