Thursday, December 31, 2009

Goodbye, Aughts

On the final day of the decade, I thought I'd write a little blog looking back on the major events of the '00s, contrasted with events in my own life. I should note that most scholars believe that the new decade actually begins on January 1, 2011, because there is no year 0 A.D., the first decade started with 1 A.D. and ended at the end of 10 A.D., and so on. But who says there was no year 0? Who was even counting back then? Just because we don't assign any historical events to that date doesn't mean it didn't happen! Maybe it was a slow year! Maybe that's why they called it year zero!

Anyway, on to the remembrances:

2000: The Republican party steals the Presidential election for George W. Bush, in an escapade that put the Watergate burglars to shame. In response, I decide to leave the country. Since these are the days before GPS, I will end up in California rather than Canada.

2001: The Twin Towers are destroyed by terrorists. Realizing we all have to do our part to band together in this time of crisis, I immediately join a graduate professional screenwriting program at USC.

2002: The New England Patriots replace Drew Bledsoe with a young upstart from Michigan named Thomas Brady and upset the St. Louis Rams to win the Super Bowl. Realizing that nothing in life makes sense anymore, I turn to female companionship for comfort and solace and start dating Elizabeth Saas, a relationship that I am hoping has outlived the Patriots' dynasty.

2003: The Human Genome Project is completed. I graduate with a professional screenwriting degree. While both events were greeted with great hope and celebration, neither has yet to produce any discernible results.

2004: Pamela Anderson once more poses for Playboy. I begin teaching her son Dylan chess to give his life some balance.

2005: A phenomenal year for me, as I win one screenwriting contest, come in second in a bigger one, and find myself runner up to Men "The Master" Nguyen in a Legends of Poker preliminary event. I assume this is presaging great things to come. I am wrong, at least in the short term. I should have guessed there would be trouble when the Pope was succeeded by former Nazi Joseph Ratzenberger.

2006: Google buys YouTube. I respond by creating this blog. My first two posts are about liking the Da Vinci Code without shame and the trials of querying agents and producers.

2007: I finally get my first real agent. The Writers Guild immediately goes on strike, shutting down all production and any hope of getting work in Hollywood.

2008: My contract with my agent expires. A month later the WGA strike is resolved.

2009: Michael Jackson dies. I am selected as a finalist in the FilmStream Screenplay competition. As one history-making career ends, another is about to begin.

Bring on 2010!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Catching a Tiger by His Tail

First, a little bit of business. I'd like to call your attention to the new "Follow" links that should be on top and to the side of the page. If you have a Google account, these buttons seem to provide a quick and easy way to follow this blog, so there's that. Also, I've added "The Oatmeal" to my blogroll. The Oatmeal is a hysterical site created by web designer Matthew Inman which includes some gut busting cartoons and fun quizzes and you should check it out. Finally, happy birthday to my friend and loyal CraigsHappyPlace reader Bill Saas, who turns 21 today or something.

Anyway, on to the good stuff. Tiger Woods. Oh, Tiger, Tiger, Tiger. Multiple allegations of the world's greatest golfer's infidelity have emerged, and while some may be bogus, voicemails, texts and the golfer's own admissions reveal that some are in fact true. Tiger's been steppin out on his wife. For awhile. This has become the top sports story of the year, without question. But why? As my girlfriend pointed out, it's not like a professional athlete never cheated on his wife before.

This is true. However, there are a lot of things that make this particular story very special.

First of all, Tiger Woods is not a professional athlete. He is THE professional athlete when it comes to golf. His name is synonymous with golf. He is what Michael Jordan is to basketball, what Roger Federer is to tennis, what Wayne Gretsky is to hockey. In the eyes of many, these men are perfect. Infalible. So when they stray, when they give us something that reveals to us that they are indeed human, too, we cannot look away.

Secondly, golf is an individual sport. When a football player is accused of a crime, his teammates often rally around him. In golf, everyone else (other than the sponsors) is Tiger's enemy. If he gets into trouble, there's nowhere to hide.

Thirdly, Tiger is someone with a pristine image in a sport with a pristine image. The whiter the cloth, the better the dirt shows up.

Additionally, we seem to have gotten lucky. If not for this car accident on Thanskgiving, none of this ever would have come out. For whatever reason, before the allegations surfaced, all of these women were willing to keep Tiger's secret. Then when the first one talked, they fell like dominoes (It's quite amazing to see the reaction of attractive, greedy young women to the scent of money. It's like blood in the water for sharks, literally stirring them into a frenzy). Now that we know, we have to know more. Everyone loves to be in on a good secret.

So, knowing why the Tiger story is so big, let's look at some of the interesting reactions to it. Here are some of the top questions that the public and the media have had about Tiger's Trysts:

1. How come Tiger gets with so many white girls?

It seems that while not as fair-skinned as his Nordic bride, the girls Tiger is cheating with are mostly white, or at least, don't reflect a lot of ethnic diversity. Now, cheating is cheating, and Tiger is obviously going to cheat with whoever he finds most attractive, but this little fact may lose him some sympathy among minority fans. We don't know what it means anyway. Are white women objectively more attractive, or just objectively sluttier? Or perhaps these were the only women he could get into the Golf Clubs as guests.

2. Waitaminute! Tiger's wife is hot! WTF??

This just goes back to the old saying: You show me a drop-dead gorgeous woman, I'll show you a guy who's tired of f***ing her. Many of us look at Elin Nordegren and wonder how Tiger could possibly not be satisfied, but that's because we can't have her. There's nothing so attractive as what is new. Man is never satisfied. That is what has allowed him to achieve so much.

3. How could that woman release that voicemail? She's a homewrecking whore! That poor family!

I actually heard a woman say something to this effect on talk radio, which I think is a sad commentary on the state of feminism in this country. However you feel about adultery (which if you are one of these anti-gay marriage fanatics, I assume you would like a law passed against it), there's no question who is at fault for damaging this family. That's on Tiger, and no one else. He played, and he's got to pay. These women didn't take any vows.

4. How could Tiger betray us like this?

OK, Tiger Woods doesn't owe you a damn thing except great golf. If you had an image of Tiger that has been shattered, that's on you, not him. It's unfortunate, but people are human and make mistakes, especially people who grow up with the entitlement that professional athletes do. If you want to reduce your chances of being disappointed, make someone like Judah Folkman or Muhammad Yunus your idol.

Well, that's it for now. See you at the next celebrity scandal!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Healthy Debate

The latest battle in the health care reform war is between the House health care bill and the Senate health care bill. Although the House bill was passed with much fanfare by the Representatives, it is the Senate bill, or some modified version of the Senate bill, that will ultimately pass, for two reasons. The first is that the Senate just generally gets more respect than the House, since there are fewer Senators and they serve for longer (also “Senator” just sounds cool).

The more important reason is that although the House bill would probably be better for the average American, they have managed to construct it so that there is a reason for everyone to hate it. In a good negotiation, all the parties involved should believe they got a little more than they should have. With the House plan, everyone gets to feel like they got a lot less. The New York Times did a breakdown of some of the key differences in both bills. Let’s look at them to see why the House bill could never become law.

Public Option: Both plans have a public option, but the Senate plan would allow individual states to opt out. Having options sounds great, but what this means is that states with strong pro-corporate lobby groups could kill a public option in states that really need one, states where the big insurance companies are crushing average citizens. As far as the average American goes, the House gets the edge on this one. However, strong proponents of states’ rights, the ideology of say, your average center-right Republican, now have a reason to hate the bill.

Employer Contribution: House plan: Most businesses are required to provide insurance or pay an eight percent payroll tax. Senate plan: Employers are not required to carry insurance for employees but if they have 50 or more employees must pay a $750 penalty per worker if any workers receive federal subsidies. What would happen here under the House plan is probably that most people with jobs would get insurance. Under the Senate plan, employers with over 50 employees would simply make sure that their employees make enough so that they do not qualify for Federal subsidies, or, failing that, hold steady at 49 employees. Again, as an average working stiff, you probably want the plan where they have to give you insurance. As a small business owner, however, you now have a reason to hate the House plan.

Abortion: Those receiving Federal subsidies for insurance can’t get a plan that covers elective abortions under the House plan. The Senate plan allows choosing a plan that covers abortion, but subsidies cannot be used to pay for the abortions. The Senate plan isn’t much better, but guess what? Now everyone who is pro-choice has a reason to hate the House plan.

Illegal Immigrants: Under the House plan, illegal immigrants can get national health coverage, but not with Federal subsidies. Under the Senate plan, illegal immigrants can’t. If illegal immigration is your issue, you now have a reason to hate the House plan.

Paying for the Plan: A 5.4% surtax on high income people pays for the House plan. This by itself is enough to send the average conservative spiraling into a rage. Those on the left will argue that this is a very small percentage of the population and the tax will not affect their lifestyle significantly, while a health care plan will ultimately bring down taxpayer health care costs due to fewer emergency visits and more preventative care. The very rich, and many of those who plan to someday be very rich (which is essentially, everyone else), will be outraged at the prospect of shouldering the entire burden for keeping the poor (who many of them hate and find responsible for their own poverty) healthy. Now the wealthy and those who aspire to wealth hate the House plan.

Clearly, most of the provisions of the House plan are going to be abhorred by your right wing conservatives, but there is enough in there for those on the left and center-left to find disagreeable too. The Senate plan, by being less offensive to everybody, will also probably be less effective, but more likely to pass, or at least pass in a modified form.

That’s politics for you!

Lions in Wait

In honor of Thanksgiving, here is a letter I wrote to the General Manager of the Detroit Lions:

Let me begin by saying that I am not a Lions fan. In fact, my interests lie mostly in the AFC and I have no feelings about the Lions one way or the other. However, I see a way to help your team and feel it would be immoral to remain silent. While at first glance my solution may seem flippant, I hope you will consider all the evidence I will present on its behalf.

Your team needs a uniform redesign. A radical one.

Clearly to suggest that what someone wears is more important than strategies or personnel seems ridiculous on its face, but psychological studies have shown that certain colors tend to stir up certain emotions in people and may make them more or less competitive. I refer you to studies that have experimented with painting prisons pink to tranquilize the inmates. You can be sure that when the list of colors that stirs up competitive instincts and emotional fire is reviewed, Honolulu Blue is not found among them.

I would ask you to look at the empirical evidence. In 1993, the New England Patriots ditched their traditional colors and their unintimidating “Pat the Patriot” logo, instead adopting a streamlined symbol with deeper, more modern colors. In the 25 years prior to that, the Patriots had made only a single Super Bowl appearance where they were soundly beaten by the Chicago Bears. Four years after the change, the Patriots were in the Super Bowl, and four years after that, they began a dynasty that included three NFL championships in four appearances.

Throughout their entire existence, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the laughingstock of the NFL. They even included 14 consecutive losing seasons among their credits, all with their “creamsicle” colors and what some said was an effeminate “Bucco Bruce” logo. In 1997, they exchanged Florida Orange for metallic gold to go with a blood red and skull and crossbones logo. Four years later, they began a season that ended with them hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Lest you argue that it is the team, and not their colors, that determine victory, I would ask you to take a look at the Cleveland Browns, whose name in the NFL is synonymous with failure. In 1996, the team moved to Baltimore, requiring as radical a uniform change as there has ever been in the NFL. Four years later, the Baltimore Ravens were a championship team, while the Browns that replaced them, wearing their old, featureless orange helmets and brown and white uniforms, have shown no signs of life whatsoever.

If you want to win, just look at the evidence. Uniforms do make a difference. Ditch the Honolulu Blue for a deeper blue, black, or even something more befitting a lion like a deep orange. Make the silver more metallic and replace the logo with a more fearsome lion. The recent redesign of the emblem is a vast improvement over the amorphous blue blob that used to grace the Lions' helmets but it is not nearly enough.

I hope that you or whoever reads this letter will give these suggestions the credit they are due. Remember that I am not a Lions fan and have nothing invested in whether or not you take these suggestions to heart, only that I know that it will make a difference.

Thank you for your time and attention,

Craig Berger

If you're a Lions fan, you can thank me when they win the Super Bowl, four years after my uniform redesign plan is implemented.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Visitors Are Your Friends (But not on Facebook)

Like many people of my generation, I eagerly awaited the debut of ABC's "reimagining" of the classic 1980s T.V. miniseries "V." When "V" came out, it was a member of a now dead breed: The watercooler show. These were shows that everyone had to make an appointment to watch, because they would be what everyone was discussing at the water cooler (or in my case, the water fountain) the next day. In the modern era of DVRs and On Demand programming, of course, such events no longer exist.

"V" came out during a time that was starved for good science fiction on television. The Next Generation of Star Trek was still five or so years away, and the idea of a "Sci Fi Channel" was in itself science fiction at the time, so "V" drew huge audiences, expecting to see some cool aliens and maybe a space battle or two.

What they got was a well-crafted allegory of the dangers of allowing too much power to authority. To be precise, it was a Nazi story. If you'll look at the Visitors classic symbol, you'll notice it's really just a swastika with a couple of the lines removed:

The original "V" developed slowly. In fact, even the marketing campaign developed slowly, beginning with advertisements depicting amicable Visitors above the tagline "The Visitors Are Your Friends" which, as the weeks progressed towards the debut, became "tagged" with the classic V sign. With the new "V", we pretty much know right away that the Visitors are trouble, even before the final act when we get to see a bit of reptile flesh.

The new V also tries to get political. With Nazism no longer the hot button political issue of the day (the original was a mere four decades removed from World War II, today we are about as far from the Nazi heyday as those in WWII were from the Civil War), V tries to include more relevant issues, including terrorism (the FBI is tracking a Visitor "sleeper cell") and universal health care (The Visitors are offering it, taking Congress off the hook).

The problem, I think, is that the creators of the new "V" aren't looking at the big picture. The first "V" was warning us not to put too much faith and confidence in authority and government (particularly appropriate for the time it was released). That is hardly any danger today. One can only imagine what Glenn Beck would have to say on his program about the Visitors, or worse yet, Lou Dobbs. Today's message of warning should be not to allow ones' actions to be governed by fear. Fear is what has been the greatest threat to economic recovery and it is behind a message of fear that America has gotten embroiled in two costly wars. Fear is the Nazi bugaboo of today.

This is the opportunity that the new "V" missed. Why not have the Visitors promise to protect us against terrorism? Maybe even have Anna, the Visitor's leader, round up a few Al Qaedas for us. That would be the way to gain our trust and make us ripe for the slaughter. Perhaps even have the Visitors convince us that they have come to protect us from an even greater threat that lies beyond the stars. By failing to do this, I think "V" has missed the mark.

Another way they missed the mark is through their use (or lack thereof) of modern technology. The Visitors announce themselves through a giant broadcast on the bottom of their spaceships. But why not use Twitter? or Facebook, or MySpace? Especially if you're looking to recruit young people. I'm sure there are already in real life "V" social media pages, but they are for multimedia promotion, not as part of the story. How about have the Visitor speeches come in podcasts downloadable on iTunes? It's hard to imagine that the Visitors would not be aware of and be able to take advantage of this technology.

Comparing a single one hour episode to an entire miniseries is not fair, I'll admit, but I'm afraid that we are already seeing a few signs that "V" is going to be just another average sci fi show. And in a world where "SyFy" the channel (not to mention 100 other channels) is no far-off futuristic fantasy but a genuine, ratings share-siphoning reality, average sci fi is not good enough.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Rick James Would Be Proud

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have come out with a sequel to their surprise hit, Freakonomics (entitled, simply "SuperFreakonomics") and it is every bit as entertaining and fascinating as the original. At the same time, a new Malcom Gladwell collection "What the Dog Saw," is hitting the shelves.

You'll probably find these two side-by-side at your local bookstore, as the popular wisdom seems to be that these three are in the same practice of writing books on what seems to me to be best described as "pop-sociology," although Levitt is an economist and Gladwell is a historian. The reality, however, is that in this particular field, Gladwell, as hard-working, prolific and intelligent as he might be, is not fit to shine Levitt and Dubners' shoes.

The difference between Levitt/Dubner and Gladwell is the difference between Rocky Road and vanilla ice cream. Rocky Road isn't for everyone, but it certainly has a lot of flavors to consider, while vanilla is safe and digestible, but ultimately, somewhat unsatisfying. The eater feels like something is missing.

So it is with Gladwell, the Bing Crosby to Levitt & Dubners' Mick and Keith. Gladwell is much less likely to stir controversy, his conclusions in books like Blink, The Tipping Point and Outliers are nearly universally hailed as groundbreaking and revolutionary, and very rarely challenged in popular media (perhaps despite Gladwell's protestations to the contrary). On the other hand, Levitt & Dubner, with assertions such as that there is a causal link between abortions and drops in crime rates, are regularly excoriated by both the right and the left.

My own feeling is that what is missing from Gladwell's work is some kind of practical application; indeed, Gladwell doesn't even seem to be looking for one. While Levitt/Dubner's work easily lends itself to all sorts of ideas about how we can change the world and why we do or don't, in every area from education to climate change, Gladwell's work seems more about wry observations of why things are how they happen to be, with little concern about what that means for the future.

Freaknomics (and SuperFreakonomics) tells us why and when people cheat and how people tend to over and underestimate potential dangers in the world. This is information that is very clearly useful, and can very obviously inform our future behaviors, if you buy into it. Gladwell's work tells us that in certain cases, people born in certain months have a greater chance of success (Outliers) that people sometimes instinctively know when something is out of place (Blink) and that certain products blow up in sales when enough of the right kind of people take an interest in it (Tipping Point). It's all interesting to be sure. But is it really groundbreaking and revolutionary? Without some kind of context, some interesting ideas about how we can manipulate such information in a useful way? Not for my money.

Speaking of my money, I bought both SuperFreakonomics and What the Dog Saw. Sure enough, Levitt and Dubner jump right in with the both controversial and useful notion that, in deaths per mile, driving home drunk is many, many times safer than walking home drunk, and moves into the idea that television empowers Indian women while at the same time leading to an overall increase in crime (not violence, but crime) all over the world, while Gladwell starts us off with story of Ron Popeil, what makes him special (he learned to make the product the star) and how he came up with the idea to invent the RonCo Rotisserie (he realized that people pay a lot for rotisserie-cooked food) and moves on to explore why Heinz has cornered the market on ketchup (they make the best ketchup).

To be fair, the Gladwell book is a compilation of some of his favorite New Yorker articles, rather than a single book concept with a unifying theme, and as he states, is not intended to persuade, but simply to give insight into how others think. It is also well-written, and well-researched, and Gladwell is to be commended for this. The Ron Popeil story, the quest to make a better ketchup, and the other stories Gladwell tells are interesting, in their own way.

That being said, if you want to read a book that will really keep you up at night thinking about things like the economics of prostitution, how terrorists are profiled and whether or not you should be more afraid of elephants than sharks, you're going to want to plunk your money down on SuperFreakonomics. I'm sure Rick James would agree.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Peace, Brother

A lot of people are up in arms (so to speak) over the fact that Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Here are a few reasons why this is really nothing to get worked up about.

1. The Award Is Ironic
Awarding the prize to Obama is not ironic, however, the fact that Alfred Nobel, the founder of the award, made the money to fund it (as well as the other Nobel Prizes) by inventing dynamite, one of the most popular explosives in history, is.

2. The Award Is Vague

The Nobel Prize for Peace is supposed to go “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses,” during the preceding year. Ok, I don’t really know of anyone who is doing a ton of work for the reduction of standing armies or the promotion of peace congresses these days, so it really comes down to this “fraternity among nations,” which could mean anything. You could argue that Obama has done a tremendous amount for fraternity among nations just by not being George W. Bush.

3. The Award Is Arbitrary

Gandhi, the poster boy for non-violent conflict resolution, never won a Nobel Peace Prize. Jody Williams, for her work banning landmines, has. Banning landmines is great, but is it really work for fraternity among nations? It sounds more like work for shutting down Nobel’s dynamite competitors to me.

4. The Award Doesn’t Mean Anything

Winning a Nobel Prize is nice. You get a shiny medal and a chunk of cash. But it doesn’t confer any authority or require any recognition. You don’t even have to travel the country for a year as a representative of world peace, the way Obama might have had to do if he was awarded say, the Miss America crown.

5. Positive Reinforcement Is GoodWhen someone is given a prize for doing something, expectations rise. Given that Obama still has two wars to extricate us from and the work restoring our standing with the International community after the disastrous Bush years may not be quite finished, shouldn’t this guy be getting all the encouragement the world can give him?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How to Talk to a Jew About Nazis: Simple Tips

Recently I was at a party (which on the whole was a lovely, gala affair) where I had the opportunity to lurk in a conversation in which a wealthy, older white professional began to draw some comparisons between President Obama and Hitler. Since such a comparison is completely ridiculous and pathological, it has naturally become a favored talking point among the conservative radio pundit crowd and their rabid, drooling fan base. Should these discussions happen to trickle down to you and you wish to impress your friends and wow your neighbors by pulling them out at a party, you may become discouraged if your host has made the gauche decision to invite a bunch of Jews. Thus, for your convenience, I have prepared some tips for you in this eventuality.

1. Do Not Tell Me About How Hitler was a Socialist, or that the Nazi Party was a Socialist Party

I am well aware that "Nazi"is a rough abbreviation for "National Socialist." However, for one, labelling something doesn't make it so. In fact, often quite the opposite is the case (witness FOX "Fair and Balanced" News, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals {guess what? Humans are also animals!} or the Bill-of-Rights-busting "Patriot Act").

For another, Hitler was a rabid anti-communist and was anti-lower class, not exactly traditional socialist positions.

Finally, the type of socialist policies that were popular among the Nazis were of the "legislating social morality" type that Conservatives like, not the "giving cheap medicine to poor, brutally sick children whose unemployed crack-addicted mother was taught abortion was a sin" type that Conservatives fear.

2. Do Not Tell Me About How "What People Don't Remember Is that Hitler Was a Great Leader"

First of all, if you want to whip out this gem at all, tell me that Hitler was an "effective" leader, a "charismatic" leader or a "popular" leader. Yes, Hitler was able to mobilize a nation that was ravaged by economic crisis and a loss of national identity (don't get excited, Obama-Haters, the comparisons end there). He also was impossibly insecure, a hate monger, and, oh yeah, murdered millions of people. To describe someone like that as "great" makes you sound like a moron.

Secondly, if you do decide to go with one of the options offered, don't say it with smug self satisfaction like you've just delivered some high level piece of political science wizardry. One, you don't know shit about Hitler's leadership other than that he drew big crowds and he made the trains run on time (and you don't even know that, because that was Mussolini, and it's not even true). Two, your insight that to lead an entire nation to imperialism and mass murder requires you have an ability to endgender some cooperation is not a mind-numbing revelation.

3. You Can Try to Compare Obama to Hitler, or You Can Say Hitler Was a Great Leader, but not Both

This is just a logic issue. Clearly when comparing Obama to Hitler you are not trying to cast the President in a favorable light, so going on to talk about how great and effective Hitler was doesn't even make any sense. Unless you are trying to imply that the big Obama purge of all white people is just around the corner. If you are, you are at best a bigot and at worst a complete idiot.

OK! Now you know everything you need to know to chat with Jews about Hitler and Nazism. Let's party!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Drinking the Orient

Do you need a reason to visit Asia? How about to drink a bunch of really disgusting beverages? Here are some exciting potables of the East to consider and enjoy.

1. Pepsi White

Did you ever think... I love the refreshment of Pepsi, but I wish it looked and tasted more like bull semen? Head to Japan, where you can enjoy the exhilarating taste of YOGURT-FLAVORED Pepsi White!

2. Kopi Luwak

But perhaps you prefer your caffeine with an air of excrement instead. If so, get yourself on over to the Philippines and enjoy the extremely precious Kopi Luwak coffee, made from beans that come from... you guessed it, a Palm Civet's ass. Here's my question. How did the first person to try this decide it would be a good idea?

3. Bilk
Did you ever look at a beer and wonder... "hmm, I wonder what this would taste like with milk in it?" Me neither.

4. Deer Penis Wine

China brings us a wondrous liquid delight in the form of Deer Penis Wine. You've heard the admonitions not to "eat the worm" from your tequila bottle? Well what happens in China, stays in China.

5. Vietnamese Sea Horse Whiskey

Well, after the Deer Penis Wine, choking this down should be no problem.

Friday, August 14, 2009

What Now, Eagles Fans?

If you're a sports fan, you've heard by now. Ex-con Michael Vick is a Philadelphia Eagle. As the above press conference shows, Mike is contrite and feels gratification [sic] for his second chance, and wants to make up for his cruelty to animals and he realizes that playing in the NFL is a privilege, not a right.

Except we know this is all bullshit, right? I mean, yes, he's happy he's getting a chance to play in the NFL again, but do we really believe he feels remorse for his actions? Come on. He knew dog fighting was wrong before, and he knows now. He's not going to do it again, but probably because it screwed up his life so much and not because a year and a half of quiet reflection made him realize that torturing and fighting dogs for sport is morally bankrupt.

But does it matter? The reality is, the man has served his time. A judge decided a fair punishment and he paid it. Shouldn't he have the right to now reintegrate into society? Does it matter that he was convicted for animal torture rather than rape or murder?

Interestingly, some people feel that Vick is MORE vilified because of a crime against an an animal vs. a human rather than less. I'm not in that camp. I felt much more disgust when people were throwing money at Mike Tyson after he served his rape stretch than I do now. But in both cases, a guy who has done his time does have a right to try to make a living. The fact that this is easier for athletes than for say, construction workers may be frustrating, but it's still true.

By the same token, no one is obligated to support the move. If your local bakery decides to employ a convicted rapist after he is released, you have every right not to buy your cakes there. On the other hand, you're probably on iffy ethical grounds if you stand outside the store picketing to try to put the baker out of business unless he fires said employee.

Michael Vick is in the same position. He has every right to try to get a job, and the Eagles have every right to hire him. If you don't like it, you probably shouldn't go to Eagles games or buy his jersey. On the other hand, in an ironic twist, many people will probably be watching more Eagles games to see if Vick will fail, or if a linebacker will deliver a punishing hit for all the dog lovers out there.

Most likely, after a few weeks playing in the NFL, once the novelty has worn off, the story will fade and it will be business as usual, at least, until the next ex-con gets awarded his multi-million dollar deal.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Facing the Ace

There is a new poker show on NBC called Face the Ace. The premise is simple. A qualifier from FullTilt Poker is selected to compete against up to 3 professional players. If they beat the first player, they win $40,000. If they beat the 2nd player, they get $200,000, and the third player is worth a cool million. The player can walk away at any time, but if he loses to any of the three players he gets nothing. When I initially heard about this show, I thought it would not interest me, and I was going to let it go by. But, TiVo being easy to use, I figured I'd give it a shot.
I loved it. The main reason I loved it was because of the competitors. When I heard they were taking qualifiers from Full Tilt, I expected the usual parade of 20-something hotshots. Young guns barely old enough to shave talking about how no one can stand against their awesome aggression and how they've got the game of poker all figured out. You know who I'm talking about.

For one thing, it's impossible to root for these people (unless, I suppose, you happen to be one). For another you will find that the best poker players in the long term tend to be humble (look at Phil Ivey, Allen Cunningham, Doyle Brunson), so it's very difficult to believe that most of these younger players are not the beneficiaries of short term luck who will fade into obscurity the moment the odds tilt against them, therefore it's very hard to hear them expound on how they have mastered the game of poker. This being the case, I had no interest in seeing whether any of these people could win a million dollars, if these are the people who competed.
They weren't. Just the opposite.
The first player, Jonathan Nygaard, was a war veteran from Pennsylvania. The second, Don Topel, was a truck driver from Illinois. Both were over 30, baseball fans, and overweight. OH MY GOD! JUST LIKE REAL POKER PLAYERS!!!
If you walk into any casino anywhere in the world (and I've been in more than a few), these are the people you will see. Not a horde of brash 21 year olds in backwards caps and sunglasses staring overconfidently over huge stacks of chips, but middle Americans, husbands and fathers, a few wives and mothers, doctors, firemen, lawyers and janitors, senior citizens and yes, a few hopeful young kids in the mix. One of the great things about live poker is the way it puts people from widely disparate walks of life together. Another great thing about poker is that not everyone at the table is an overconfident douchebag, and that the people that are often end up going home relieved of their chip stacks.
Anyway, the first exciting thing about Face the Ace was that it had real people competing, people I would actually like to see win a million dollars. But the reality didn't stop there. Nygaard, clearly uncomfortable on television, had the misfortune to select Phil Ivey, who may be poker's next world champion, as his heads up opponent. From there, he showed the world just what real poker is like:
On the very first hand, Nygard got pocket Aces and limped to Ivey's A8. Ivey bet out, Nygaard check-raised, bet the safe flop, and took the pot. On the second hand, Ivey got rags and had to muck pre-flop. On the third hand, Nygaard got Queens, he limped, Ivey raised, Nygaard check-raised again, and Ivey moved in with A4. Nygaard insta-called and won the match.
Ivey's play couldn't have been more understandable. He was check-raised two out of three hands and naturally assumed his opponent had decided on a strategy of being hyper aggressive and attacking all of Ivey's raises. Ivey decided to take a stand early with his ace. The reality of course, is that Nygaard had the unlikely good fortune to actually have been dealt monsters on those two hands, and so he won the match. If he had not been dealt aces on hand one, it's likely things would have gone very differently.
Then, $40,000 in hand, Nygaard shockingly chose to drop and take the money. Considering that he already had beaten the best player on the panel and in short order, this choice was pretty surprising (and mathematically wrong; given the volatility of heads up play, it would be a mistake to pass on 5-to-1 odds against any opponent). It was unclear whether Nygaard chose to quit because he didnt realize how uncomfortable he would be on television (he covered his mouth frequently and gave slow, halting answers to host Steven Schirripa's questions), or he didn't realize how having $40,000 in hand would feel, but either way, it was a very real moment.
Don Topel managed to get past his first two opponents, Erick Lindgren and Howard Lederer, in similarly natural poker ways (the critical hand in the first match came when Lindgren made a move with a suited ace and Topel called with a bigger suited ace, Lingren hit his kicker on the turn but Topel made his flush on the river; the critical hand in the second match came when Topel got it all in pre-flop with KK against Lederer's AQ suited), with the result that Topel had the opportunity to go for a million dollar game, which he decided to do (some will say he was greedy, but again, this is the mathematically correct choice). That game will be played out on the next show.
I'll be watching, and rooting for Don, a likeable guy who wants to buy his mother and sister a home and who took the Schirripa (not entirely comfortable in the host role yet, it seems) ribbing about his weight with good humor. This really is a poker show that almost anyone can enjoy.
Naturally, the first episode of Face the Ace finished last in the ratings in its time slot.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Just in Case You Were Doubting the Journalistic Integrity of FOX News

Rupert Murdoch has managed to do what years of American foreign policy could not. THEY WIPED IRAQ OFF THE MAP!!!

Let's hope Israel stays on Bill O'Reilly's good side...

Friday, July 17, 2009

And That's the Way it Was

Walter Cronkite died today, at the ripe old age of 92.

Fortunately I'm not quite old enough to remember Cronkite in his heyday, as the anchor of the CBS Evening News and "the most trusted man in America." I can't speak about my personal experiences with Walter Cronkite, and the New York Times can talk about his impact much better than I.

What I can talk about is what I think his death symbolizes. It will surprise none when I say that it represents the death of T.V. news, or at least, the trust Americans have had in it.

Cronkite made no aspersions to be a pundit, for either the Right, the Left, or anyone in between. His job was just to find and report the news, and when he did it, he did it earnestly and with care, and everyone trusted him because they knew this.

Cronkite had the luxury not to reach his prime in a polarized country, at least, not one where that polarization was played out across 100 different network and cable channels every night. For to be sure, Hawks vs. Doves, Traditionalists vs. Civil Rights Activists, Communist haters vs. sympathizers, and many others had their battles under Cronkite's watch, but those groups in the pre-information age never relied on T.V. newsmen to fight those battles for them.

Today, with FOX, NBC, CNN and all the rest of the alphabet fighting for every little piece of the ratings pie that they can get, everyone who reports the news on television has to take a stand. If they don't pick a side, the rest of the media will sweep them into one category or another.

When John Stewart went on Crossfire and effectively buried the show with his passionate deconstruction of its entertainment-based underpinnings, he shone the spotlight on a serious problem, which is that television news, both local, national, and cable, has, almost by necessity, lost virtually all it's credibility, and I'm not sure that there's anything anyone can do about it.

The trusted, impartial televsion news anchor and television news broadcast died today with Walter Cronkite. I'll be getting my news from newspapers and the Internet. If I want a good laugh or some entertaining video bites with my popcorn, I'll throw on FOX News or CNN.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

How Wise, This Latina?

The opening salvo in the formality known as the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings was an attack on Judge Sotomayor's impartiality.In particular, a 2001 speech in which she suggested that in some situations she hoped a “wise Latina” would make a better judgment than a white man. Republicans and their media mouthpieces, being contractually obligated to bash any Obama nomination, immediately took hold of this story and put it forth as an example of Sotomayor’s potential as an “activist” judge, and even used it to accuse her of racism.

It’s not surprising that the Republicans would take hold of this issue. There is little doubt that a white male justice who said he hoped that in certain cases a “wise white man” would make a better judgment than a Puerto Rican woman would be vilified by the left. The counterargument to this, of course, is that there is no comparable situation a white man could find himself in, since by the nature of our culture, white men do not come from an oppressed class and cannot experience oppression in the same way as a minority can. I’m not sure I agree with this, but I’d rather focus on Sotomayor’s critical statements.

Here’s the lecture quote that has everyone up in arms:

“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.”

She was referring specifically to cases of civil rights and discrimination, and responding to a quote of Sandra Day O’Connor’s that a wise man and a wise woman should come to the same conclusions when judging. The Sotomayor apologists would contend that she was simply saying that a white male does not have the breadth of cultural experience to equip him to fully understand the damages and dangers of institutionalized racism, not that they were in any way genetically inferior.

In her response to questioning on the issue, Sotomayor stated:

"I want to state upfront, unequivocally and without doubt: I do not believe that any racial, ethnic or gender group has an advantage in sound judging. I do believe that every person has an equal opportunity to be a good and wise judge, regardless of their background or life experiences."

So there you have it. That should be the end of the story. Unfortunately, what isn’t mentioned is that Sotomayor prefaced the “wise Latina” comment with this one:

“Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging.”

That sure sounds like she thinks racial background makes a difference. Is she saying it makes a difference but that difference is not an advantage? Is it a disadvantage? Clearly she doesn’t think that.

Frankly I am more concerned with the double standard. I have no doubt that if any member of a “non-oppressed” class were to suggest that there are inherent physiological differences that have an effect on judgment, they would be ruthlessly attacked by the left. That doesn’t mean it’s not true. It also doesn’t mean that Sotomayor is a racist. What I think it does mean is that people should not be so quick to play the race card at the merest mention of genetic, physiological or social differences between those of different ethnicities.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Let Freedom Ring!

In celebration of its 233rd birthday, here are a few fun facts about the United States:

Over 80 percent of the United States have laws prohibiting certain American citizens from marrying the spouse of their choice.

While 13.5 percent of Americans are African-American, 41 percent of those on death row are African American.

Women on average make 78 cents for every dollar a man makes.

The FISA Amendments Act still gives the government almost unlicensed ability to surveil the international communications of private American citizens.

Even with all that, I still believe this is the greatest country in the world. Happy Independence Day!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Is Michael Jackson's Death a Tragedy?

I don't know if you guys have heard, but Michael Jackson died.

I felt bad when I heard this, but not because of who MJ was. I felt bad because when I hear that anyone dies it reminds me of my own mortality, which is depressing (and largely why I stopped reading daily AOL headlines). Frankly, my first instinct, as I'm sure is the case for many others, is to find out why a 50 year old man suddenly died, so we can assure ourselves it won't happen to us (okay, I'm not doing daily Demerol shots, phew). Also, I've lost four close family members and a beloved family pet over the last five years, so I'm not going to lose too much sleep over Michael Jackson.

But clearly, if the news outlets are to be believed anyway, this is a pretty big deal, and some say, an unspeakable tragedy. But is it really a tragedy, more so than the death of anyone else? One thing I always think about when something like this happens is how much worse it would have been to die at 50 and never to have done anything culturally relevant, which happens probably every day. But objectively, is this a particular tragedy? To answer that, I think we need to talk about what it means to say a life ends tragically.

Was It a Violent End?

One situation in which we say someone died tragically is if their death was the result of violence. A car accident, a shooting, a fire. If not violent, a death that comes with great pain is considered tragic: Cancer, emphysema, ALS. Michael Jackson appears to have essentially passed away in his sleep.

Was Someone Else Responsible?

We also consider it tragic if someone causes the death of another. When someone who should have continued living but does not because someone hit them with a car or crashed their plane, this is considered a tragedy. A suicide is also considered tragic, but usually it is the circumstances that led to the suicide that are thought of as tragic, not necessarily the death itself. This one is not clear. It may be that Jackson received bad information about prescription drug use, and it may even be that drug overdose will not turn out to be the cause of death, but it seems equally likely that he took risks with drugs even after receiving precautionary advice from doctors.

Was His Life Cut Short?

This is the big one. If someone should have lived for a much longer time on average, then we consider his death a tragedy. The average life expectancy of the African American male is about 69 years. That means that Michael was cheated out of 19 years on average. Unfortunate, but it may not be tragic. Of course, MJ was not the average African American male. But we don't know if that works for him or against him. Clearly he is not subject to the life-shortening effects of poverty or gang violence, but on the other hand, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the lifespans of great musicians are shorter than average. Some of the greatest musicians in history did not even see their 50th birthdays (Elvis Presley, 42, John Lennon, 40, Wolfgang Mozart, 35, Jim Morrison, 28, Sam Cooke, 33, Marvin Gaye, 45, Otis Redding, 26, Jimi Hendrix, 27).

Did He Have More to Contribute?

What about Michael's contribution to society? While he was planning a new concert tour which would no doubt have been sold out, it seems that Michael's positive cultural relevance is largely on the decline. I would be surprised if most of the people who are now playing their old Michael Jackson DVDs and downloads around the clock had chosen of their own accord to play a Michael Jackson song anytime in the last ten years before June 26th. Since HIStory in the late '90s, MJ has been primarily known for his bizarre lifestyle, accusations of child molestation, and questionable treatment of his own children. This doesn't take away from his historic contributions to the music world during his lifetime, of course, it's just a question of how much more he had to give.

As I stated, there is a way in which it is a tragedy when anyone dies. But is it any more of a tragedy than the death of say, Farrah Fawcett, who lost a courageous battle with cancer at the age of 62 and who is credited for a number of movie roles inspiring women to take control of their lives, or of Stephen T. Johns, killed by a white supremacist while defending the Washington D.C. Holocaust museum? Probably not.

Some might say: why even speak of whose death is a 'greater' tragedy? When anyone dies, especially prematurely, it is equally unfortunate. If that is your attitude, good for you. In a world where certain lives are clearly valued above others, it seems that is a rare position to take.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Wormholes, Worldlines and Whatnot

In the first blog in this series, I talked about the many reasons that I felt time travel stories don’t work. I specifically mentioned the main physical, metaphysical, logical and aesthetic objections. In the second blog, I bravely took up the other side, and discussed how the Many Worlds Theory effectively rebuts the metaphysical objections, and to some extent, the logical ones. However, the physical, aesthetic, and to some extent, the logical objections remain. What’s a time travel advocate to bring up in his defense now? Answer: Wormholes.


A wormhole functions according the idea that spacetime is curved, and there can essentially be a situation where a bridge is created cutting right through that curve, a sort of tunnel between an earlier and later time. In other words, if time were a straight line ----, it would take you a certain amount of time to get from point A to point B. But if time were more of a “C” shape, you could get from one end of the C to the other much faster by cutting through it rather than going around the curve.

This indeed solves a lot of problems. It counters the physical objection, because you can have a wormhole where objects are not moving at the speed of light inside the tunnel, although they might appear to be to outside observers (a wormhole is not simply two black holes with a bridge between them, but rather a black hole and a white hole linked by negative energy).
The show Sliders made heavy use of wormholes and the Einstein-Rosen bridges between them. Wormholes also take care of my main logical objection, the Tourist Trap, which was that if time travel is possible at one point, it becomes possible simultaneously throughout the time stream. Scientists have postulated that time travel through a wormhole would require the “stationary end” to appear first. In other words, a wormhole couldn’t open up allowing you to travel back to someplace where there wasn’t a wormhole before. The point of this being that we may not have experienced time travel yet because the first “stop,” or the first wormhole, hasn’t been created/found yet.


There has been another use of time travel in fiction that I haven’t mentioned yet, but that I have found to be very effective. This is the idea of the worldline. Worldlines are essentially lines that travel through space and time at once, as opposed to a timeline that simply marks the passage of time. In other words, a person’s life, drawn on a graph, would be a worldline, as it plots their movement through space and time. Some time travel stories intimate that it is possible to travel back and forth on your own worldline, since it is simply a line that exists in the universe, not something that is being created or destroyed. Under the right circumstances you should able to walk back and forth along it like the path to your tomato garden.

This still does not address my aesthetic objection, which you’ll remember was that time travel stories are simply messy: Specifically, it 1. disrupts continuity and makes it difficult to invest in the characters, and 2. creates the slippery slope: You go back and change something, I go back and fix it, you go back and unfix it, ad infinitum. To close out this extended rant, I’d like to take a look at how some time travel stories handle all this and how effective I think it has been.

Star Trek

I frankly think that time travel has made Star Trek a pretty big mess. You can argue with the last movie that the Romulan time trip created a new, alternate timeline, and that the initial timeline is moving forth as it always had (albeit without a Spock). That’s okay, I guess, but I suspect we will never see our “real” timeline again, and even that timeline has been removed by so many jumps it hardly matters (for example in Star Trek, First Contact, the Borg go back in time and take over Earth, radically changing its history. The Enterprise crew goes back and fixes it. However according to the Many Worlds theory, the initial timeline was unchanged by the Borg, and the Borg’s new timeline was unchanged by the Enterprise; we simply have three different universes in effect. Yes I have a headache now too).

Quantum Leap, Watchmen, Slaughterhouse Five

I lump these together because they all make what I think is effective use of the “Worldline” theory of time travel. Dr. Sam Beckett can only travel back and forth through time within his own lifetime, while Dr. Manhattan experiences different times in his life simultaneously. Billy Pilgrim has come “unstuck” in time, and experiences his life randomly through time, jumping from one point to the next without rhyme or reason (or at least without rhyme). In each case, the universe is not offended by their time travel.
Back to the Future

Back to the Future alludes to the Many Worlds theory, but not quite effectively. Dr. Brown does explain how moving through time creates an alternate timeline. However, he creates a sticky situation when he does a test run by sending his dog three minutes into the future. The dog has clearly reappeared in the same timeline, which forces us to confront the possibility that somehow moving ahead in time does not create new timelines while moving backwards does. Marty also finds that changing the past is affecting his original present (the picture with his siblings disappearing as they are “uncreated”), which gives rise to the “grandfather paradox” anew.


Sliders handles the wormhole idea pretty well, but its protagonists are jumping through dimensions, not moving through time and space. There are no paradoxes because they never encounter the same timeline twice, although Quinn Mallory’s quest to return to his home dimension may prove impossible.

Comic Books

Members of the Legion of Superheroes travel freely back and forth through time with little concern about the consequences. The mainstream DC universe has not created a very sophisticated look at time travel although they used to have an interesting conceit where if you went back to a time where you already existed, you would appear as a wraith, since the same person cannot “be in two places at once.”

The Terminator

Terminator time travel isn’t too unwieldy for a number of reasons. The first is that only a handful of people go back before the time travel device is destroyed, and they can’t travel the other way. There are still some paradox issues, but since time travel is used so sparingly, it doesn’t interfere with the story too much.

Okay. I’m finally done with the time travel stuff. Next week I’ll go back to ranting about traffic patterns in L.A. or bad poker beats or why some Right to Lifers are psychotic or whatever.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Why You Love Time Travel Part I

In my last post, I complained about time travel as it appears in television, movies and fiction in general. I felt that there were a number of inconsistencies about time travel as to make it so implausible as to render any story based on it completely unenjoyable.

Clearly I’m in the minority in this opinion. Time travel stories continue to delight, generation after generation. Why should this be, if my objections are so irrefutable? Well, one reason is some people just like a good story and don’t care how unbelievable it is. As I pointed out in my last blog, Superman’s “impossible” ability to fly doesn’t deter my enjoyment of his adventures (although I prefer Batman). However, there's more to it than that.

The Objections to Time Travel

I raised four basic objections to time travel as portrayed in fiction: Physical: As one approaches the speed of light, required for going back in time, mass becomes infinite, effectively destroying the time traveler; Metaphysical: Specifically the Grandfather Paradox (you go back in time and kill your grandfather, therefore you are never born and cannot go back in time to kill your grandfather, etc.) and the Ontological Paradox (Future Craig hands me an envelope which he tells me to hold on to for five years. Five years later I go back in time and hand myself the envelope. Where did the envelope come from?). Logical: Specifically, the Tourist Objection; If time travel is possible, how come we don’t know about it yet? We should be being visited by an effectively infinite number of time travelers all the time, where are they? And Aesthetic: How can any story have internal consistency if someone can always go back in time and change what happened?

I mentioned that there are rebuttals to all of these objections (I excepted the aesthetic but I will stipulate that for most people, if the other objections are satisfied the aesthetic one should be as well, even if I personally am not comfortable with it), and hence, some time travel stories that work. So here goes:

Let’s start by addressing the Metaphysical objections. The famous grandfather paradox and the ontological paradox. There are two main ways that philosophers approach the problem of time travel paradoxes: The Many Worlds Theory and the Novikov Self-Consistency Principle.

The Novikov Self-Consistency Principle

The Novikov Self-Consistency Principle simply states that anything that cannot happen, will not happen. In other words, if you go back in time and try to kill your grandfather, you will always fail. Your gun will misfire at the last minute, you will have shot the wrong person, or the right person but it will turn out that he wasn’t your grandfather after all, etc. The television show LOST makes use of the self-consistency principle. Daniel Faraday repeatedly explains that no matter what they try to do, the future will not change, because whatever happened is immutable and has already happened, even if the time-traveling protagonists are at an earlier place in the timeline. Ben cannot be killed as a child, the Dharma Initiative cannot be saved, simply because it didn’t happen.

I do not find this theory particularly compelling. There is nothing in the universe to suggest that it actively attempts to sort out paradoxes at a macro level. If you shoot someone, they will die, and to suggest that the universe somehow “knows” to protect them seems to be so fanciful as to make the theory meaningless. This also does not explain the ontological paradox.

The Many Worlds Theory
The many worlds theory, popularized in D.C. Comics with their “multiverse,” and based on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which says that the states of certain particles at the quantum level are not fixed until observed, and that until they are observed they exist in multiple states at once, is much more compelling. It is referenced in Back to the Future and used in comic book literature and other works of fiction, including the television show Sliders and the Michael Crichton book “Timeline.”

The idea of the multiverse is that the universe as we know it is just one of many possible universes that exist in different dimensions, and that each choice we make represents the universe that we fix in time out of the infinite universes that are possible. As it pertains to time travel, the theory goes that when we go back in time and change something, we create an alternate timeline. Our original timeline, the one that spawned us, continues on into infinity while we exist in the new, altered timeline.
This idea seems to work pretty well. It addresses the grandfather paradox: when you kill your grandfather, you create a universe where you never existed, however you, the killer, came from a parallel universe where you did exist. It addresses the ontological paradox too. In Terminator, Kyle Reese is sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor so that John Connor will be born. He ends up becoming John Connor’s father. According to the theory, there was a “prime” universe where John Connor had some other father. In that universe, Kyle Reese was sent back in time, creating an alternate universe where Kyle Reese is John Connor’s father, as we see in the movie.

How this is handled can get complicated. In Back to the Future, Marty and his siblings start to disappear when it seems that Marty may have prevented his parents from ever falling in love. If this is an alternate universe, that shouldn’t be an issue. In “Timeline” Crichton addresses this problem by suggesting that events in an alternate timeline have a “ripple effect.” That over the course of time, minor changes happen in the original timeline so that it will “catch up,” and become consistent with that timeline. In other words, events in one timeline can have an effect on others.

I feel that the many worlds theory is pretty effective in addressing the metaphysical objection, and as I stated in my first post, the metaphysical objection doesn't trouble me that much. The many worlds theory does also address the logical objection to some extent. If travelers going back in time are always creating alternate timelines, we shouldn’t expect to ever meet one in our “prime” universe. However I don’t find this entirely compelling. Somehow it seems that we still might receive a visitor from an alternate future, so that our prime timeline is their alternate one, or that the ripple effect should still produce premature time travel in our universe. I feel that there are stronger rebuttals to the “Time Tourist” objection, which is tied in with the rebuttal to the physical objection (hint: Wormholes), and I’ll discuss those in Part II.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Why I Hate Time Travel

The summer blockbuster season has arrived and it seems that the words of the day are “time travel.” Time travel is all the rage, and appears prominently in the latest “Star Trek” installment, as well as being a key element of Terminator: Salvation. Time travel was also a frequent theme of the Terminator television series, and of course is crucial to ABC’s ever popular LOST.

Time Travel in Science Fiction

While the latest Star Trek movie installment was hailed as “original” and “groundbreaking,” time travel is actually an extremely common element of the Star Trek series. It was the theme of four Star Trek Movies (“The Voyage Home,” “Generations” and “First Contact,” in addition to the latest installment), and has appeared multiple times in every Star Trek series (TOS: City on the Edge of Forever, Assignment: Earth, TNG: Yesterday’s Enterprise, Time’s Arrow, DS9: Little Green Men, Trials and Tribble-ations, VOY: Future’s End, Relativity, ST:E: Cold Front, Zero Hour).

The Terminator series is completely reliant on time travel to tell its story. Clearly time travel is a popular device for purveyors of science fiction. So why do I hate it so much?

Problems with Time Travel

My problems with time travel, like time travel itself, span multiple dimensions. These dimensions are Physical, Metaphysical, Logical and Aesthetic. To address each of these in turn:


Time travel the way it is depicted in most fiction is impossible. This, frankly, is the least of my concerns with time travel, as science fiction is generally predicated on the impossible. However, I just thought I’d put it out there. The whole idea of time travel is usually designed around Einstein’s Relativity theories, which essentially state that how fast time moves depends on your perspective, and that space and time exist together along a continuum. The faster you are moving and the farther away you are from an object, the slower time appears to you relative to the object that isn’t moving as fast or that you are far away from. The theory continues to suggest that if you could move fast enough, you could theoretically move backwards through the time stream, and there are in fact particles that do this, called tachyons.

The problem with all of this for say, Ambassador Spock, is that as one approaches the speed of light, one’s mass becomes infinite, and the human (or Vulcan) body is not really equipped for infinite mass, so anyone traveling through a black hole or some kind of particle accelerator might reappear back in time, but they would do so as so much mush.


Again, the physical objection is no big deal. Superman shouldn’t be able to fly either and I’m fine with that. I’m also not too caught up in the metaphysical problems, but I should address them as well.

The metaphysical problems are the paradoxes. There is the classic “Grandfather Paradox;” if you go back in time and kill your grandfather, you will never be born, and therefore you can never go back in time to kill your grandfather. There is the equally troubling “Ontological Paradox,” which comes up much more often. For example in Terminator, John Connor sends Kyle Reese back to protect his mother. Reese ends up in a relationship with Connor’s mother and becomes his father. But who was there to send Reese back the “first time?” That is to say, before the events of Judgment Day happened, who fathered John Connor?

Another example occurs in Star Trek. Scotty needs to transport the heroes onto a moving spaceship, but the technology hasn’t been invented yet. Future Spock assures Scotty that he will one day invent such technology, and in fact provides New Scotty with the required information. The question now becomes, where did this information come from in the first place?
It also appears in LOST. Richard Alpert in the past gives Locke a compass. Locke later gives this compass to Alpert with instructions to give it to him in the past. So what is the compass’ origin? Again, there is a rebuttal to these paradoxes, and these issues don’t concern me overmuch, although they are annoying.


The logical objection IS one that concerns me. Although there is a rebuttal, it is NEVER used in fiction to my knowledge, certainly not in Star Trek movies. Here goes. The premise of this objection is that time travel isn’t possible because it doesn’t exist right now. You can’t say “it hasn’t been invented yet” because there is no “yet,” since time travel is involved. If it is discovered anywhere in the timestream, then it must exist everywhere. Some might argue that this is okay because whoever travelled back kept it a secret, or met people who could not understand or evaluate the technology. But that assumes that time travel works like so:

One person travels from point A to Point B, and possibly back, no harm no foul. But if time travel is possible, there are an infinite number of travels, like so:

For as long as human beings exist in time, people will be going back, making anachronistic holes in the time line like so much swiss cheese. With an infinite number of travelers, eventually one will make time travel technology possible at an earlier time, which will then lead to infinitely more travelers between that earlier time and other times, until time travelers are EVERYWHERE. And as far as I can tell, they are not.


There are even rebuttals to the logical argument, but there is no rebuttal to the aesthetic argument, which is that time travel is just messy. In Star Trek, the 2009 movie, The Romulans go back in time and wipe out Vulcan. This causes the hundreds of years of fictional history and the decades of real Star Trek history to be wiped out. All the great Star Trek mythology you thrilled to as a child, well, most of it just never happened, cause the Romulans went back in time. How then, can I be expected to invest myself in this new group of characters, when I know that someday, the Romulans could go back in time and destroy the escape ship that contained the unborn Captain Kirk, or destroy the Earth in 1776, or take over the Federation in 2214 with advanced 25th century technology?

Furthermore, there is the Slippery Slope issue which I find so grating that the story is nearly impossible for me to enjoy. In Star Trek, the Romulan mining ship goes back in time and destroys Vulcan. Now that Starfleet is aware of this, why not send a Starfleet force back to where the Romulans will someday pop into the sky and destroy them before they do it? Why not send an espionage force to kill Captain Nero’s mother, a la Terminator? It seems to me that if you can go back and change things, you can always send someone somewhere else in the timeline to change things back. And that’s why I hate time travel stories.

Note: There are some valid rebuttals to all but the aesthetic argument, and hence some time travel concepts/stories that work. I’ll address those in my next post.