Monday, December 17, 2012

Conversation

It was a strange weekend. As it happened, your blogger was on duty for an offset workweek, and master control operated "Saturday Night Live." I had the feeling I was taking a small part in something historic, as that episode went beyond the extra mile. It was also a welcome break from the hours of heartbreaking news coverage. It sounds trivial and whiny, but we in television hate this stuff. It wreaks havoc with our schedules, we have to move commercials, and live coverage means a trip to the men's room is out of the question. Like I said, it sounds trivial. But it's part of the job. We deal with it.

And what I had to deal with is nothing compared to the folks in Newtown have to do: hours spent in a live truck, gulping down another meal from a sack, and then feeling like human garbage when you finally get to go home. You sleep like a stone, but you wake up feeling like you never went to bed. And if the story lives on, you get to suit up and do it again. A lot of reporters and truck crew who were hoping to do their Christmas shopping this past weekend will be sending out gift cards this year.

There were some questionable decisions made during the early hours of the Newtown school shootings coverage. A Facebook wall dedicated to live truckers took an informal survey on whether young children should be interviewed, and the response was a unanimous and resounding NO. Techies aren't the only people questioning this practice. Now if we could only get that message across to the news directors and reporters.

One of the questions that arises from an incident like this is whether we really benefit from the round the clock live news coverage. Personally, there are times when I think we can break away from the coverage and take some time to gather facts while the viewers get a moment to relax. But news outlets have a responsibility to get the information out, and just because I've seen it all doesn't mean somebody just getting off work or waking up doesn't deserve breaking coverage. It's a tough decision, and the early hours of an event like this are grueling, especially for the local stations near the incident. The phones never stop ringing as parents call wanting to know what happened. (We don't know) Should they go get their child? (Probably not yet. We'll tell you when) Why won't you tell us anything? (Because we don't know anything. And speculating only adds to the confusion) It takes courage to look at the camera and say, "We don't know anything, and we're not going to speculate. We'll rejoin live coverage when we've got something confirmed." But I wish more news outlets would do just that.

Social media is playing a role in all this as well, and not all of it is good. Rumors and misinformation have clogged the pipeline, and there may be legal action taken if the rumormongers can be caught. Good luck with that. What's most infuriating about this is that no matter how off-base and misleading a rumor may be, an army of Walter Cronkites can't convince some people otherwise. If someone's friend of a friend posted it, then it must be real. The media is just hiding The Truth.

Without a doubt, somebody is already charging that the Liberal Media are beating the drums for gun control and the Right can't get their message out. To some extent, that's true. Yes, Hollywood, where some of our late night programs are produced, leans left. Charlton Heston, Bob Hope, and The Duke are gone. New York City, the epicenter of network TV and home to Letterman, Fallon, and of course SNL, is only about an hour away from Newtown. Most folks in NYC are in grieving mode right now... but this is New York, after all. Start flapping your gums about the Second Amendment right now and you very likely hear somebody tell you to shut the hell up. The result is that the silence from the Right is deafening; pro-gun politicians are staying out of the spotlight. But it's not for lack of trying on the media's part. Perhaps advocates for gun rights are exercising respectful restraint in our time of grieving. More likely, maybe they feel like they would be thrown to the wolves in a public forum right now. No matter how well spoken you are, trying to defend the right to own assault rifles with magazines that hold dozens of rounds is going to sound callous at this time. Whatever the reason, I'm sure AM radio is making hay out of it right now.

We're searching for answers. We're hurting, and we want someone or something to blame. That's a natural human reaction. I'm encouraged to see some discussion on how we treat mental illness in this country. Our current policy in America is for a doctor to say, "He has to want to help himself," - a gutless excuse to avoid liability and avoid admitting another patient into an overloaded and underfunded system. If a person wanted to help himself, he wouldn't need intervention. In the meantime, there are little things you and I can do to help... starting by taking the lethal weapons away. If we can say, "Dude, you're drunk. I'm taking the car keys," then we can also say, "Dude, you're in depression. I'm taking the AK-47. No, you don't need it for protection. That's what I'm here for." I'm not saying it's the perfect solution, but it's a start.

A number of people on social media have posted that the mass killings in Newtown are the fault of America being a "godless country." I'm having trouble following that reasoning, even if you accept America is godless, but it sounds like somebody at Westboro Baptist Church learned how to use the Internet. Research shows America is actually a very spiritual nation, with the overwhelming majority claiming to be Christian. So saying America is godless is an insult to all Christians, as well as those who practice any other faith. Personally, the inference seems to be that the Newtown shooting spree was the result of banning prayer in schools. If that's the case, someone really needs to do a little research, first on Prayer in Public Schools, and then on what happened at Columbine, before that person hits the "share" button.

Sorry, I rambled. Back to the media. Inevitably, the question arises, does violence on TV cause violent crime. That question has been brought up countless times ever since parents questioned the violent content of "The Untouchables" back in 1959. There may be a connection, but hard evidence is scant. We do know young children are influenced by what they see on TV, which is why parental guidance is often suggested. I do believe, and it's just my opinion, that a person living on a steady diet of violent TV and movies, internet content, and shoot-to-kill games, can develop a distorted view of the world. Just like watching nothing but one news source without taking in a variety sources and considering the different points of view, a person can develop a "video game" mentality. It's possible that a person could carry out an act of violence, then experience that gut twisting moment of realization that what they have done is real and irreversible, and then turn the gun on himself. It's just a theory, but it makes me wonder. But remember, fiction, regardless of the medium, tends to be a refection of the society in which it was created. Gansta Rap wouldn't exist without the real experiences of the artists. So does violence breed violence, or do we learn from it?

We don't have easy answers, but the conversation seems to be starting. And that's a sign of hope. Baby steps. But I think we'll get there.

Monday, December 3, 2012

You Say You Want a "Revolution?"

Over the weekend, I received word that my high school physics and homeroom teacher Jon Doughty passed away. I've had many teachers over the years, and many left an impression in some form or another. But it was Mr. Doughty who taught me how to take something that looks like this...

Visualize it as this...


And translate that into a scientifically based reason why our live shot dropped out when the wind picked up.


He was the guy who used Road Runner cartoons to demonstrate Newton's laws of gravity, or the violation there of. (It was Bugs Bunny who said, "I know this defies the law of gravity, but you see, I never studied law.") But he was also one of that rare breed of teachers who understood Real World application; he knew that every working electrical engineer walked around with Ohm's Law written on a scrap of paper in his wallet, or taped to the back of his calculator. He let us use these things...


knowing that we would in the Real World - and I do - but it would be no substitute for understanding what we were calculating.

And so, it was Mr. Doughty who inspired one of my favorite fictional creations. In honor of Mr. Doughty, it's time now for a visit from the man who spoiled "Star Wars," (in order to produce enough power to destroy a planet in one shot, the Death Star would in all likelihood destroy itself in the process. And besides, the "trigger" is clearly a Grass Valley video production switcher.) and asked us to ponder the inexplicable and trivial (Does Superman worry about tooth decay?) here now to ruin "Revolution" is

MR. PHYSICS.



Riddle me this: a man walks up to you with a bottle in his hand. "In this bottle," he says, "is a miracle of science. Inside is a liquid that turns anything it touches invisible." How do you know he's lying?

To wit: If I tell you I have a device that will cause all the electricity in on the planet to disappear, and continue that state until I turn it off... how do you know I'm full of beeswax?

It's a paradox. In order to stop power, I need power... probably a lot more of it than I'm stopping. And then I have to figure out a way to keep the device from affecting itself. In order to stop electricity, you're building  a device that stops the flow of electrons. So, what stops it from destroying the flow of its own electrons, thus shutting itself down, or possibly even altering the nature of matter at a sub-atomic level within a near field of the device? In other words, I wouldn't want to be standing right next that thing.

"Don't take another step, Doctor Quest, or I'll throw this switch and everybody in this room will be dest- Ah, hell. I didn't really think this part through."

And then there are these pendants that, over a limited range, overcomes the electricity eating device. So now we have a device overpowering a device that is overpowering, oh let's call it The Laws of Nature. Wow. Somebody's pushing a lot of juice through a piece of jewelery. If it's anything like the CPU in my computer, I'll bet that thing gets pretty hot in a big hurry... too hot to hold in your hand for more than a second.

It is true that electrical disruption is possible over several hundred miles by detonating a nuclear bomb a hundred miles or so above the earth. This is called The Pulse, and it is the byproduct of sending a whole lotta superheated atoms with all their electrons scattering into the atmosphere at a very high speed. This is called electromagnetic interference. (EMI) But the effects are temporary, just long enough to shut off radio and television signals, screw up the Emergency Alert System, and cause general mayhem if not panic among the population... as the enemy attacks their true objectives.

Creating The Pulse requires an outpouring of power that truly represents the pinnacle - or nadir, depending on your point of view - of human technology, but at a terrific cost, and even then the effects are temporary. Imagine keeping that going for 15 years.Why would you bother? After about six months without electricity, a large part of a our population would be ready to kill to survive. Just ask anyone living in Rockaway.

It's fascinating to see a vision of how our society would devolve over time without electricity. It's true that we rely on it for a lot we take for granted. But I can't help but think that somewhere, maybe on college campuses densely populated by industrious students and professors, somebody would figure out all they have to do is build Faraday cages. Ohio State and other universities could build Faraday caged diesel engines and create a much more efficient revolution. Then again, it's my understanding that a number of military vehicles already are rolling Faraday cages with high-voltage ignition systems designed to - at least in theory - overcome a pulse. But that would make for a very, very short TV show.

So, we're asked to believe that the planet Earth has been robbed of all electricity, including it would appear lightning in a thunderstorm, for 15 years in order for "Revolution" to work; somebody pushed a button, and all the electricity all over the world just stopped, except when one of these pendants is activated. Uh-huh.

Go ahead. Try to stop this.

Fortunately for NBC, the creators of this show are keeping the exact science behind all this a mystery - the MacGuffin, if you prefer. That's a smart move, because other than providing a central mystery to arc over then entire life span of the series, it also conveniently gets the messy physics of such a scenario out of the way. Perhaps, in the end, it won't really matter how they did it. If the writers, actors, and everyone else pull this thing off right, we the viewers won't care. Like the final episode of "M*A*S*H," we don't really care about how the Korean war came to an end. All we care about is Hawkeye and friends.

Mr. Physics likes the bow and arrow stuff. It reminds me of Robin Hood and his merry band outwitting the Sheriff of Nottingham. And I like when a good guy does get hold of a gun, it often jams or malfunctions in some way, which is accurate. It's been 15 years since anybody made any gun oil.

But Mr. Physics has noticed that The Blackout hasn't stopped the manufacturing of toothpaste.