Friday, November 27, 2009

Are we in the black yet?

My first Black Friday back in California! I decided to begin the day bright and early at 10:00 (that's when the stores opened, right?) at my local Toys "R" Us. Man was it packed! Packed but friendly. You'd never know they'd been open all night.

Next I headed over to the outlet mall. I figured it wouldn't be too bad, as they weren't the ones running doorbusters ads for the last two weeks. I was wrong. Couldn't even park it was so full. I guess the people headed to the outlets were there for the long haul.

So I turned by attention back toward Montclair Plaza (yes Claremont and Montclair are within spitting distance of each other, don't ask me who was in charge of names.) Anyway, J.C. Penny was full, but not packed--I didn't even have to wait in line (like I usually do at Penny's.) It is rare to actually see a person for every register they have.

I swung by Best Buy to see what the hot items were this year. People seemed pretty spread out through the store, but the line for the Geek Squad stretched across two aisles. I'd have asked someone in line why, but they seemed a grim lot. I had a good time checking out some new hardware, though!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

This was a year of tremendous change for me. At the beginning of the year, I had no clue where I would be living or whether I could find a place that matched my outlook and particular talents.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful that life turned out great! I'm now most of the way through my first semester at Claremont McKenna College, and life is good. The class sizes are small, the students are bright and enthusiastic, and the teaching load is light enough that I still have plenty of time to pursue research.

CMC is part of the Claremont University Consortium, a collection of five undergraduate and two graduate institutions that yield a unique environment. Across the colleges there are about 50 mathematicians, which makes it large enough to support several colloquium series that I attend regularly. However, my own department at CMC has only ten tenure track faculty, which makes for a nice department able to move quickly when it needs to. Thanks partially to the free lunch that CMC faculty get once a week, I have had the chance to have lunch with almost everyone, and get to know people through the time honored way of lunch time chats.

Finally, I'm thankful for the invitation from Asuman Aksoy to join her family's Thanksgiving celebration today. Happy turkey day, everyone!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

V and the Lost Effect

Science fiction and Fantasy are hard. TV SF is even harder. In the 1990's, every science fiction and fantasy show that I can think of put forth by ABC, NBC, and CBS failed miserably. Earth 2, anyone? But on the off network side of things? Babylon 5, Farscape, The Outer Limits, Star Trek: The Next Generation. The WB then kicked in with Buffy and Angel. In the 2000's, this state of affairs looked to continue, with another failed remake of The Twilight Zone from the networks, while off the majors we had Farscape, Stargate: SG-1, and Battlestar Galactica. On the Fantasy side, Legend of the Seeker is a great successor to Hercules and Xena. And the (now CW) continues to produce a wonderful product in Supernatural.

So why can't the big three get SF right? My guess is the need for epic ratings. A show like Supernatural can pull in 2 or 3 million, and make it up in DVD sales later. This is peanuts compared to the 11 million viewers Grey's Anatomy pulls in.

Things did change this century, at least for ABC. The first successful SF series of the 2000's was Alias. Now, spy fiction is probably the most accessible form of SF, and the change in the world climate followed 9/11 probably didn't hurt. So it was no surprise that ABC turned to J.J. Abrams' production company again to create "Lost" in 2004.

And where Formula with a capital F sets in. ABC decided this season to launch not just one but two science fiction shows this season, FlashForward and V, and decided to push the Lost formula to the hilt. Both shows follow Lost in that they:
1) Begin with large explosions. FlashForward's are everywhere on the planet, V just over every major city. Apparently the Visitors still haven't developed the elusive giant-spaceship-muffler.
2) Keep the characters guessing as to what's going on. FlashForward has to result to gimmicks to keep the future hidden: one key character doesn't turn around, another is drunk during the info session. V has a bigger problem: it's a remake, so adding to the mystery is an extra challenge.
3) Stir in a touch of whimsy. Lost had its polar bear first season. FlashForward has a kangaroo occasionally run through. V has stayed away from the animals so far: will birds react to the Visitors the same way they did in the miniseries?

So far, FlashForward has been a disappointment, but I'm cautiously optimistic about V. The Visitors were upfront this time around about needing water, and the viewers learned of their reptillian nature in the pilot. So the question is: what do the V's want?

The writing seems to be much more careful in V than FlashForward. If they achieve the level of Lost, that would be great, because after all, it is the slowly woven mystery and makes Lost so entertaining. The V's have said several times now that humans are the first intelligence that they have encountered. What if that is a lie? What if the Visitors are themselves fleeing from a bigger alien threat? Or have they destroyed other civilizations (in which case there might be the odd survivor?)

The traitors to the V have only said cryptic things like "the plans for the humans." I find this fascinating, because it was phrased in such a way that the Visitors could really be working to help humanity (or at least see themselves as helping humanity.) There are a hundred different questions of morality that arise in these types of "needs of the many versus needs of the few" situations, and watching these play out could lead to some great stuff.

Here's hoping they can put out the ratings to survive, unlike the two SF shows from last year on Fox, Terminator and Dollhouse, both of which have now been canceled. At least Fox is planning to show all the episodes of Dollhouse they have, unlike what they did for Firefly.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


This year for Halloween the Cartoon Network showed the 1990 version of "The Witches", based on the Roald Dahl novel. Like Willie Wonka and Dahl's other children's tales, there's a fair amount of fairy tale style horror in this one, brought beautifully to life by Jim Henson Company Studios.

Those who have seen The Dark Crystal and Farscape already have seen the creepy side of Henson's muppets, and that type of work is on full display here, as well as the more subtle mouse puppetry after the Witches test out their evil plan to turn all of England's children into mice.

In 1990 I was just graduating high school, meaning that I missed out on this delightful little film. Angelica Huston is perfectly cast, essentially playing the same role that she would later turn to comedic purposes the next year in The Addams Family. There's no gore (it is after all a movie aimed at kids), but for me transformations (a Dahl specialty) have always been extremely scary.

The transformation of human to beast is a thread that runs through multiple fairy tales, and it is easy to see why. It allows the tale-teller to emphasize the character (or lack thereof) of the transformed. Children are typically powerless in an adult controlled world. But if children are powerless, mice are even more so, being practically the smallest mammal around plus the object of revulsion. Yet it is in this form that the hero of the film has the greatest effect on events. Sometimes the ability to move through the world unnoticed can be an advantage. Actions speak louder than squeaks sometimes.

The Witches: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars