Monday Mornings

Monday Mornings is a brand spanking new series (I’ve only seen one episode so far). It’s a David E. Kelley show, which initially caused me some doubts – Harriet’s Law was a disaster. Several earlier shows (Ally McBeal, Boston Public) disintegrated fairly early on, and then proceeded to limp for years on the strength of new stars imported to prop up the wreckage. I did enjoy Boston Legal (largely because of James Spader), and The Practice was pretty solid all the way through. I’ve only seen a few episodes of Chicago Hope, which I think is the last medical show from Kelley, but I remember it being quite impressive.

So, as I said, I had some doubts. The first episode was pretty good, though. I thought Jamie Bamber was great in the 2004 remake of Battlestar Galactica, and I’m glad to see him back. I’m not a big Alfred Molina fan, though he does a good job as the chief (I forget the exact title, but he’s the big cheese) – he’s a great mix of unlikeable and “sensitive inner core”. There’s a decent group of supporting cast members, including Ving Rhames (who is actually billed higher than Bamber).

The show revolves around M&M Rounds (morbidity and mortality rounds are closed sessions where the doctors discuss problem cases that may have resulted in death or other issues). The show’s title, with the two “M”s, may also be alluding to this, as well as hilighting that the rounds kick off each week. In the first episode, one “hack” doctor who really screwed up – resulting in a missed diagnosis and a woman’s early death – is kicked out of the hospital as well as being reamed by Ving Rhames (which would have to ruin anyone’s day), who makes the point that he’s only being shunted off to another hospital as opposed to being de-licensed or whatever the medical equivalent of being disbarred would be.

The somewhat odd thing is that Jamie Bamber’s character (Dr. Wilson), who is one of the hospital’s high flyers, also has a patient die during an operation. It comes out, in another M&M session, that Wilson missed several important steps before deciding on surgery (including consulting with colleagues and doing a full medical history), meaning that the possibility of the patient’s death on the operating table would have been recognized. The line was, basically, “the patient would have died soon in any case, but he’s dead today” because of Wilson’s screwup. However, in this case, no Ving Rhames beat-down (note that he was the one who brought Wilson in on the case, and actually gives him a pep talk later on). The argument would have to be that everybody loses patients occasionally, and Bamber’s character is a good doctor who made an unusual mistake, while the other guy’s character was a hack who was known as “007” (because he had a “license to kill”). I can see that, but the individual actions in the two cases were actually pretty similar.

So, it will be interesting to see where this show goes. Nice to see Kelley heading back to serious TV again, after quite some time trying to mix serious with goofy (the Denny Crane clone guy in Harriet’s Law was an absolute disaster, not just because he was so patently unoriginal and one-dimensional, but because it just wasn’t funny).

There was one false note in the episode. Kelley has something about Asian characters being hard to understand – Ling on Ally McBeal being the one exception that comes to mind. Keong Sim plays another brilliant doctor who has a successful case in the first episode, but his dialogue is written so that he’s constantly abrupt, rude, and – above all – hard to understand. He gets colloquial phrases wrong, he leaves out words. He reminded me strongly of Tzi Ma’s character in the final season of The Practice (season 8, episode 10, in case you’re looking); he was another language-mauling Asian (memorable for complaining about “malpuppet” when he meant malpractice and having his lawyer, played by Rhona Mitra, laugh at the way he talked in court). There was also a coroner in Boston Legal’s third season (in one scene only) who was similarly Asian and whose language skills were definitely sub-par. At the end of this first episode, Alfred Molina tells Keong Sim that they will need to meet about his “language skills”. Hopefully, there will be some rapid improvement in Sim’s character’s English, so that Kelley can stop beating this particular (and, again, previously used) drum.

Jack Reacher

I was one of many who was caught between shock, disgust, and amusement when the news came out that Tom Cruise had been cast in the lead role of 2012’s Jack Reacher, the first movie made from one of Lee Child‘s series of novels about a former MP of the same name. The main problem is that in the novels, a great deal of time and emphasis is put in the fact that Reacher is huge. Reacher is 6’5″, and ranges between 210 and 250 depending on how many swimming pools he’s been digging by hand recently. He regularly knocks people out with a single blow, or successfully takes on multiple opponents.

Not to overburden the point, but Tom Cruise isn’t huge. By any stretch. At the risk of stating the obvious, he’s also a cult member, exhibits a bit of a freakish personality, and his personal life is a disgrace. I generally try to ignore the personalities and personal lives of celebrities, because I honestly don’t care – I have trouble enough caring about people I actually know, never mind trying to extend this to fake facebook “friends”. There’s nothing to spare for strangers who happen to be on a screen of one size or another. Still, Cruise’s antics managed to pierce even my well-developed apathy.

Anyhow, Cruise certainly didn’t fit my idea of Reacher, and I wasn’t alone in this. Message boards, on IMDB and elsewhere, exploded with complaints and threats to boycott the movie, as well as suggestions for better fits for the part (Ray Stevenson was one of the better suggestions). People complained about Lee Child having sold out, or defended him for not having had that level of control, and so it went.

One of the scenes in the preview was of Cruise stepping into a crowd at a bus stop to evade some police who were chasing him. There was a great deal of hilarity around the idea of the casting call, specifically looking for a group of 5’2″ people to make him look at least average in height. Speculation was rife about how they would have him on huge risers, shoot exclusively from the ground up, and/or hire a lot of tiny fellow actors, in order to try to make Cruise fit the huge “Reacher” mold.

However, when December rolled around, I decided to support the story and the author, as opposed to expressing my doubts about Cruise in this role. And, I have to confess, I’m glad I did.

Jack Reacher (the movie) was based on the novel One Shot, which is the 9th novel in the series. The first shot of Cruise was shot from the floor up at his back, and I thought “Oh, here we go …” but that was the last time they shot anything specifically to make him look particularly imposing. They basically just dropped all references to Reacher’s size. He was still a tough former MP, but not a large one. This was surprisingly effective, and the fact that both the “leading lady” and the leading henchman were bigger than Cruise completely deflated my size-related objections to the movie. I have no idea if any changes were made after the public outcry about Cruise, but either way, the result was pretty impressive.

I have to admit it, Cruise gives pretty good action. The early MI movies are a little dated at this point, of course, but they were entertaining at the time. I liked The Last Samurai, though I may be in the minority there.

My remaining problems with the movie are mostly just standard-Hollywood-crap stuff. The final showdown in the novel is very different from the one in the movie (relying on Reacher dousing himself in freezing water and then walking slowly toward the bad guys in order to avoid detection via infrared, as opposed to the movie’s run-and-gun approach). Also, the idea of Reacher getting the drop on the henchman to the extent that he has his gun to the guy’s head, and then throwing the gun away so they can duke it out was pure Hollywood, and extremely non-Reacher. This happened in Gangster Squad too, apropos of nothing, and it was equally annoying. Generally, the story was pretty close to the novel, but this was definitely a false note.

So, Cruise isn’t the novel’s Reacher, but he does a pretty good movie Reacher. If further Reacher movies are in the works, I’ll be less likely to complain to anybody I think might care (at least until I actually see the movie).

Is the Catholic Church a Force for Good in the World?

There was a debate in 2009, hosted by Intelligence Squared UK, and available in full on YouTube. The topic was “Is the Catholic Church a Force for Good in the World?” and the debaters were Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry (against) and Ann Widdecombe, M.P. and John Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja (for). It can’t have surprised anyone that Hitchens and Fry (and arguably mostly Fry) completely overwhelmed the opposition, resulting in a landslide against the proposition. To be fair, the opening survey was pretty overwhelmingly against anyway, but the closing survey was even more strongly polarized.

Still, I was disappointed with some of the arguments put forward, and thought I would chip in with a few “moves” that should have been made, and which would have resulted in a much more interesting debate. Now, obviously, I’m coming to this a bit late, but I somehow missed this one … maybe 2009 was especially busy or something.

Hitchens and Fry both took the traditional and obvious route of recounting the horrible mis-steps and failures the Catholic Church has made in the past (sexual abuse, supporting or at least not strongly denouncing the Holocaust, building enormous churches on the metaphorical backs of the poor, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and so forth). None of this was a surprise, and wasn’t informative either. There can’t have been anyone in the audience (live or via the interwebs) who didn’t know all this going in.

More than that, and to bring up the first move I would have hoped to see, the question is in the present tense (“Is the Catholic Church”). It would have been easy for Hitchens (who led off) to emphasize this, and to restrict his comments to the present. There is no doubt that the Church has done some horrible things, but they are not strictly relevant to the question. If the debate had been restricted to the present day, it would have avoided a lot of oft-repeated grievance listing, and allowed for the possibility of talking about things that might actually have a direct influence on those attending the debate (in whatever format). Not to say that history isn’t important, or doesn’t inform the current Church, but none of that content was to the point – it was basically a long list of red herrings.

That also isn’t to say that no current issues were discussed – they were. Fry’s points on condoms and aid in Africa, as well as on issues of sexuality and/or sexual preference were well taken. These are almost certainly issues that Church will be forced to apologize for in the future. I am merely pointing out that most of the commentary on the debate (especially from Catholics who found the con arguments impressive) relates to these points – to the present. The past is there, and much of it is pretty ugly, but that can be said for almost any group large enough, and influential enough, to still be around.

The next move is to take note of the final part of the question: “in the World“, assuming we can agree that the idea of being a force for good is pretty self-explanatory. “In the World” would have fixed the debate on the tangible (or dare I say “real”) as opposed to the spiritual activities of the Church. One argument about the institution being a force for good would have been to argue that people’s spiritual health is important (though points about this being a much lower priority in contrast to actual physical health are pretty easy to make). If that is the case – if the Church can argue that money spent this way is just as well-spent as money that does a more tangible “Good” – then the debate gets sidetracked into one about religion in general, and away from our final move – defining what is meant by “the Catholic Church“.

It is incredibly important to distinguish the Catholic Church (the organization) from individuals who belong to the Church. A fair amount of time was lost discussing the fact that individual Catholics donate a great deal of their money, time, effort, and so on to good (and often Church-organized) causes. There is no question that this is true, but it isn’t really relevant. A great number of non-catholics also donate money, time, and so on to causes they find valuable. Charity (or empathy, possibly) is a recognizable human trait (and isn’t even restricted to humanity).

Anyhow, the point is that individual humans are often charitable. The question might have been explicitly pointed in the direction of the Catholic Church as an institution, which would have been really interesting. In this frame, the question would basically be asking how the Church measures up against other charitable organizations. In this frame, the “religious” activities of the Church could be discounted (or rather, be looked at as overhead – costs that secular organizations don’t have to pay) as discussed above in “move 2”. “Regular” charities regularly post figures showing how much of each dollar donated actually get to the targets of those donations (as opposed to being “lost” to administrative costs and so forth). In this sense, and when dealing with the question of the Church as an organization that does “good works”, a great deal of what the Church actually does would have to be considered “lost” – all the wealth, vestments, artworks, the Vatican City, and so on, and so on. I don’t imaging anybody has a figure (or would ever let it see the light of day if they did) but i would be really interested to know how much of the donations of the billions of Catholics around the world actually make it outside the “doors” of the Church.

To sum up:

The debate should have led off with an examination of the exact question being asked (strange – that sounds like something a little to obvious to be pointing out). The question clearly deals with the present, but con arguments would have been much stronger if they were also targeted directly at tangible benefits and at the the institution. In this context, I think it would be relatively easy to convince almost any thinking audience that donations to the Catholic Church – assuming the donator wants to actually help people who need charity, to be a “force for good” in other words – would be much more effective if given to some other organization without the institutional baggage the Church supports. Many secular charities manage to get by with sub-5% admin costs. It would surprise me, to say the least, if the Catholic Church could match that performance.

Now, there is no question that Catholics give money to the Church to do with as it pleases, and that they merely hope that the money will do something useful (as opposed to buying funny hats or whatever). I am not arguing that the Church is ripping off its parishioners, but rather that if they want to really do some good, maybe they should look at how their money, time, and efforts are being used – maybe there’s somewhere else where they could get more bang for their buck.

2n Coding

I’ve been thinking about cryptography for some time, and I thought I’d post this here and see if anybody comes back with anything. Basically, I think there’s a very easy way to encode any data you want in a way that’s uncrackable for all practical purposes. I should mention that I am in no way a crypto expert, or a mathematical genius. This is more of a philosophical approach, and definitely being proposed by an amateur, so please bear that in mind before you use this method to protect your deepest darkest data.

The method is based on what I understand about brute force cracking of codes. Obviously, this won’t help (or will help less) if the key is already known, so for those of you putting password on post-its or using “password” or your birthday or whatever, I can’t really help you. Maybe. I’ll come back to that.

Anyhow, to crack something where the key is unknown, you basically try something as the key, and see if the results are intelligible (or have recognizable letter frequencies or whatever – some way for a computer to tell if the result looks like it might be real language). Obviously, using computers makes this much easier (as it does the encoding part of the operation). So, as I understand it – again, as a complete novice – the computer is going to try a key against your code, and see if it can get an intelligible result.

There’s another layer here where the algorithm is also unknown – you’d be trying multiple iterations of those as well. In many cases, though (like using a particular software package or coding function) where the algorithm is known, and only the key is needed.

But what if you run the encryption twice? I mean, encrypt a string of data, using your algorithm of choice, and you have a standard encryption that will resist analysis until the key is found – this is why keys are getting longer and longer as computers get faster. But if you then encrypted that string again, using the same key (or a different one, but that will be discussed later as well), then the attempt to check the validity of the key (to crack the code) would be checking against another encoded (unintelligible, non-language-patterned) string.

And why limit it to twice? The CPU load and time constraints are negligible – why not run the encryption 99 times, or 999 … You could also mutate the keystring based on the iteration you’re doing (possibly hashed with something else), and the result would be that much stronger. Then you just pass along the key and the hashing data to whomever is supposed to be able to read this stuff, and you’re good. You don’t even need a 4096 bit key anymore!

The reason I said before that this might even help people who just write their passwords down is that even if they did, the cracker would have to think of running the decryption more than once. It might be that they’d try the password, see that it didn’t work, and assume that you’re too smart to use such an obvious password lying around.

So, if this approach becomes common at all, it seems to me that anybody attempting to brute force crack (or, for that matter, known-password crack) something would have to attempt each possible password a near-infinite number of times in order to be sure they hadn’t just missed one repetition of the encoding. With a rotating password, this wouldn’t even work. The computational burden would increase dramatically, possibly to the point where cracking encryption becomes too unlikely to bother with.

The code to accomplish this, along with the rotating/hashing keystring options would be no big deal to write, but I thought I’d float the idea first and see if somebody can point out an obvious problem I’ve missed – not at all impossible. Otherwise, though, I’ll throw a PHP class together, and we can all encrypt ourselves to a fare-thee-well.

By the way, the 2n thing is about punning my last name (because that’s basically how we pronounce it) as well as the “encoding it twice” idea, and that it sounds like “2 encoding” as well as “tughan coding”. It just so very multilayered, I couldn’t resist!

Skyfall and Underwater Combat

I just saw Skyfall, and was quite impressed. Daniel Craig provides all the usual Bond-ness, as well as a believable action hero. Javier Bardem never fails to please as a crazy / creepy villain. Even Ralph Fiennes, who I hadn’t realized was in the movie and thus initially assumed was the bad guy (on the “it’s a recognizable actor who I didn’t expect to see” rule – apparently this doesn’t apply outside TV) ended up fitting right in.

The storyline was interesting, and provided a little backstory for Bond himself – something these films largely have steered away from. There was an interesting, and well-underlined, moment late in the movie when the justification for having agencies and agents like these was explained. I’m not sure I agree exactly in the real world, but at least within the world of the movie, it provided a sense of purpose.

So, all in all, an enjoyable film. It was marred though, for me, by a basic misunderstanding about human biology evidenced in a fight scene near the end of the movie. This fight is between Bond and an underling / sidekick type, so (very minor spoiler alert) it’s no surprise that Bond eventually prevails. What is a surprise is that though the fight takes place underwater, both Bond and the sidekick spend most of the fight attempting to choke one another.

It may just be me, and I must admit that I’ve never fought anybody underwater, but I would think that the objective in such a circumstance would be to attempt to force your opponent to breathe, as opposed to stopping him from doing so. There’s no logical reason to attempt to cut off someone’s air supply when all that’s available is a (fatal) water supply. All you’re doing by choking someone is prolonging the period where they’re not breathing water!

On a side note, I feel like I’m missing an Air Supply (the band) joke there, possibly about how the music is fatally sappy, but feel free to submit one in the comments if you feel strongly about it.

Anyhow, this fight scene felt absolutely backwards because of this. We’re one guy away from the boss fight, and both Bond and the last sidekick forget that humans breathe air?

After the scene ended, I had a brief flashback to a terrible early 90s Charlie Sheen movie (I’ve just looked it up, and it was actually called Navy Seals). One early scene from that movie involved a fight underwater (if you could call it a fight). Basically, the SEAL in question – probably Charlie Sheen –  simply grabbed the guy and dragged him deeper and deeper in the water. I don’t remember if there was any dialogue around this, but the clear message was that if you know without a doubt that you can hold your breath longer than the other guy, you don’t need to fight him – just wait him out, and make him wait with you. All the bad guy was trying to do at the end was to get away – as another non-spoiler, I don’t think he makes it.

This approach is actually taught (or was taught at one point, back when I was young) as part of lifeguard certifications. One major safety issue in a rescue situation is getting grabbed by a panicking drowning person, who then proceeds to attempt to climb you in order to get to the surface, and thus ends up drowning you along with them. There are several outs, including just punching the person in the face (something like that happens in the middle of that Kevin Costner Coast Guard rescue swimmer movie from a few years ago – you can look that one up yourself if you want to). The simpler alternative, though, is just to drag the person underwater. Then you are no longer a route to perceived safety, and the drowner stops trying to use you as a flotation device. Needless to say, in the “lifeguard” scenario, the point is to get free so you can then turn around and save the person, not to continue dragging them under forever, a la Charlie Sheen. I can only imagine that you would fail the certification exam if you forgot that last bit.

It’s got to be a bit embarrassing when a bad movie from 15 years ago, starring Charlie Sheen of all people, as an action hero of all things, manages to get something right that goes oh so wrong here.

So, this is not to say that the movie was ruined, or anything along those lines. Just that it was a jarring error in both basic human biology and hand-to-hand combat tactics (at least as I understand them, purely as a bystander) at a very late stage of the game in an otherwise enjoyable experience. Did anybody else notice this, or did I miss something, or can everybody else just breathe underwater and I somehow lost the coupon for the upgrade?

Notes on the Tughan Family

Samuel Tughan York Street Flax Spinning Mill, Belfast
Margaret Watson Born 1841, Radley, Co. Armagh. Married 1865

Children

The Genealogical Index shows the births between 1872 and 1878 were  recorded in the Town of Antrim.

Harry (born 1868. Married to Sarah Shilliday)
William (born 1873. Died, Bangor, June 1912)
Nathaniel (born 1873, single in 1911)
Margaret (born 1875,  Single in 1911)
John (born 1877, married to Agnes)
Emma ? (born 1878, no other information)
Lydia Meek. Born March 10, 1873, Union Street, Belfast. Daughter of Charles and Mary Jane Meek, Portadown. Died in Bangor, 1943, aged 70.
William Tughan and Lydia Meek Married at First Presbyterian Church, Bangor, April 1903. Witnesses Charles Meek and Nathaniel Tughan.
Children Margaret Evelyn (Peggy) (b 1904)
Helen Mary (b 1906)
Frederick Charles (b 1909)
Basil Watson (b 1911)
Margaret Tughan (nee Watson). 70.  11 children born, 6 living. (5 accounted for and one, maybe Emma but not confirmed). Son Nathaniel and daughter Margaret, resident at 52 Seacliffe Road Bangor, in 1911.
John Tughan, wife Agnes and two children Samuel 9 and Sarah 7, resident at 54 Seacliffe Road, Bangor in 1911.

The Meeks:  Harold Lloyd Meek, Barrister, (Hal as was called) was born in 1895 and died 1960. He was the son of Joseph Meek. A director of Lever Brothers, Cheshire England, he immigrated to Australia to be Chairman of Lever Brothers Pacific Plantations N.S.W.

The above referenced family tree goes back to John Meek Esq. who sailed under the Lord Admiral against the Spanish Armada in 1588. Grandmother Lydia Meek came from a marriage between Charles Meek and Mary Jane McCracken. Mary Jane Died in Bangor March 22nd 1917, aged 89. In the McCracken line is Henry Joy McCracken, who led the United Irish men to defeat and was hanged in 1798.

The family tree also shows the siblings of William Tughan as noted above. This is further substantiated by the Tughan residents of 52 & 54 Seacliffe Road Bangor, as noted from the 1911 census. The records show William and Nathaniel as being born in the same year of 1873. Could they have been twins? The records do not show this.

The above information taken from the following sources: The 1911 Census of Ireland; the archival records of the Bangor Spectator newspaper, June 1911; the records of ‘First Bangor Presbyterian Church’. Bangor; a Meek/McCracken ‘family tree’ (Given to me by Hal Meek in Sydney Australia in 1957). International Genealogical Index –British Isles.

Compiled by Ron Tughan (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada – October 2012).

Please contact rtughan@magma.ca with any questions or comments.

Celebrating Death

I realize that this is likely to offend some Americans, and maybe other people as well, but it’s been running around my head for some time. My intention isn’t really to offend, no matter what you might think, but I think the topic could use some airing.

What I’m talking about is the parallel between two groups of people celebrating a death or deaths.

There were well-publicized celebrations in some parts of the world after 9/11. People danced in the streets, happy about the fact that America (and individual Americans, one supposes) were killed in this way. These celebrations were (quite rightly) denounced in the Western press as being barbaric, savage, unconscionable, and so on. And, as I said, rightly so. The idea of having public celebrations about any event as tragic as 9/11 certainly should strike any modern ethically aware human being as deeply wrong.

Given all the anger, bile, and condescension demonstrated by the press in particular and the media at large, not to mention individuals, it still didn’t seem to strike anyone as strange when Americans were shown celebrating in the streets at the news of Osama Bin Laden’s assassination. Somehow, that wasn’t shocking at all.

It also didn’t stop Aaron Sorkin from centering an episode of The Newsroom this past season on the same event. Now, I thought the first season of the show was great, and Jeff Daniels in particular was surprisingly effective. But, at the same time, the tone of this episode struck me as being in extremely poor taste.

The fact that this hasn’t come up more often leads me to believe that maybe I’m one of the few people who thinks so.

Now, I don’t deny that there are differences. The 9/11 victims were civilians, and Bin Laden was a terrorist/freedom fighter who in some sense had opted into the “war”. Many many people versus one guy. Massive collateral damage versus none (maybe; little, in any case).

However, the bottom line is: do you want to be the kind of person who celebrates death, in the street, like it’s your team winning a football game? Never mind that I personally would tend to steer clear of celebrations in the street for whatever reason; if something was going to get me out there, it certainly wouldn’t be to whoop and cheer about somebody’s – anybody’s – death.

Same old same old

I suppose it was inevitable, with the massive proliferation of TV channels and the constant hunger for new shows, that repetition would become more obvious. I don’t mean just the spin-offs from established franchises (all the CSIs or Law and Orders), but rather “new” shows that are clones of other new shows. Let me give you a few examples.

Last year, two new cop shows began. “Southland” and “The Unusuals” were different in many ways, with The Unusuals being much funnier and having better (read wackier) characters, and thus being doomed to failure (canceled after only one season) – Southland is still going (in theory anyway). Here’s the thing, though. Both shows’ main character was a rich kid who decided to walk away from it all and become a regular cop. This was also the year that “Castle” began, with one rich writer as assistant cop, and (you guessed it) a former rich kid who had thrown it all away to become a regular cop.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Castle (probably the most of the three, though The Unusuals had great potential). But what’s with the central idea? Does somebody shop these ideas around town, have them rejected a time or two (or fake-rejected so they can be developed by somebody else) and the finally sell them? Actually, now that I read that, it doesn’t sound that improbable. But wouldn’t we all be better off without three near-identical main ideas fighting for survival?

That said, these three shows did go in wildly different directions. The Unusuals was the funniest, and got some flack for trying too hard. Castle is funny at at times, but mostly because of situations as opposed to slapstick. Southland isn’t funny at all, or hardly ever, as it’s aiming for that hard-bitten approach.

Still, it’s easy to see that they all depart from a pretty similar point.

Similarly, we have “Haven,” and “Happy Town.” (I think there are a couple of others I can’t call to mind right now as well). These two (and others?) are about supernatural (or otherwise weird) things happening in small towns where weirdness happened in the past but then stopped. Needless to say, the weirdness returns in time for a father-and-son small-town police force to be shocked into action. Happy Town has already been canceled, which is nothing but a relief as the two episodes I forced myself to finish were painful in the extreme.

Haven just started, and is not quite as painful (though still pretty bad), and might have some legs as it is loosely tied to a Stephen King story (The Colorado Kid). My main problem is the essential lameness of the main plot idea – a small town where a lot of people (if not everyone) have some bizarre supernatural powers. I mean bizarre as in making mental patients sane but everyone else insane, or controlling the weather with their emotions … just odd stuff. As stated above, this is all being investigated in a crime-solving framework, which just makes it awkward. At least the X-Files had aliens to throw into the mix every second or third episode, not just an unending freak show (and not just in one town).

Maybe I’m just not cut out for “supernatural drama,” which I was surprised to find out is a semi-recognized category (Wikipedia-recognized, anyway, for what that’s worth). I found “Eastwick” painful as well (even while I wanted to see Paul Gross onscreen again), and I’ve never been able to get into “True Blood” or “Torchwood.” At the same time, I loved “Dead Like Me” and the couple of episodes of “The Dresden Files” I’ve managed to catch, though that may have more to do with having liked the books than with the show itself.

Back to cop shows, we have a group of cop shows with a “gimmick” main character – “The Mentalist” (2008) and “Lie to Me” (2009). Depending on your analysis, you might also want to include “Law and Order – Criminal Intent,” depending on how you read the work of the “genius” male lead(s) of the “Major Case Squad”. The Mentalist and Lie to Me are both decent shows, with interesting lead characters, good, acting, some humour, good stories, and a plot arc that continues outside the individual episodes. They’re both quite watchable – my only complaint is that they’re both the same story. Some guy can, due to his training and experience (either in science or as a magician/con man) tell when people are lying, and cracks cases other people couldn’t because of this “skill” (or whatever). In both shows, the liars’ “tells” are explained (and thus the exposé isn’t magic, but skill) and this provides part of the interest as well (“maybe I could learn this” – never a factor in the supernatural stuff – was that a twitch? LIAR!).

It just seems odd to me that with the amount of money being so obviously poured into the entertainment industry as a whole, that a little innovation, imagination, or effort couldn’t produce something both unique and interesting. As it is, many of the industry’s offerings are neither.

Maybe I’m pushing too hard. As I’ve said, I do enjoy both Lie to me and The Mentalist, for all their similarities. Depending on how you break them down, there are only 14 or 36 or 20 plots in all of literature, so maybe asking for uniqueness isn’t practical. Still, since all cop shows are really one plot (Friedman’s “Action Plot”), maybe that type of breakdown might be too general to be useful in this type of discussion.

I don’t have an answer – I just know that if another show comes out this season, featuring a small town with “strange occurrences” or a formerly rich cop who can read minds, I’m not going to be rushing to the TV Guide to find out when it’s on.

Post-printing book editors

I just read two great novels by Brad Smith (a Canadian, even Ontarioan, author): All Hat (which was made into an enjoyable movie as well), and Busted Flush. Two interesting novels with good stories, interesting characters, and some humour. Quite enjoyable reads.

The only distraction from this, and the motivation for this posting, was the penciled-in comments from one of my fellow library patrons. I didn’t think to write them down, which is unfortunate, but anybody who’s in Halifax can check these books out and experience the erudition (or lack thereof) for themselves.

Now, just to set the stage, I do notice printing, spelling and grammatical errors in books I read. I have seen homonym errors (using “sail” instead of “sale” for example) in real live books, bought with real live money. I have wondered (sometimes aloud) who might have been the cause of these mistakes – whether it’s the author or editor, or if the printers just like to mess with text for fun. I have noticed and wondered about all these things, so I can empathize with my fellow library patron to a certain extent.

I didn’t, though, in any of these cases, write and circle and draw lines in a book that didn’t belong to me. I didn’t inflict my observations on a disinterested third. I didn’t start a dialogue which had no chance of going anywhere (since the writer is unlikely to check the books out again, unless they’re curious to see if anyone responded).

This patron, you see, circled things that they though were errors, often adding questions or comments in the margin. Maybe it’s just me, but I was unable not to read these, even after the general quality and tenor of them was established to be low (quality) and shrill (tenor). For example:

  • Smith used the word “pedestrian” in the sense of “normal, average” (my thought), or “commonplace“. Our patron wrote “Does he mean plebian?”. You will, no doubt, note that this should have been “plebeian”. Anyhow, what we have here is someone who knows some off-the-stack words, but not less common meanings for common ones.
  • Smith used the US spelling of “cesarean,” as in a “cesarean section”. Our patron wrote something along the lines of “What the hell kind of editor can’t spell Caesar?” A better question would be, “What the hell kind of reader doesn’t realize that US spellings have been taking over everything since the invention of spell-check?” The patron never made similar comments about “color,” for example, so maybe they don’t know the “proper” Canadian spelling.

You get the idea. These were not isolated incidents, but rather a comment every few pages, mostly ill-founded and all irritating. They did, of course, find a couple of legitimate spelling/typing/printing errors as well, in amongst the ill-educated ranting. Well done, I suppose. Ultimately, these comments and notations were far more distracting and disturbing than the actual errors in the text (which were few and inconsequential).

I have been planning to get back to using the library after spending a ridiculous amount of money, over the past few years, on a lot of books I will never read again. As it happens, Smith is someone I may well return to with enjoyment, so I will probably pick up my own copies. Still, if I have to wade through the ramblings if very many more disturbed minds, I may have to give up this approach to the wild world of literature. There’s something about knowing that you’re dealing with a new book, soiled only by yourself. There’s something, too, about knowing that you won’t have to shake off the slime from the shallow end of the gene pool as you wade through a new book.

Plot holes in Salt

As mentioned in Spys in Flats, I noticed a couple of gaping plot holes in this week’s new release, Salt. Well, to say I noticed them isn’t an attempt to flatter myself – you would have to be blind or in Hollywood to miss them. Or maybe they were noticed and nobody cared. I don’t know, but given that it looks like there may be a sequel, I thought a little illumination on the subject might be worthwhile.

Note that there are SPOILERS-A-PLENTY in the following.

At the beginning of the movie, and shown in all the previews I saw, Salt’s cover is blown. A Russian, who proves to have been her handler for the past 30 years or so, walks into the CIA (or whatever cookie-cutter-type agency) Salt works at, and gives up the information that there will be an attempt on the life of the Russian President while he’s in the States for a funeral. He then wraps up by saying that the assassin’s name is Evelyn Salt (and thus that Jolie is the spy).

She is, of course, immediately detained until they can look into this. During this time, the Russian agent kills his two escorts and walks to safety, leaving Salt (the Russian agent) to look out for herself.

Surely this must be the all-time most incomprehensible way of kicking off a mission! I mean, I’ve heard of leaving chalk marks on mailboxes, or having the window blinds half-way up. These days there’s email and phones and on and on and on. The only kickoff this guy could think of was to focus everybody’s attentions and suspicions on his long-hidden and very well-placed assassin?

It turns out that all this is a long-established plot to place well-trained Russian child agent sleepers in the US, so that they could grow up and attain positions of trust. Salt certainly did, and there are early indications that she’s not the only one. This isn’t a unique plot element, as I know I’ve read something similar before, but I can’t place it at the moment. Still, this general idea was handled well. So well, in fact, that the whole situation above seems even more moronic in comparison.

OK, so that’s one. Surely they would have had a way to notify Salt, to set her “active” and give her a mission, without blowing her cover at the same time (thus making it impossible – or movie-all-but-impossible – for her to succeed). Granted that thirty years ago it wouldn’t have been email, but there are plenty of options.

The second came at the end of the movie. Note that I’m not describing action-holes (one person going hand-to-hand with two or three other trained professionals and kicking their butts) here, but rather plot holes. Action holes are part of the genre, and we accept them even as we remember that these things are just begging to kill us if we tried them in real life. Just as punching somebody in the face is just as likely to break your fist as it is their jaw – still, there are few things as movie-satisfying as somebody crumpling under the hero’s (gender-free term) righteous blow.

OK, so the second plot hole (again, SPOILERS). As forecasted, there are other Russian sleepers in positions of trust. One of these gets Salt into the White House, and then sells his life in a bid to get the (US) President into a bunker under the White House. She also manages to get down there, and kicks and punches her way into the bunker itself. There she finds that (yet) another Russian sleeper has killed everyone but the President, after waiting for them to get the nuclear missile launch codes almost all the way verified. This new sleeper has a little conversation with the President (while Salt was running and kicking outside) in an attempt to get the President to OK the final launch, explaining the sleeper plot, giving his “real Russian name, and so on. The President bravely tells him to get lost, and receives a pistol-blow to the head for his troubles, knocking him unconscious – I think – after which his hand-print is used to verify the launch.

Two-minute delay before launching, during which time Salt breaks in, beats up the new sleeper, and cancels the launch at the last second. The (too late) security forces arrive at that moment, and shoot her in the back just as she disables the launch. It’s OK, she was shot in the vest (surprise, surprise) and is fine. Everybody knows getting shot in a bulletproof vest is like a walk in the park (never mind – action hole, not plot hole).

Here comes the plot hole: Salt, in cuffs, is marched out of the bunker, through the White House, toward a helicopter that will take her somewhere cold and dark (presumably). They walk her right past the new sleeper (the guy who killed all the bunker personnel and knocked out the President). She, in quite a cool scene, kills him. The reasoning she gives is that someone had to do it, and that nobody else would believe he was a sleeper.

What about the President?

Unless I missed it (always possible) there is no clear indication that the President is dead. You don’t see him again, but the sleeper does say “Somebody look after the President” or words to that effect when the security people finally break into the bunker and shoot Salt. The President is certainly never shot (though others are, and shooting him would have been a great “evil sleeper agent” moment). So, as far as I can tell, the President (who, you remember, heard what amounts to a full confession by the new sleeper agent) is alive and well, though possibly with a headache (another action plot hole to do with blows to the head and concussions, but never mind).

Salt, at the end of the movie, is on the run, having vowed to kill the other sleepers. OK, and more power to her, but there’s no reason for her to be on the run at all. Two minutes with the President, asking him to point a finger at the person who hit him and killed everybody else, would be enough to clear up the ultimate-bad-guy problem. Now, granted, Salt did cause a little mayhem and beat up some people. She even shot some folks, but they were just red-shirts (turns out she didn’t kill the Russian President after all, just paralyzed him). So, maybe a slap on the wrist …

Now, obviously this movie wasn’t written by John Le Carré or even Tom Clancy, and I’ve been told it was originally meant for Tom Cruise – troubling in itself – but surely whomever did write it could have done better than this? I watch a fair number of movies and a fair amount of TV, and I’ve come to expect plastic-thin characters, meaningless dialogue, and plots that are obviously an excuse for action as opposed to a motivation for it. Even so, surely this must be a new low?

Or am I thinking too much about an action movie? Should everything (including plot) be put under the action-movie banner and just brainlessly enjoyed for what it is? Clearly, the Karate Kid franchise couldn’t survive any other way …