Sunday, October 23, 2016

"Last Resort"

This show aired on ABC for not even a full season back in 2012. It had an intriguing premise not unlike that of the movie "Crimson Tide" - an American nuclear-armed submarine gets a launch order, but the commanding crew wants verification before carrying out the order. The request for verification does not go well, and the submarine ends up being hunted by fellow American naval forces, leading to a desperate warning by the captain that if his ship is attacked again, he will launch his nuclear warheads on Washington, D.C.(!)

Not only was it a heavily serialized show, it was created and produced by Shawn Ryan, who created one of my favorite TV shows of all-time, "The Shield." Yet, for some reason, I missed this show when it first aired. Apparently I was not alone, because the ratings dropped like a stone, and ABC didn't even bother ordering the back nine episodes.

Fortunately, ABC made this decision early enough that the production and writing staff had enough time to adjust and (sort of) end the series by episode 13. There are few things more frustrating than getting into a serialized series, only to have it end on a cliffhanger. (And ABC has done more than its share of those .... "Flashforward," "V" ....)

Anyway, I happened to have some digital credit with Amazon and went shopping a while ago, when I noticed that "Last Resort" was available for a reasonable price. I used my credit and promptly forgot about the show. I'd been binging on old seasons of "Survivor" (available via Amazon Prime) while running on the treadmill, but after the lameness of the "Redemption Island" season, I needed a break for Jeff Probst and company.


"Last Resort" has one of the best pilot episodes I've ever seen!* Andre Braugher exudes gravitas as Captain Chaplin, and Scott Speedman (who I've only seen in the "Underworld" movies) is very good as the executive officer. Add to that Robert Patrick as the crusty chief of the boat, and you've got a strong core cast. I'm about halfway through the series right now, and while there's been a couple of weaker episodes, none has been a clunker. It's a shame this show didn't get more traction when it aired, but then again, maybe it's a good thing that there's a (relatively) tight 13 episodes - like a good mini-series.

* Of course, "Flashforward" was also one of the best pilots I've ever seen, and that show devolved into a mess by the end, so a strong start certainly doesn't guarantee a strong series.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Fall 2016 new TV shows

Fall is my favorite season. It has the best holiday (Thanksgiving), it's the best season for running road races, and of course, it's when new TV shows debut, as well as when established ones return. I sit down over the summer and plot out what shows I can manage to record on my dual-tuner TiVo, noting conflicts so as to prioritize. (Yes, I know I should just go get a new TiVo Roamio, which can record up to six shows at the same time.) Inevitably, I plan to watch way too many shows than I have time for, but as it turns out, more than half of the new shows that I tab end up either getting canceled quickly or dropping off my radar (or both).

Let's get to my thoughts on the new shows that I've sampled:

Designated Survivor (ABC, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.)

As much fun as it would be to have Jack Bauer be the President, that's not what this show is. If anything, star Kiefer Sutherland is trying very hard not to remind us of Bauer, from the nerdy academic glasses to the mild manner. The basic conceit is that Sutherland's character Tom Kirkland is the "designated survivor" - the Cabinet official who is kept away from the State of the Union speech in case there is a decapitating strike, so that there will be continuity in government. Of course, Kirkland was asked to resign his position earlier that morning but hadn't done so yet, which has already given rise to questions about whether he should remain President.

The show does have a lot in common with "24" - a terror plot, government machinations, disloyal government officials, and family soap opera elements. It looks like the pattern so far is one episode = 1 day, though I imagine it will start to space things out a bit. I've liked it, but I wish they had cast a different actress instead of Maggie Q, who just seems to stand around and stare at things, and who I find to be just as wooden here as she was in "Nikita."

Lethal Weapon (Fox, Wednesdays, 8 p.m.)

There are few new ideas in Hollywood. Rebooting a nearly 30 year old movie certainly doesn't seem very imaginative, so I was somewhat skeptical of this show. Plus, Mel Gibson has descended into such awful depths in real life that it's hard to disassociate his roles from him.

However, my wife wanted to give this a try, and since this airs at the same time as "Survivor" (one of my top returning favorites) and "Blindspot," something had to give way. "Blindspot" is okay, but strangely less compelling than it should be, possibly due to the complete lack of chemistry between the lead actors (Jaimie Alexander and Sullivan Stapleton). My wife has already given up on it, so I figured I could catch up on the NBC website.

Anyway, I did not have high expectations for "Lethal Weapon." It easily surpassed those low expectations. There's something to be said for a TV show that knows what it wants to be and executes successfully. Thus far, there's no long backstory, no secret conspiracy responsible for Martin Riggs' wife's death in a car accident - it's just a competent mix of mismatched buddy comedy and action.

MacGyver (CBS, Fridays, 8 pm)

This was bad. I had low expectations based on the bad reviews it had been getting, but it was even worse than I had feared. Dull lead actor. Stupid words on the screen telling us that we're looking at "power" or "aluminum foil" ... as if we're too dumb to figure that out. I mean, if you're going to put words on the screen to help viewers out, why not Al-Al2O3 to teach them some chemistry?

Watching the pilot episode was one too many. Fortunately I have the original series on DVD. Maybe watching some episodes will restore the brain cells killed by watching this reboot.

The Good Place (NBC, Thursdays, 8:30 pm)

Sitcoms aren't my cup of tea, and haven't been since "Married with Children" ended a long time ago. (Or maybe "Malcolm in the Middle.") My preferred style of storytelling is serialized conspiracy; sitcoms are about as far away as you can get from that. However, Kristen Bell earned some benefit of the doubt from her "Veronica Mars" days, so I decided to give this a try.

The set up is that her character, a self-centered, narcissist has died and ended up by mistake in "the good place" (not exactly the Christian Heaven, but something kind of like it). It's awesome for her, but her being there is causing breakdowns due to the misfit. The show appears to be about her efforts to change her character for the better.

It was okay, and Bell did a good job of making an unlikeable person somewhat likeable, but there wasn't anything there that grabbed me and demanded that I continue watching.

Timeless (NBC, Mondays, 10 pm)

Time travel shows are all of a sudden a hot item on TV. There's CW's "Frequency" and "D.C. Legends of Tomorrow," not to mention the time traveling abilities of the Flash, which are currently driving the storyline on "The Flash"; ABC's upcoming "Time After Time"; and this show.

Much like "Legends of Tomorrow," this is about a bad guy who gets access to a time machine, which he uses to try to change history so that the present is more to his liking; and the team of good guys sent to restore the timeline. The team has a historian who happens to know every trivial little detail about the Hindenburg disaster, which is quite fortunate, since the first mission is to fix what the bad guy did then.

One of the tropes of time travel stories is the idea that you can't really alter the past; if you save someone from dying the way they did in "history," then the flow of time will find some other way to kill that person. Another trope is that tiny deviations in the past will somehow cause significant changes in the present when the time traveler returns. These tropes are in tension with each other (though not totally inconsistent), but this show uses both.

The second trope has always bothered me in that there's rarely a satisfactory explanation for how the time traveler can integrate into the changed universe effectively. Take the movie "Timecop" with Jean-Claude van Damme. At the end of it [SPOILER], he has changed history by saving his wife from dying 10 years earlier, and when he returns to the present, he's still married to her, and they have a little child. How can he remember what's happened in the last 10 years in this timeline? And if he has those memories, how about his original memories? How does he know which are real?

There was an "Outer Limits" episode called "A Stitch in Time" that did confront this issue, with the twist being that the time traveler remembered both universes, but suffered headaches and other problems as a result; and as she engaged in more and more time travel, her health problems worsened.

The best time travel story I've come across in terms of having a mechanic that seemed internally consistent is Dean Koontz's novel Lightning.


Thursday, June 30, 2016

Wildlife in suburbia


Suburbia .... I gather that it's considered much cooler to live in an urban environment, where you can walk to coffee shops and food carts, ride your bike to work, and all that. Meanwhile, suburbia is the land of SUVs and 2.5 kids.

But apart from the livability advantages that suburbs can offer for families with kids (yards, parking, generally strong public elementary schools), they are also aesthetically pleasing in the Pacific Northwest.

This is especially true where I live. The development touched as little of the native trees and environment as possible, so it looks nothing like the hideous display in the nearby picture. I basically live on the edge of a natural forest. And it's a forest that teems with wildlife, and wildlife being wild, we get visits from North American critters - sometimes even in our backyard!

For all I know, we have snakes in our grass, but they wouldn't be easy to spot. I do see them occasionally when I go running, though.

Enjoying the sunshine
So hot even the snake had to shed its skin

I've also seen a coyote on a run, but when I followed it a bit to try to take a closer picture, it scurried away into the forest, so I can't show you what it looked like. But we see them once in a while. Another time, a coyote scampered across our backyard. My wife was mildly concerned, my dad thought it looked beautiful, and I thought it was immensely cool that we had a coyote in our backyard.

Raccoons, too. This one popped out at night:

"You looking at me?"

Deer, of course, are quite common in North American forests. Like coyotes, they seem quite adaptable to human civilization.

Seen while running

I came across the two little guys (girls?) in the picture below earlier this afternoon. I pulled into the driveway and thought I saw a dog in our sideyard. When I got out to examine, I saw that there were two deer calves, smaller than a full grown retriever. They ran behind the bush to hide from me. I managed to get this picture with a full zoom on my smartphone a full moments later.

"Where's Mommy?"

Despite my backing away and leaving them plenty of room, they wouldn't leave that corner. So I went inside and was prepared to open the gate from the backyard, because I know that deer sometimes cross from our backyard to other yards. When I opened the back door, I saw why the calves were hanging around:

"Come here, babies!"

I am still not sure how Mommy Deer ended up in our backyard separated from her calves. The wooden fence is 6 feet high, so I don't think the calves could jump it, but I'm not an expert. Anyway, I wanted to open the gate so the family could be reunited, but I didn't want to get charged by the mom, and I was worried about scaring the calves ... or being bitten by them. After consulting with my neighbor, I slowly approached the gate from the front side, carefully watching the calves to make sure they stayed behind the bush of safety. I pushed the gate wide open and backed away cautiously. When I was far away, one calf tentatively went through the opening, and then the other.

To be clear, I'm not knocking the urban lifestyle. It has its appeal, and I'm sure there are people who love it. But suburbia has its benefits too, including - at least in my situation - a good dose of wildlife.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Would Ichiro have been the "Hit King" if he'd started his career in MLB?

Image result for ichiro
Ichiro Suzuki got his 2978th hit in Major League Baseball last night, which combined with the 1278 he had from the Japanese League before coming to the U.S. in 2001, gives him 4256. That happens to match Pete Rose's career total. None too pleased, Rose had this to say:
I don't think you're going to find anybody with credibility say that Japanese baseball is equivalent to Major League Baseball. There are too many guys that fail here and then become household names there, like Tuffy Rhodes. How can he not do anything here and hit [a record-tying] 55 home runs [in 2001] over there? It has something to do with the caliber of personnel.
I don't disagree with Rose that it makes little sense to count Ichiro's hits in Japan as being equivalent to MLB hits. But the interesting question is, what would Ichiro's MLB hit total be if he had started his career in the U.S.?

Ichiro debuted in Japan as an 18-year-old, but I don't think we can assume that he would have reached the major leagues at that age. Or, if he had, that he would have had success right away. Alex Rodriguez came up to the major leagues at age 18, and hit .204/.241/.204 in 17 games. The next year, he hit .232/.264/.408. And then he exploded into a near MVP season at age 20.

Ken Griffey Jr. arrived in the major leagues at age 19 and hit .264/.329/.420. And then he too became a superstar the next year.

Like Griffey, Mike Trout came up at age 19. He hit .220/.281/.390. He's been the best player in baseball since then.

Bryce Harper, who rivals Trout as the best player in the game today, came up at age 19 and hit .270/.340/.477 - a decent year but far from superstar status. His next two seasons were pretty similar. Then, at age 22, he won the MVP.

Now, I'm not saying Ichiro was as good at his peak as those guys, but it's not unreasonable to think that he could have reached his peak at his kind of game (lots of ABs with a ton of singles and some extra base power) fairly quickly, say somewhere between ages 20 to 22.

If you take the 217 hits/year that he averaged as a full-time player with Seattle from 2001 to 2012, and use that as the baseline, then the five years from 22 to 27 would give him 1085 more MLB hits, plus whatever he might have amassed in earlier formative years. If you start at age 21, he would have 1302 more MLB hits.

So he'd be somewhere around the missing 1278 hits between him and Rose, either above a little, or short by a couple of hundred.

But here's the thing: of Rose's 4256 hits, at least 159 of them are pretty illegitimate. In his last two years, Rose hit .264/.3195/.319 and .219/316/.270. While playing a power position, first base. In that last year, he ranked 18th in the team in OPS, behind two pitchers and every position player who played more than 12 games, except the shortstop. It's not like Cincinnati didn't have good players who could have played first base over Rose - Kal Daniels only got 200 at bats despite leading the team in OPS.

Why did Rose suck up so many precious at bats? Who in their right mind would have started Rose?

Well, um, Pete Rose did. He was a player-manager for those two years, so he started himself in all those games, because he was chasing the hit record. It's one thing if a team decides to start a legendary player to see if he can reach some record. It's another if the player himself gets to start himself.

Without those 159 hits, and even with a relatively late MLB arrival age of 22, Ichiro would be within striking distance of Rose's "earned" hit total.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Resisting the cult of the new

About a year and a half ago, my wife gave me a Garmin Forerunner 220 for my birthday. Before that, I had just relied on Runkeeper on my smartphone (which necessitated getting a new smartphone when my Galaxy Nexus's GPS started to become erratic and unreliable). Once I experienced the advantages of a GPS watch -- much faster GPS lock, more accurate tracking -- I was sold. I've been super-satisfied with the 220.

Today, I took my dad to Road Runner Sports to look at GPS watches. For his purposes, Runkeeper would be perfectly adequate, but he doesn't want to run with a phone. We looked at the Forerunner 25, 230, and 235, and then I came home to do some research -- i.e., reading DC Rainmaker's reviews. It didn't take long to determine that the 25 would be the most cost-effective option for my dad. (He mostly runs laps at a non-standard track at the local elementary school.) I don't think he would use the fancier features on the 230/235.

However, as I read DC Rainmaker's review of those higher-end watches, I started thinking, hey, those sound like pretty cool features.... I use my Galaxy S5's step counting app, but it would be nice not to be tethered constantly to it, which the 230 or 235 would allow with their activity trackers. (That recent study about cellphones and cancer seems pretty questionable, as this column argues, but it wouldn't hurt to be cautious.) And the 235 has a heart rate monitor based on the wrist pulse, meaning no need for an uncomfortable chest strap.

I began to toy with the idea of offering my 220 to my dad (clearing all the settings, of course), and then getting a 235 for myself.

"Hey, wasn't that a present from Mommy?" my pre-teen son asked.

"Um, yeah," I answered sheepishly.

My wife was non-plussed. (She's so awesome!) "Go ahead and get it if you like," she said.

I got maybe 75 percent of the way toward pulling the trigger by ordering from Amazon, but I read some more reviews/comparisons. The third post in this thread from Let's Run included the following suggestion:

The GPS function of the 230 and 235 are both spot on, so tracking your run is fine. between the two I would get the 230. Less S*** to fail on you. better yet, save money, buy a Forerunner 220 (best running watch by Garmin currently in my opinion)
That threw some cold water on my idea. I did some more reading and it seems that the optical reader in the 235 is pretty new technology, and hence good but not great at picking up the HR. It would make more sense to wait for Garmin to work out all the kinks before adopting it.

The thrill of getting something new faded, and I told my dad that I thought the Forerunner 25 was the best choice for him. If/when my 220 dies, I'll upgrade, but until then, I'll stick with old reliable.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Ranking the seasons of "24" (in anticipation of "24: Legacy"

I can't wait for the 2017 Super Bowl to be over. Not because I dislike football; I feel guilty about how much I like watching the concussion-inducing sport. It's just that when the Super Bowl ends, "24" returns.

Okay, Jack Bauer is not going to be back, not yet. In the meantime, while I reminisce about the past nine seasons, here's how I rank them. Obviously, chock full of spoilers:

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The five best episodes of each of the "Star Trek" series (imho)

Image result for star trek

A good friend of mine (in real life and on Facebook) made an interesting and provocative assertion, namely, that every incarnation of "Star Trek" has been worse than the previous series. I responded that I didn't think the original series (TOS) could be compared to the others, because its production values, tone, and acting were so different; and that I agreed with the assertion as to the offspring except that I believed that "Deep Space Nine" (DS9) was superior to its predecessor. Naturally, this being Facebook, a time-sucking argument ensued.

I didn't want to attack TOS, but when push came to shove, I resorted to pointing out all the dreck from the third season - episodes like Spock's Brain, The Mark of Gideon, and The Cloud Miners, among others. My friend defended even these atrocities, noting that they were memorable. Apart from the general awfulness, I remembered not very much about Spock's Brain - and it turned out that the line that I thought I remembered wasn't even in the shooting script! That episode was so bad, I was inventing better dialogue for it....

Anyway, my friend then asserted that the best episodes of TOS were better than the best episodes of the other series. "Best" is going to be subjective, of course, but I decided to come up with my list of the five best episodes from each of the series.