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John Fitzpatrick

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The Man in the High Castle - based on one data point [Nov. 22nd, 2015|06:38 pm]
John Fitzpatrick
I started watching Amazon.com's "The Man in the High Castle", a TV series based on the Philip K. Dick book.

First I must admit that I have not read the book, so my review is based on the TV series only.

Second I must admit that I have watched only the first episode, and that TV series should be judged on more than one. But I'll provide a review anyway.

My impression, so far, is one of slight boredom. The first episode introduces the world of "TMITHC" -- an alternate history in which the Axis powers win WWII -- and the major characters. It does so, and it provides a good deal of detail for the world and the characters. (Perhaps too much, in the case of the world.)

There is a lot of attention to detail in the sets and costumes. Everything looks like an alternate 1962. Everything appears correct. But there is too much detail for my taste. I found myself caught up in the tiny details of every scene and dropping away from the story -- not a good sign.

The story is complex, but not complex enough for an hour-long episode. No one scene was too long, but together the collection of scenes seems large for the story, which indicates that there are some scenes that could have been cut. (Perhaps the scenes were constructed to provide for 22 episodes, a full season.)

A few things bother me.

First is that Germany has annexed the US east of the Rocky Mountains and Japan the west (with a "neutral zone" between the two). PKD may have used the term "neutral zone" but for me it conjures Romulans.

English is still spoken and written, even on public buildings and signs.

The conquered citizens can move about freely and conduct business, which seems at odds with what I learned about Germany and Japan of the middle Twentieth century. Of course it is 20 years after the war, which may make a difference.

While watching the first episode, I found myself longing for the "Flash Gordon" series (available on Viewster), which I found had good writing and interesting plots in each episode.

I plan to watch a few more episodes (of "TMITHC") and give it some time.
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Roads for self-driving cars [Nov. 14th, 2015|05:08 pm]
John Fitzpatrick
Self-driving cars have been around for a while. Still experimental, yet in the news.

After enough news stories, my mind starts to think about the future. What does the future hold for self-driving cars?

I think we may see some roads reserved for self-driving cars. Just as some roads today are reserved for cars (trucks not allowed), and some roads are reserved for cars with multiple occupants, the future may see roads reserved for self-driving cars. What would these roads look like?

It makes sense, I think, to consider highways to be the first candidates for self-drive only. (Something like the New Jersey Parkway, limited to cars, or HOV lanes on various highways.)

Let's assume that self-driving cars have methods of obtaining information about the road. They may use a GPS-based system with online lookup for speed limits and information about exits. Or the road may contain small transponders with such information. In either case, since the road is limited to self-driving cars, the information about the road that we normally obtain through signs must be made available to the car.

With automated mechanisms for obtaining information, road signs become obsolete.

We certainly don't need signs for speed limits. Humans aren't in control of the car. I'm assuming that there are no conditions that require humans to take control of self-drive cars. Constructing and posting those signs in expensive, and state highway departments are usually pressed for funds.

We also don't need the typical milepost signs. That's another expense that can be avoided.

Thinking about it, we don't need many of the signs on our highways. The "Lane Ends" signs, the "Curve Ahead" signs, the "Merge" and "Yield" signs are all unnecessary.

We may even get rid of the exit signs. That may be more difficult, due to psychology. People will be happy, I think, to discard speed limit signs. But exit signs are another matter -- people want to know that they are going in the right direction, along the proper route. Exit signs confirm that. (On the other hand, if people have their own GPS units or GPS-enabled phones, then perhaps they will confirm their route via devices and not signs.)

The road itself must remain a flat surface made of either asphalt or concrete. We may be able to eliminate the lane markings (another expense!). Lane markings are there for humans, not self-drive cars. As long as cars can stay on the road and avoid each other, why have lane markings?

If we choose to keep any of these human-purpose signals (signs or lane markings) then one day we may be explaining to our grandchildren their purpose.
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Twin Peaks and Dark Shadows [Oct. 29th, 2015|09:16 pm]
John Fitzpatrick
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I've been watching episodes of "Dark Shadows", courtesy of the DVR and the Decades channel airing episodes this past weekend. (They binge-air on the weekends, and last weekend was "Dark Shadows". Next weekend is, too.)

The experience has been surreal. Partly due to "Dark Shadows" and partly due to the DVR.

DVR issues first!

The DVR seems to have recorded 79 episodes, which seems about right. (Two days is 48 hours, and each episode is 30 minutes so there could be 96 episodes in a weekend, but a few hours are blocked off for news.)

But the episodes do not appear in any particular order. I started with the last episode (number 79) figuring that it was the oldest in the recording sequence and therefore the earliest chronologically (assuming Decades shows the episodes in order). The episode was a random one in the middle of the series (Maggie escapes from the hospital). Then I watched number 78, in which Barnabas attacks Maggie which is the reason she goes to the hospital.

Clearly, the episodes do not run from back to front as I assumed. (I should say here that I have little experience with this DVR so a lot of this is an experiment.) But I started at the wrong end, so I changed my viewing.

Next I started at the beginning, with what I thought were the oldest episodes. (The ones at the end were going "forward" in time, so start at the beginning, right?)

I watched episode 1 (as the DVR numbers them) in which Barnabas, Burke, and Vicky explore an old house. Then I watched episode 2 (again, as the DVR numbered it) and it showed Vicky and Burke planning to explore the old house. Clearly, I was viewing them "backwards" again!

At this point I am giving up on watching them in any particular sequence. I simply let the next one play and see what happens.

Enough about DVR issues. On to thoughts on the show.

"Dark Shadows" has some elusive quality that is not present in other television shows. It's a soap opera, but it has more depth than the typical daytime soap opera.

The early episodes are filmed in black-and-white, using a technique that filmed a CRT display, which is indicated in the black halos around bright light sources such as candles.

The show also has an earnestness to it. While bad (by today's standards) the show is not campy. Contemporary shows were. The old "Batman" TV series was campy. "Lost in Space" was campy. Even "Star Trek" was leaning in that direction. But "Dark Shadows" has none of that -- it is serious through and through.

Which leads me to "Twin Peaks". Some have claimed that "Twin Peaks" is unique, that it stands alone from other television shows. I think that "Twin Peaks" is close to "Dark Shadows". Both have haunting melodies for opening and closing credits. Both have opening monologues that make one think. Both have unbelievable stories yet present those stories seriously.

"Twin Peaks", produced two decades after "Dark Shadows", has better writing, better production values, and better artistry. In that there is no debate. Yet If I owned them both, I would put them on the same shelf.
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Back to the Future [Oct. 25th, 2015|03:23 pm]
John Fitzpatrick
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I viewed the "Back to the Future" documentary on Netflix. Apparently made this year (2015), it includes interviews with several of the original cast, including Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd.

One observation made in the documentary is that BttF breaks a number of rules of movie-making. That's true, yet the movie works.

One observation I have is that we (that is, the viewers) don't recognize the hero of the movie. We think that the hero is Marty McFly -- but we're wrong. The hero is George McFly.

It is George McFly, the picked-upon dork of the school who, in the end, finds the courage to stand up to Biff. He is the heroic character, the one we admire.

We follow the adventures of Marty (Michael J. Fox) through the movie, but Marty is not the hero. He's not on a hero's journey (despite travelling 30 years back in time). He's acting out of selfish reasons. He's not transformed at the end of the movie. He remains himself, while the rest of his family is transformed.

(Marty has to dig himself out of problems of his own making, but that's not a hero. That's plain old real life.)

Marty is a proxy for us. Like him, we're on a ride over which we have no control, doing things that we think are correct. And like him, we remain ourselves at the end.

And that is what is special about BttF. We follow the non-hero, enjoying the excitement but not worrying about responsibilities. (Contrast the role of Peter Parker in Spiderman.)
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The (relatively) new Flash Gordon TV series [Oct. 4th, 2015|09:54 pm]
John Fitzpatrick
I've been watching the "Flash Gordon" TV series.

Made in Canada, it is a different take on the "Flash Gordon" story. They make a number of changes. Transit between Mongo and Earth occur through "rifts", another word for portals, and not via spaceship. Flash's real name is Stephen. Flash is searching for his father, who disappeared several years earlier in a rift -- and therefore to Mongo.

Despite the changes, the normal characters are still present: Flash Gordon (of course), Dale Arden, Zarkov, Aura, Barin, and Vultan all make appearances. Their introductions are creative and their characters are deeper than in the original (1930s) series.

And the kicker is the appearance (in one episode) of Sam J. Jones.

The series is available on Viewster, a channel/app on the Roku box.
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A monopoly on gloom and doom [Sep. 20th, 2015|07:44 pm]
John Fitzpatrick
The Republican party (or conservatives, its hard to tell them apart) have acquired a monopoly on gloom and doom.

From campaign speeches to rhetoric on the House and Senate floors, from newspaper articles to websites, everything I hear and read from Republicans is that our country is doomed -- doomed!

Any event causes this reaction.

- The Iran nuclear deal is a bad one, and will result in the destruction of the country.
- The Supreme Court decision on marriage was a bad one, and will result in the destruction of our society.
- The Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act was a bad one, and will result in the destruction of our economy.
- Warmer relations with Cuba is bad for the United States, bad for Cuba, and bad for the world.
- Immigration is a problem for the United States, and will lead to economic chaos.
- Removing our forces from Iraq was a mistake, and will lead to further unrest in the area and additional terrorist attacks. (Nevermind that the withdrawal was in accord with the legal agreement that let us operate in the country.)

And so on.

It's one thing to be the "loyal opposition" in a political system. When a party is out of power, one has to provide alternatives. But I don't see that here.

What I see is a party that is all negative, all downer, all gloom-and-doom.

The focus on negatives may help energize the party faithful. It may reinforce that their beliefs are the correct beliefs. But it doesn't gain any friends. It doesn't convince people on the other side of the aisle.

If the Republicans want to gain, they have to offer something positive. Ronald Reagan knew this; he described "Morning in America", his vision of a strong and successful nation in a prominent place in the world.

The problem that today's Republicans face is that overall, things in the country look fairly good. The economy is doing well: unemployment is low, the stock market is up, and are the strongest economy in the world. It's hard to run against a successful economy. The few weak promises of a better economy (Jeb Bush's promised growth rate of 4% has been met with scepticism) have been far between.

Making things worse is the fact that over the past seven years, Republicans have done nothing to assist the economy and everything in their power to prevent all government actions. They can claim no contribution to the current good times.

Yet Republicans need something to offer. They have to have some positive thing to lure moderates to their side. Traditionally, that would be the economy. They need something else.

The negativity does help one entity though -- FOX News. Bad news gets higher ratings than good news, and higher ratings get higher advertising revenue. Focussing on the negatives helps FOX news (and maybe other newspapers and websites).
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Promises, promises [Sep. 13th, 2015|10:27 pm]
John Fitzpatrick
Some additional thoughts on that county clerk in Kentucky:

It seems to me that she is caught in a collision of promises. She has made two promises: one religious and one secular.

Religion tends to require some set of promises from its adherents. In return, it offers other promises. The nice aspect of religious promises is that they are constant. For Christians, one promise is that the Bible is God's true word, eternal and unchanging. It is Truth with a capital 'T' and it is guaranteed to stay that way.

The secular promises made by the clerk are for the job. Anyone taking a job makes a set of promises (arrive on time, perform certain tasks, behave nicely with other employees) in exchange for promises from the employer (pay wages, provide benefits).

The promises of employers, unlike religious promises, are not eternal and unchanging. Employers are free to assign new tasks, change working hours, and change the rate of pay. I once worked at a bank, which when taken over by a larger bank, changed the work hours from 7.5 hours per day to 8 hours per day -- with no change in wages.

Employers may be free to make any changes, yet they must exercise some caution. They cannot reasonably ask librarians to become steel workers, or dental hygienists to become coal miners. They cannot reduce wages -- at least not easily. They cannot arbitrarily change work locations.

(Employees who are members of a labor union have a contract that usually specifies the type of work, location, and pay, which limits the changes that can be imposed by an employer.)

Yet all employment agreements usually have the proviso or understanding that the employer and the employee will obey they law. This gets tricky, because the law can change. Congress can set a new minimum wage, or require additional documentation for new hires. States can regulate work hours; New Jersey, several years ago, forced large employers to allow workers to arrive at a range of times and not all at the same time.

These legal changes can flow down to employees, and this is what happened to county clerks. When they took the position (elected or not) they had to promise to perform certain tasks. Those tasks were in accord with their religious beliefs.

The recent Supreme Court decision for marriage changes those promises, and now county clerks have to perform a slightly different set of duties. Yet that small difference is in opposition to their religious beliefs.

Thus we have now two sets of promises, not in accord.

Kim Davis of Rowan County, Kentucky believes that the promises of her religion should weigh heavier than the promises of her job. In that, I disagree. She must find some way to resolve the differences, or give up one set of promises.
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Sympathy for the county clerk [Sep. 2nd, 2015|08:52 pm]
John Fitzpatrick
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The press has been a-buzz with the news of the county clerk in Kentucky who refuses to provide marriage licenses for any but man/woman pairs. Despite several legal defeats (including the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case), the clerk refuses to obey the law, citing God's law as higher.

I disapprove of her behavior.

I am disappointed by the behavior of many liberals in this matter. More on that later.

I want to build some understanding for this woman, and perhaps some sympathy. Let's look at her situation with three lenses: economical, psychological, and spiritual.

Many of us have worked for large organizations, and many of us have been subjected to changes in the business. The changes could be a reorganization, a redistribution of tasks, a relocation of the office, or a change in technology (moving from Windows XP to Windows 8, for example). The clerk is facing a similar, of larger, change in the business of the county clerk office. She could simply resign her position. But this may be difficult.

It is one thing to leave a job for a better job. It is another to walk away from a job and have... nothing lined up. This clerk cannot simply move to another county and be a clerk there -- the equality of marriage extends across the country. Leaving the clerk office and working somewhere else may be difficult: I suspect that the skills needed in the clerk's office are not easily transferable to many jobs in the private sector. I also suspect that jobs in the private sector pay less and offer fewer benefits -- if any -- than the county clerk office.

From just the economics, leaving the job is not easy.

Psychology is another aspect. The position of county clerk is an elected office, which means that to hold the position, one must win an election. I suspect that running for the office, campaigning, and waiting on election night is more thrilling than interviewing with companies. With more emotional investment up front, one is more attached to the job.

This individual has held this position for years, which means that they have been through multiple elections. (The elections may have been uncontested, which is typical for local offices, but that matters little.) Those elections, over the years, are positive reinforcement of the person's work; they are approval from the county residents. That's a strong message to counter.

As a county clerk, this individual probably interacts with many people from the county, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. They voted for her, and are probably still telling her that she is doing a good job. Why would someone leave?

Spiritually, stepping down from the position is nothing less that defeat. It is an admission that God's law is not supreme, an idea that may be alien to this individual. Such beliefs are long in building and traumatic to change.

I disagree with the individual's behavior. I think it is proper for her to follow constitutional law and issue marriage licenses to all comers. Yet I want to have sympathy for her.

Which gets me to the behavior of liberals.

I have seen, on a number of web sites, comments to the affect that "if she cannot do the job, she should just resign". (Some comments have been less polite.)

For the reasons I outlined above, I think that simply walking away from the job is difficult. (I walked away from a job, several years ago, and it was not easy. And I had a pile of cash to live upon and no other mouths to feed.)

Liberals often accuse conservatives of presenting solutions that are simplistic, dogmatic, and without nuance. (Many of these accusations have merit.) But the claim that this woman should "just resign" is simplistic, dogmatic, and without nuance. In this case, liberals are committing the sin of which they attribute to conservatives.

I encourage liberals (and conservatives) to propose solutions after careful consideration of the person's situation and with compassion and creativity.
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Science fiction television [Aug. 26th, 2015|10:38 pm]
John Fitzpatrick

My favorite science fiction television shows:

- The Twilight Zone
- Star Trek: The Original Series
- Babylon 5
- Farscape
- The Prisoner
- Blake's Seven
- Space: 1999 (first season)
- Star Trek: Enterprise (maybe... I need more data)

Shows that are "meh":
- Star Trek: The Next Generation
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
- Star Trek: Voyager
- Andromeda
- Dark Angel
- Space: 1999 (second and later seasons)
- Lost in Space (first season)

Shows with promise but annoy or disappoint me:
- Lexx
- Deep Space Nine
- Red Dwarf
- Lost in Space (second and later seasons)

I am beginning to suspect that there is a relationship between character and story. Specifically: strong, well-defined characters limit the story in science fiction. (Perhaps in all genres.)

The Twilight Zone has excellent stories (and excellent writing). Yet each episode stands alone. Each episode has distinct characters. Nothing need be carried from one episode to the next. Thus, each episode can have a story that is unique, and characters tailored to the story.

Strong character definition is like rocks in a stream. It defines the characters, and it also constrains how the stream can interact with the characters.

Star Trek: The Original Series was successful, I think, because of the writers (they had excellent writers including Harlan Ellison, Ted Sturgeon, Jerome Bixby, and Robert Bloch) and the wobbliness of the characters. The stories were stronger than the characters, so in one episode Kirk is confident, in another he is brash, and in another he is compassionate. The inconsistency drove fans batty, yet it allowed for a variety of stories.

The succeeding series ("The Next Generation", "Deep Space Nine", "Voyager", etc.) "fixed" the problem of wobbly characters ... at the expense of stories. By strengthening the character definitions, they (unwittingly) constrained the stories. I found the "Next Generation" stories to be rather boring -- although "Enterprise" seems to have some hope for good science fiction.

I think it is no coincidence that the science fiction series I find enjoyable are the ones which change characters. The new character group allows for new stories. Series with a constant set of characters are hard-pressed to innovate. ("Lost in Space" comes to mind as a series stuck with a fixed set of characters and therefore a limited set of ideas.)

Characters or stories... pick one. We apparently cannot have both.

* * * * *

Update: This idea needs work. Clearly, the "Harry Potter" series of movies worked with the same characters and new ideas. (Not a TV show, but never mind.)
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Science fiction [Aug. 22nd, 2015|04:25 pm]
John Fitzpatrick
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I recently read Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward", a Victorian fantasy that uses the Rip Van Winkle trick to transport a person from 1890 to the early twenty-first century. It's clearly a fantasy, yet it makes a number of eerily accurate predictions: credit cards, shopping malls, social programs like Social Security, and one could argue alarm clock-radios and the internet. (The last is a bit tenuous, though.)

Which brings up the the topic of science fiction and fantasy. What makes science fiction science fiction? What makes fantasy fantasy? Where is the dividing line?

Most readers will agree that "The Lord of the Rings" is fantasy, and "Star Trek" is science fiction. A large number will agree, I think, in that "Star Wars" is somewhere in the middle. A simple division is that science fiction has spaceships and fantasy has wizards, yet Obi-wan Kenobi is clearly a wizard. Could "Star Wars" be a bit of both?

Clarke's Law states that any sufficiently advance technology is indistinguishable from magic. Certainly a lot of today's devices would be considered magical to someone in Victorian times: cell phones, ATMs, and self-driving cars, for example. Yet we know it to be technology.

Could we advance technology to provide the typical fantasy constructs? Could we some day have wizards and magical spells? Could we invent a races of elves? Dwarves? Orcs? If we travel to other planets, will we find them? Could we one day discover a "Lord of the Rings"-like planet?

I think the answer is a tentative "yes". If we don't build them here, there may be an Earth-like planet with humanoid races who develop technology to the point of magical spells. If not "Lord of the Rings", maybe "Harry Potter".

Which leads me to a conjecture of my own: Any sufficiently advanced science fiction is indistinguishable from fantasy.
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