June 20th, 2005

smirking-winslet

The Good, The Bad and Something I REALLY Hate

We didn't get a chance last weekend to check out the start of six-week twelve-hour TNT/Steven Spielberg mini-series Into the West. But we found that they were running the first two-hour installment at 6pm EDT Sunday, before the second at 8pm EDT. So we invested most of four hours catching up on the show.

Actually, I passed on the first forty-five minutes, deciding to take a nap as I worked until 4:30am on Saturday night (grin). And my wife was working on things. Still, we've seen enough to get some of the flow. Other than one of the bits of theme music in the background which sounded disturbingly like one of the fellowship themes from The Lord of the Rings, so it was unclear whether the expedition was made of men or hobbits, pursued by Indians or orcs.

It Makes You Think, Though

I often talk to my physics classes of the technologies and time scales of different eras. At some point, I try to make the point about two of the great and improbable journeys which shaped America. One is the sea voyage from Europe across the Atlantic. So many ships did not make it, so many died along the way. Two is the crossing of The West. Though there were horses and wagons and all, a lot of those who traveled did so by foot -- the wagon loads were too critical to waste by carrying people.

The realities of the trails, the mountains, the weather, the hardships. To someone who is so insulated in his daily life, sitting at a computer for hours at a time, or driving 150 miles a day just to get to and from a job, walking to and from a close by parking lot -- it is nearly impossible. Walk across half a continent? You're crazy.

Then extend it further. The land bridge from Asia to the Americas. The spread of Man out of Africa. The expansion -- and contraction -- of Rome and the other great empires. And we're inconvenienced when a flight is delayed by ninety minutes, whether due to weather or maintenance.

Random Thought

We are up to around the 1840s, I think. Would they call it a "compound fracture" back then?

Just Like Real Life?

One of the issues which has come up in some discussion of fiction writing, is the fine line between believable characters and believable situations versus what might happen in real life. I've no doubt there were some individuals who experienced many of the great events in the 19th century, but there is always some compression in fiction, movies and television -- the players in this story are likely more composites than examples of single individuals.

Even though this mini-series boasts a cast of hundreds and some 15,000 extras, we aren't exactly going to follow a different person in each of these twelve hours. So the handful of key players we are following all through the story are going to have to do more than just be on the periphery of all these great events. Who wants to see Joe Tourist traveling through The West and saying, "Gee, this is where they once panned for gold", "This is where there once was a massacre" or "Somewhere near here is where medicine men once had visions"? (grin)

This being said, four hours into Into the West, they've done an okay job.

Google Says

My wife isn't a big fan of westerns or overblown soap operas. So she wanted to know more about this show before we started committing time to see it. Of course, the newspaper's TV section which had the articles about the start of the mini-series would've been

But I was online, so I Googled "Into the West". First hit was TNT's website. But you had to have some browser plugin installed for Macromedia Flash or something, and given that I was on a 28.8 kbps phone line, I didn't want to horse around with a complicated site. Second hit was promising -- it told of the score being written by Howard Shore and Fran Walsh. Oops, that's the Annie Lenox closing number for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The Internet Movie Data Base gave us a lengthy cast list -- who isn't in this production? Finally we got down to a decent review from a Florida newspaper, which had enough to describe the size and scope of the project.

The Early Days

We tend to think of the West as it was later in the 19th century -- 1880s and 90s. But of course people from the young United States were wandering all over where they weren't supposed to be far earlier than that. The first date I paid attention to, since I came in 45 minutes into part one, was in the 1830s. This predates the railroads, telegraph, Pony Express -- and statehood for Texas and California. Reminds me of a very early photograph that I saw in The Chronicle of Higher Education a few years ago, showing a Manhattan street around 1840. This glimpse of a New York intersection from a second or third story window had nothing in common with either the city it would become or the early colonial trading center.

Your mind's eye often uses pictures and references from the wrong eras to fill in the gaps until you get insight into a new worldview for a place and time. It is a good thing to continuously challenge and refine how you see the world and where it comes from.

Will You Just STOP IT!

It's bad enough that they cannot decide how often to interrupt for commercials -- a long opening means they seem to come every two minutes later on -- but they insist on "telling" us what's come up next. Some TV series do this, too.

What exactly is the point of putting up a spoiler? While you are in the middle of watching their show?

Grow Some Spine, Dammit!

I am convinced that the middle-management types who push the paper and run things are so unsure of themselves that they somehow think they cannot keep their audience. Let me explain something -- the people who suffer from incurable short attention spans, neither watch twelve-hour mini-series nor read insufferably long blog rants (grin).

All your little spoiling bons mots are of no use to me. Because they look like the show, I may look over and watch. Would it kill you to just come up with a nice five-second lead-in/lead-out bit. Something to let us know when the show starts and stops?

No. Of course not. You're afraid that we're taping the show and skipping the commercials, so you want something that looks like the show to fool people into hitting PLAY.

So you will continue to offend us, keep us from enjoying watching the story unfold, treat us like unthinking creatures -- zombies of the television audience.

Sigh.

Dr. Phil
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smirking-winslet

Public Broadcasting Is Part Of Our National Education

Finding Your Representative

Sent today online to:

The Honorable Peter Hoekstra
2nd Congressional District, Michigan

Dear Sir:

I am writing on the behalf of restoring the funds to the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB), regarding the vote of 9 June 2005 by the House, Labor, HHS Appropriations Subcommittee. Public Radio and PBS-TV stand in a unique position in our country. They are not some mouthpiece of the government, as exists in many places in the world, and yet they are also supported by private contributions from viewers, listeners and private corporations.

I view this a matter of public education in the broadest sense. I am an Assistant Professor of Physics at Western Michigan University, and I cannot tell you how many times I have begun a lecture by saying, "I heard this neat thing on NPR this morning" or "Did you watch NOVA on PBS this week?" Other media simply do not cover the range of political, cultural or scientific events and issues either at all or to the number of minutes and hours which public broadcasting does. Even some of the humorous offerings, such as the Saturday NPR line-up of "Car Talk", Michael Feldman and "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" provide me with interesting material for physics class discussions. And by extension, some of my students begin to come back and say, "Dr. Phil, did you hear about...?"

In addition, public radio and television has a history of being affiliated with colleges and universities throughout the United States, even into very rural areas. I did my graduate work in Physics and Applied Physics at Michigan Tech, and lived in the U.P. for 7-1/2 years -- and we were connected to both the state, the nation and the world through public broadcasting.

Congress is requiring on-air broadcast television stations to switch to digital means in the next few years, so that the old VHF and UHF bands can be redistributed to other uses. Locally, WGVU-TV has had to raise extra funds to pay for this conversion, but many of the smaller, rural outlets aren't nearly so lucky. It is my understanding that some of the CPB funds that might be cut include the digital conversion monies.

Finally, I should also like to comment that whenever I hear someone complaining that they think that NPR commentators are biased one way or the other, I hear about the same amount of complaining the other way. This tells me that they must be doing something right.

In the strictly commercial realm, the closest bright star would have to be C-SPAN. Yet C-SPAN is really much more of a window into the government and place to hear people's comments, but it does not provide the breadth and depth which CPB helps support throughout public broadcasting.

Please consider voting to restore these funds to CPB.

Thank you for your assistance,

Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon


One man's opinion, yes. Feel free to express your own opinion to your own congressman.

Dr. Phil
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