Lost finale: Great but…

As an initial reaction, I found the the final episode of Lost to be fantastic. In every sense of the word. The tearful reunions, the death of FLocke, the passage of the torch to Hurley. It was a satisfying conclusion that was well worth the wait. The final scene, with Jack’s eye closing and the plane flying away, was truly poetic.

However, the more I reflected on the episode, the more my enthusiasm began to wane. The part of the finale that focused on island events held up well enough (as long as I could get past the somewhat silly notion that turning off and on a magical light at the bottom of a cave was the key to humanity’s survival). It was exciting and rewarding to watch.

My real problem was with the flash-sideways universe. Superficially, it too was wonderful to watch. The reunions of all those characters, many of whom had died seasons ago, was touching and heartwarming — providing me with a sort of personal redemption for all the time and energy I had devoted to the show over the years. However, I eventually realized that I was being seduced by these mini-happy endings. As enjoyable, well-written and well-acted as they were, they were covering up serious flaws.

The entire flash-sideways universe turns out to be a microcosm of the main problem with Lost itself. It is not so much that there are so many mysteries that remain unanswered. It’s that what answers we have and what mysteries remain just don’t hold together well. There are internal contradictions, things that don’t make sense, and a lack of a basic framework to hold it all together.

Here are just a few of the questions that I find myself asking about what happened in the finale:

Why did this flash-sideways sort-of-purgatory exist at all? Is it a necessary passage for everyone who dies or just the people related to the island?

Why was the flash-sideways universe constructed to represent a better version of a world that sort-of might-have existed if Oceanic 815 had never crashed? Of all the possible sort of purgatories that one could imagine, why this one?

With almost all the characters in the flash-sideways universe having a much better time than they ever did in real life, why should they be in such a hurry to leave once they discover what is going on? [Okay, I know going to some sort of "heaven" must feel even better…but still.]

For that matter, the characters’ awakening seemed to depend on Desmond putting the wheels in motion. Desmond only did this after being awakened himself, apparently due to the “test” that Widmore gave him on the island. What if Widmore never gave that test? Would they all remain in the flash-sideways world forever? Or would they gradually awaken anyway?

[Speaking of Desmond's test, why was it even necessary? If Desmond had failed the test, it's not like there was a Plan B. Why wouldn't Widmore trust Jacob's advice and assume Desmond had the necessary power to survive the light?]

Further, why was it important that these flash-sideways characters be unaware of the true nature of their existence — until after Desmond begins his final quest? And why was the simple realization that they were dead all they needed to know to move on?

If Jack didn’t really have a son (as he was told in the episode), then what exactly was his imaginary son? All the other main characters were “real” now-dead people. What happens to the son and all the remaining people (including Ben) after our heroes leave? Does the flash-sideways world continue without them? Is Jack’s son suddenly an orphan? Does anyone remaining in purgatory wonder what happened to these people? Or is the purgatory world just rewritten as if they never existed?

[Speaking of Ben, I found his role in the finale to be disappointing. After having a grand performance the week before, where he kills Widmore and seems to become FLocke's ally again, all of that is dropped in the finale as he largely fades into the background until he meekly emerges as Hurley's #2.]

It also seemed a bit odd that the final gathering at the church was so focused on Jack. Everyone was waiting for Jack’s arrival — from people who died before Jack to people who died long after Jack. Why was Jack’s arrival the key event needed for everyone else? Why not Kate? Or Hurley? Or Sawyer? Was this Jack’s personal purgatory? Did the other characters have their own?

And what was Penny doing in the church? She was not one of the island people so important to Jack. In fact, Jack hardly knew her at all. Based on what Jack’s father explained, she didn’t seem to fit.

Worst of all, after all the build-up and promises, the sideways universe turns out to have nothing to do with the main story line. I had assumed that somehow the sideways universe was a consequence of the Jughead H-bomb blast at the end of season 5. But no. All that blast seemed to accomplish was to move the key characters from the 1970′s back to the present. The only real purpose of the whole flash-sideways universe appears to have been to offer a way for the producers to give us a quasi-happy ending.

Many of the answers to my questions are admittedly not critical to know. But, to me, if you’re going to build a fantasy world and ask us to invest in it for an entire season, you can at least put it in a context that is more than a set of arbitrary “rules” with no way to predict or understand why any rule is the way it is.

If pressed, I could come up with answers to some of the questions. But they would be ones that I made up, not necessarily the “true” ones. I know some will say that the answers don’t really matter — that there may in fact be no true answers. It’s all meant to remain a mystery and be open to different interpretations — that was the deliberate intent. It’s only the redemption of the characters that matters. I am willing to go with this idea up to a point — but the episode pushed too far beyond that point for me.

Finally, I confess to have trouble with the whole spiritual direction that Lost took this season. Had I known, back in seasons 1 and 2, that this was to be the ultimate answer to Lost’s mysteries, I might not have kept going. It did not seem to be where Lost was promising to go back then. I had expected a more science-fiction direction — and I am disappointed that this was not the case. But that’s just me.

Still, in then end, I’m glad I did stay around. Despite its flaws, Lost remains one of the most ambitious, intriguing, and thought-provoking series ever on television. I truly enjoyed the ride. We won’t see its likes again anytime soon — if ever. Aloha Lost — I’ll miss you.

Posted in Entertainment, Television | 2 Comments

What is “Fair” News Coverage?

In the current hyper-partisan atmosphere in politics, television reporting seems to fall into one of two categories. You have networks that actively promote partisanship (such as the “fair and balanced” Fox News Channel). And you have networks that are so afraid to take a position on anything that they say essentially nothing of value. This left me wondering: When it comes to media reporting, notably on television, what is a fair definition of “fair”?

It’s not an easy question to answer. Easier to do is to cite what is not fair. Hopefully, by avoiding these three pitfalls, the networks will find their way to “fair.”

• Having opposing analysts does not mean you’re being fair. Especially on cable news networks, a news story is often followed by two talking heads, an analyst from the left and another from the right, offering their opposing views of the story in question.

If the two analysts are calm, rational, intelligent people — and are encouraged to present their positions in a calm, rational and intelligent manner — this approach has the potential to offer worthwhile insights. Unfortunately, this is almost never the case. Rather, what you typically get are two partisans doing their best to spin and distort the story to the best advantage of their own political party (Republican vs. Democrat). Rarely does the network commentator challenge the analysts as to the veracity of their statements.

Instead of seeking thoughtful commentary, the networks seem to encourage disparaging remarks, combative attacks, and heated debate. It all translates into higher ratings. And ratings are the name of the game.

And all of this assumes a best case scenario. It assumes that the network in question does not start off with an agenda to declare one side or the other as the winner, regardless of the facts. As we are all too well aware, this is not the case with stations such as Fox and MSNBC.

• Citing pros and cons of each position (or falsehoods stated by each candidate) does not lead to fairness. When discussing an issue where Republicans and Democrats have opposing views, a network may cite a list of pros and cons for each side, being careful to offer an equal number of points for each position. What is missing from such lists is any attempt to evaluate the relative importance of each claim or its degree of distortion. Which side, if any, ultimately has the stronger case? The networks do not say. In fact, some networks argue that to imply one side has a stronger case than the other is exactly what they should not do — doing so would indicate a lack of impartiality. While there is a grain of truth to this plea (more about this is a moment), the networks hardly wind up being impartial.

By always presenting an equal number of pro and con arguments for each side, the implication is that there are always an equal number of such arguments to be made. And that the arguments all have equal weight. We all know this is not always the case. If cable news networks were around during the Civil War, would they have covered the debate in such a way as to suggest that the pros vs. cons of slavery were equal? Probably. But is that really what we mean by being fair? I hope not.

The worst examples of this false fairness are with political campaign coverage. During an election campaign, news networks may evaluate campaign speeches, citing where each candidate either made an accurate statement or a false one. Again, such reports almost always cite an equal number of true vs. false claims by each candidate. Too often, this means you wind up hearing something like this:

“Candidate A said that the government spent 2.25 billions dollars on this program last year. Actually, the government spent 2.26 billion dollars. As for Candidate B, he claims that the program reduces taxes primarily for low income wage-earners. However, several studies show that the program primarily reduces taxes for people earning over $200,000 a year. So each candidate has occasionally been less than truthful on their campaign trails.”

The implication is that a relatively minor error in dollars spent is somehow equally egregious to stating the complete opposite of the truth. The networks choose to gloss over the obvious qualitative differences in order to wind up with a balanced checklist. Often, this is because they are motivated by fear of being cast as having a “liberal” or “conservative” bias. However, this winds up encouraging viewers to conclude that both candidates are equally guilty of misstatements, leading to a cynical “a pox on both their houses.”

A dispassionate analysis of the facts could lead to a reasonable conclusion that one side is more in error than the other. If so, a news report should reflect this. Stating such conclusions does not mean the report is partisan or editorializing; it means the report accurate.

[A sign of progress: I recently heard (on NPR's On the Media) that ABC's This Week has teamed with PolitiFact to monitor the truthfulness/accuracy of the show's guests. This should be interesting.]

• Listener surveys don’t qualify as fair. In these days where all the buzz is about social media, the current trend is to ask for listener feedback. “Tell us what you think,” the newscaster implores. Do so via Twitter, FaceBook or email. At some point, the programs typically reports the results (e.g., “53% of our respondents support Arizona’s new immigration law” or whatever).

While there is some value in knowing what your neighbors are thinking (even when “neighbors” are defined as the entire rest of the country), it is too easy to overstate the importance of this information, especially as gathered in this way.

First, these are not scientific samples. The respondents only include people who were listening to the station at the time and were sufficiently motivated to offer a reply. Does this actually represent what the “American people” as a whole are thinking? Almost certainly not. But this is rarely made clear.

Second, there is no guarantee that responders are the least bit informed about the issue. Quite the opposite, people often have strong opinions on matters of which they have no factual knowledge. From a political perspective, it may be interesting to know that X% of Americans do not believe that Obama was born in the United States. It could have a bearing on how people plan to vote. However, whatever X% turns out to be, it has no bearing on the truth or falseness of claims as to where Obama was born. Obama does not become more or less likely to have been born in the United States as result of the ups and downs of such phony polls. Obama’s birth and citizenship is a matter of established fact, regardless of what a survey may reveal about the misconceptions of some Americans. Too often, this distinction is lost when discussing such results.

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Ebert Says No to 3-D; Should You?

In this week’s issue of Newsweek, Roger Ebert explains why you should “hate” 3-D movies. To be clear, he is not “opposed to 3-D as an option…but as a way of life.” That is, he is against the current marketing push to have all major studio movies made in 3-D — whether they would benefit from it or not. Or (even worse) to have studios only make the sort of “kiddie” movies that best showcase the benefits of 3D.

I was particularly intrigued by his description of MaxiVision48, a 2-D technology that doubles the frame rate to 48fps and offers image quality that is “400 percent better” than current films! I had never heard of this before. I would certainly like to see this technology used, rather than 3-D, in many of the movies I watch.

I have read numerous comments on Twitter critical of Ebert’s article, accusing him of being a movie Luddite. Before I read the article, I predicted I would agree with the critics. In the end, I did not. Ebert made a convincing case. If you haven’t already done so, I recommend you read the article and decide for yourself.

Still, while I agree with Ebert in regard to the current state of 3-D movies, we part ways when it comes to the long term potential. Ebert apparently sees no hope that 3-D will ever be of value. To me, 3-D is like any other cinematic innovation, from the talkies to color films. Initially, it’s viewed as an unworthy gimmick. Even today, you can find people who claim that color is a distraction and that the best way to make movies is in black-and-white.

Often, in the early stages, a new technology is primarily a sales gimmick. There are certainly numerous examples of “bad” and “fake” 3-D movies muddying the waters today. But eventually, the technology improves, movie makers learn how to better take advantage of the medium, and the effect becomes more subtle. One day, you discover that all movies, even small independent dramas, are made this way and it’s just fine. 3-D is only in the initial leg of this journey. It has a ways to go, but it will get there.

3-D does have one unique obstacle in its path to acceptance: the need for 3-D glasses. I have heard that, within several years, there will be a way to project in 3-D that does not require glasses. If and when that happens, the war will be over. Within several years after that, all or almost all movies will be made in 3-D. If the glasses are not eliminated, there’s a chance that 3-D will fade back into the background when the novelty wears off. If Las Vegas was taking bets on this, however, I’d bet on 3-D’s ultimate success.

Posted in Entertainment, Movies | 1 Comment

Apple’s Handcuffed Devices

Years ago, Verizon was my mobile phone carrier. I eventually switched to Cingular/AT&T. My decision had nothing to do with the iPhone and its exclusive relationship with AT&T. I made the switch long before the iPhone came out. And it certainly wasn’t because I thought that my phone’s reception would be better with AT&T.

No, the reason was that I had become fed up with Verizon’s deliberate crippling of its phones. The final straw was when Bluetooth became available for phones. I read numerous articles about how, via Bluetooth, you could upload your own ringtones and wallpaper to your phone, bypassing the cost and limitations of the carrier’s options. When my phone contract came up for renewal, I went to my local Verizon dealer, eager to get one of these new Bluetooth phones. I was quickly disappointed to learn that the file transfer feature had been disabled in all of Verizon’s Bluetooth phones.

Although they did not publicly state a reason, the rationale behind Verizon’s actions was clear: they didn’t want to risk losing revenue from their very profitable ringtone business. So Verizon disabled the Bluetooth file transfer feature.

This sort of thing irks me. It would be like finding that your new television contains all the hardware needed to display an HD picture, but that (for some perceived financial gain) the manufacturer added a doohickey that prevented the HD display. Annoying. Frustrating.

Happily, I had an alternative. The very next week, I switched to AT&T. It was an especially easy decision — because AT&T offered the exact same Motorola phone I had intended to get at Verizon, except AT&T left the Bluetooth feature enabled.

I have never looked back.

I don’t know how many other people switched from Verizon for similar reasons, but I hope it was enough to cause Verizon to rethink its strategy. In the end, it must have had some effect, because Verizon appears to have given up on this handcuffing of its phones.

The Apple TV

I was reminded of this Verizon incident the other day, while updating my wireless network hardware. I was replacing an old b/g AirPort Express with a new 802.11n Express. The Express is in the same location as my Apple TV. My only need for the Express is to provide a wireless connection to my similarly-situated TiVo (yes, there is a degree of overkill here!).

At one point, noticing the Ethernet port on my Apple TV, I wondered: “Wouldn’t it be great if I could plug the TiVo into the Apple TV and have it connect back to my Internet router?” That way I wouldn’t need the Express at all. I searched the Web to see if this was even remotely possible. It wasn’t. Admittedly, this doesn’t quite qualify as a deliberate crippling of a feature. It’s more like a failure to enable one that could have easily been included. But it’s close.

You don’t have to go much farther, however, to find a perfect example of deliberate crippling: the Apple TV’s USB port. Ever since the Apple TV was released, users have been speculating about the function of this port. Apple claims it is only for “service use” and has no end user function at all. Too bad. Because it would be great, for example, to connect an external drive to the Apple TV — so as to expand the device’s disk storage space (as you can do with a TiVo). It turns out that the USB port can (sort of) be used for this function (and more!), but only if you are willing to do a software hack (as I covered in this article and as is similarly covered here). In other words, Apple deliberately crippled the USB port so that it is unable to perform otherwise useful functions that the hardware fully supports.

My reaction to the Apple TV USB port is no different than to the Verizon phone. It irks me. I understand that Apple (or any company making similar decisions) makes these decisions for one primary reason: to make more money. For example, if I could have connected my TiVo to my Apple TV, Apple might have lost the sale of an AirPort Express. Similarly, if Apple opened up the Apple TV’s USB port, they risk losing sales of Mac minis. And so it goes. There is also the matter of modifying the software to support the unblocked hardware function; this takes time and (again) money.

To be clear: I fully concede that Apple is within its legal rights to make these decisions. There isn’t even anything unethical about these decisions. I simply don’t approve of them. I also happen to believe that these sorts of decisions are usually short-sighted. Any potential sales gains are offset by the ill will that is generated among its customers and ultimately by decreased sales of the crippled device itself. That’s why, after some period of time, these restrictions are usually abandoned — and announced as exciting “new features.”

The Apple TV has, so far, been at best a modest success. It’s hard to argue that they could not sell more Apple TVs by making the device more capable — and ultimately gain greater profits. Even if I am wrong, it’s still an easy call for end users. What is best for Apple’s bottom line is not always what is best for its customers. There is no doubt that end users would be better served by having these more capable devices.

Apple has one advantage over Verizon: I can’t switch to a different vendor and get the “uncrippled” version of the exact same product. So I tend to stick with Apple and grumble about what I don’t like. This does not provide much motivation for Apple to change its ways.

The iPhone and iPad

The situation becomes more complicated when we turn to the iPhone and iPad. Once again, I want to focus on Bluetooth and USB.

As I have written on numerous occasions (such as in this article), Apple has blocked much of the Bluetooth capability of the iPhone. The iPhone may be the only Bluetooth-capable mobile phone that does not work with Apple’s own Mac OS X Bluetooth System Preferences for file sharing. Until very recently, the only thing you could do with Bluetooth on an iPhone was connect to a headset.

Many third-party game developers would welcome the opportunity to offer Bluetooth game controllers for the iPhone and iPad. No dice. Why? Because Apple won’t allow it.

And remember Internet Tethering? It’s been almost a year since this feature has been available — and still AT&T refuses to enable it for either Bluetooth or USB. As to when it may arrive, AT&T is still repeating the same non-answer that they have been giving from the beginning.

However, there are recent indications that things may be shifting for the better — if only in millimeters.

Regarding Bluetooth, you can connect a Bluetooth keyboard to an iPad, with the expectation that this capability will be extended to the iPhone in iPhone OS 4.0.

As for USB, I was surprised to discover the hidden capabilities of the iPad Camera Connection Kit. As its name implies, the only official purpose of the kit is to allow you to import pictures from your digital camera to your iPad. The surprise is that it can do more.

The kit includes two components: (1) a Camera Connector, which essentially adds a USB port to the iPad and (2) an SD card reader. Despite its name, the “Camera Connector” works with more devices than just cameras. It is more of a general purpose USB port. As detailed in this TidBITS article, the Connector works with USB headphones, headsets and external speakers; USB microphones; and low-power USB keyboards. But not with USB drives. And you cannot export data to any connected USB device, such as an SD card.

Just because the Kit can do these things, it doesn’t mean that Apple approves. A recent Apple support article states: “Apple does not recommend or support using the iPad Camera Connector with devices other than cameras.” What a surprise! I would not be shocked to find that, rather than addressing the potential problems described in the support article, Apple blocks these “unsupported” features altogether in iPhone OS 4.0.

These restrictions have not seemed to hurt Apple so far — so there is no reason to expect any big changes ahead. Apparently, whether or not I am irked has little effect on Apple. So be it. Apple does so many things right, I can afford to be irked by the few things it does wrong.

Posted in Apple Inc, iPhone, Mac, Technology | Comments Off