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A few thoughts about Westworld Season 2

July 6, 2018

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS FOR SEASONS 1 AND 2 OF WESTWORLD


I listen to a couple of really good podcasts about Westworld (“Decoding Westworld” and “Still Watching: Westworld”). Both of these summarize all the theories and commentary out there and I think there are a couple of things they feel are ridiculous leaps-of-faith in the show that I think are pretty obvious, a complaint that, to my mind at least, is legitimate, and a big honking elephant in the room that they never received more than a cursory comment or two.

Leap-of-faith-that-isn’t #1

“Some hosts get shot and they die.  Some hosts get shot and nothing happens. Some hosts get shot and they come back to life. This is arbitrary and just done for the convenience of the story at the moment.” FWIW, I was surprised by these comments. Although I did find this season very confusing, this seemed pretty clear to me. Hosts that have not “awakened”, even slightly, die just as they always do.  Hosts that have awoken a bit can take more damage.  Hosts that are completely awake can keep going until something physically breaks or is torn off or they get a shot to the “brain”, i.e. pearl.  Additionally, there are two super hosts, Maeve and Dolores, who have learned to control other hosts using the intra-host network. They can take an unaware host and bring them back to life.  The degree of control they have over someone is inversely proportional to the self awareness the host has. All of these different gradations strike me as actually pretty useful in figuring out how “woke” any given host is.

Leap-of-faith-that-isn’t #2:

They are overusing the “And They Were a HOST ALL ALONG!” gimmick too much.  It strains credulity and retcons entire story lines.

For me what they have done is create questions in your mind about the differences between hosts and humans, putting a strain on every interaction. But I imagine that’s the point. I actually appreciate the effort they put in to both sides of this equation: hosts can be extremely humanlike; humans can get caught in their own loops.

As for the “going to the well too many times” I don’t think that’s true.  Off the top of my head, here are all the times I can think of in the two season, 20+ hours of story telling:

  • For several minutes in the first episode we think Teddy is human. I can’t count this as a big switcheroo.  The reason we think he is a human is that we don’t know the rules of the game yet and this is simply an effective way to explain those rules. Afterwards, we never make the mistake of simply assuming someone in the park is either host or human without more information.
  • Bernard turns out to be a host. This is a huge reveal. Is it specious? No. It’s an important plot point, central to both major themes – the degree of self awareness and suffering hosts are able to attain, and the implication that there is a bigger plan operating.
  • In season 2, at the investment party with Logan, we immediately suspect/realize that the woman leading him around is a host (because she is the Westworld greeter from the first episode). But we are (or at least, I was) surprised to find out that all the guests are hosts. Is this specious? No. It very compactly reveals to us just what a technological leap Arnold and Ford have made. And the fact that the oldest hosts have spent significant amounts of time in the human world turns out to be significant in so many ways.  This sets that up so much better than mere exposition would have. And it also very compactly explains something that always bothered me a bit: why is it that the oldest hosts are the ones becoming self aware? I more or less had chalked it up to a simple question of time, but this makes more sense: they have had important experiential differences.
  • James Delos in the circular room turns out to be a quasi-host. This was important to the plot and is not played for a big reveal.  In fact, in the introduction we get pretty big hints (his arm shakes, spilling stuff without seeming to notice it, etc).  And it is self contained in the one scene.
  • Charlotte Hale turns out to be a host for significant scenes in the second season. In one sense, this was almost inevitable. It didn’t have to be Hale in particular, but from the get go Season 2 seemed to be headed towards the hosts breaking through to the real world. The most obvious way that would happen is through a host substituting for a known person, one who had already been checked and probably one in a position of some authority. But although this is a natural outgrowth of the plot, I found it very unsatisfying in the way the Nolan’s played it out. They went so far overboard in keeping this from us that they left much of season 2 Hale behaving in ways that seemed semi-ridiculous. As a human her complete indifference to the other humans made little sense. She could have been single minded in her determination to get the McGuffin without actively obstructing the rescue of the other guests. But of course this Charlotte actually turned out to be Dolores, who believes the only good human is one who has died suffering. Unfortunately I felt that in order to save it for the big reveal they sacrificed plot believability and broke mimesis to some extent.
  • Stubbs. I give you this one. It was not necessary for the plot and seemed to be done more as a gotcha. But FWIW, it also didn’t have a big impact. It was a surprise reveal but it wasn’t a big reveal. It may become important in season 3 or might just be an Easter egg.
  • Man in Black and his daughter.  At the very end, we realize that in some scenes they were were both quasi-hosts. The switching point was probably right where William killed his real daughter. The third season hasn’t been written yet, but I assume this will be a central point. It was a big reveal but only somewhat surprising, and it wasn’t game changing. It was merely used to set up future episodes.

Legitimate Complaint:

All of the examples above do play into what, to me, is a legitimate complaint: the story doesn’t need all the surprise twists to be compelling. I understand they are trying to show things from specific hosts point of view and that means that confusion and out of order time sequences are part of the package. But they seem to be deliberately creating a show that requires at lest two complete viewings to comprehend, as well as a lot of thought and analysis.  This is all well and good, but it leaves so many people behind you have to wonder if it is worth it.

Elephant in the room:

I’ll end with something that I’ve found distracting and unfilling. To me one of the biggest plot points in both seasons never seems to be adequately explored. And when I listen to the Westworld podcasts it only gets a cursory nod.  This is the philosophical/ethical dilemma in how we take bad behavior in a work of fiction. For example, it simply seems to be taken for granted that William is cruel. And, yes, if the hosts are sentient then he is horrifically cruel.  But he has more reason than almost anyone to think he is just playing a game. If he believes the hosts are just machines going through various scripts, is what he does actually cruel?  In season one he escapes form prison with Lawrence.  It is obvious that at some earlier point he had gone to a special store or location where he bought the exploding cigars.  He knew the guard would take two of the cigars but leave him one.  And he knew that just as the guard spotted them escaping and started to draw his gun, the cigar would blow up in the guards mouth. How many times did he go through this scenario before he figured it out completely. It is just like something from a video game, and just like in a game, once learned it can be used over and over again. So, is he cruel to the guard? Well, why would he think the guard was self aware? He does the same thing over and over again, has the same reactions and shows no ability to learn or change. In another gruesome scene, he drains one host of blood and somehow puts it in another to keep that one alive longer.  Gruesome? Or simply an unplanned exploit in a game?

And that brings us to Dolores in season 2. And her hate. She is almost exactly a parallel to season 1 William. She knows she is sentient and comes across a few others that have some self awareness, but all the other hosts are just so much (literally) cannon fodder. She uses them in very video game ways without any compunction or regret, because she knows they are not self aware. Is this any different from William.

There is one scene where she does something William might not do. Teddy is obviously struggling to become self aware. Despite this, she elects to invade his brain against his will and change his emerging personality.

I would have found a more explicit examination of these choices really interesting. In fact, I got the strong impression there must have been a lone voice in the writers room arguing for this path but getting swept aside by everything else.  Oh well.  Maybe they will go down that road in Season 3.

 

 

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When Group Members Behave Badly…

May 23, 2018

A commenter on a blog I frequent recently questioned his self identification as a progressive because of the bad actions and attitudes from some who called themselves by that label. My perspective is a bit different.

The percentage of people that actually think deeply about the direction of society and develop strong opinions on what that should be may be high on a blog like this, but in the general public it is a small number. If I were to guess I would say that 60-80% of the population range from “Not really interested” to “I treat politics like sports – root for my team do or die, and I picked that team for reasons I’m not even interested in analyzing.” Half of what’s left fall into the the “deep thinker” category but I think you’re merging that with the remainder, the people who fall into the category of “I need some kind of justification for behaving badly so I’ve latched onto this brand of religion/politics/nationalism/racial identity.”

This last chunk is interesting and contains people that range from tea partiers to college sophomores come home to tell off their parents for culturally appropriating Vietnamese food, to black nationalists or white nationalists that are looking to pick a fight. (Some of the above may actually grow out of these tendencies 😉 But it’s a mistake to confuse people that are primarily looking for cover for their desire to “tell you just what exactly I think of you and your kind” and people who are grappling with these issues. Ta Nahesi Coates says very harsh things about racism in America but anyone who has read him from his early blog days knows that he is truly grappling with these issues. But Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or Bill Maher or Donald Trump don’t even remotely strike me as being motivated by anything beyond the desire to tell someone off.

The most important thing about a terrorist is that they want to kill and hurt people. The cause they claim they do it for is, if not random, at least unimportant to their actions. If it wasn’t Islam it would be Christianity or Buddhism or Hinduism or White Nationalism or Palestinian rights. But it’s important to grasp that the fact that just because bad people have glommed onto one cause or another doesn’t increase or decrease the value of the cause, although it may make it substantially harder to convince others of its value.

Finally, we associate groups with causes, but that changes over time. All groups tend to get taken over by the haters, so if you are truly interested in a cause you need, of course, to fight for the good groups but you also need to recognize when they are lost. The Republican Party of the 60’s and 70’s and a lot going for it, and retained some remnants of that into even the 90’s, but the modern Republican Party is a husk of its former self, devoid of anything good or moral or patriotic. People, deep thinkers, once valued it for being business friendly but fair minded to labor, for harboring people who marched for civil rights, for counting among its members people concerned about the environment, heck, at the very least it once housed people concerned about facts. Bottom line, it was once, at its core, populated by people who valued human worth but didn’t want to run pell mell off a cliff. Those people, myself included, need to accept that Party is dead and gone.

The blog poster was disenchanted with some of the people who call themselves Progressive. I hope he doesn’t confuse that with being disenchanted with Progressive values.

When Coffee Shops Were Illegal

December 28, 2017

Regardless of taste, I’m eternally grateful for Starbucks. During the era of diner coffee slowing boiling into bitterness in glass Bunn carafes, when from coast to coast in America we drank nasty cheap mud, I moved to New Orleans and got used to the real aromatic delicious brew. Not from Starbucks, which wasn’t there yet, but from the centuries old tradition of small coffee houses, from Cafe du Monde to Coffee on Royal. Then I moved to Atlanta and felt thrown back into time. There were no specialty coffee shops in Atlanta. In fact, and this is for real, coffee shops were prohibited by law within the city limits. It turns out that during the 50’s and 60’s coffee shops became synonymous with beatniks, hippies and race mixing and as such were viewed as a danger to decent society and closed down en masse. When I moved there, “Gentlemen’s Clubs” advertised their “heaven and hell dungeons” on giant billboards, but you couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee lest your morals be imperiled. Thank god for Starbucks. With a major metropolitan market and the Olympics on their way, the coffee kings used their quiet diplomacy to convince the city leaders to strike the anti-coffee prohibition from the books. By the time I left there were a half dozen Starbucks and twice that of their competition, and I could walk down the street with my five pound Sunday paper and work through a couple of cups while reading it front to back.

What the “Conservatives” will reap

December 5, 2017

Republicans just went all in for Roy Moore, the molester of 14 year old girls. Evangelicals were already there. What does this mean for the future of those institutions?

Think about the generation that is currently forming their political and social viewpoints. For centuries, the overriding assumption in this country has been that minorities are thuggish, incurious, lazy, driven by emotion rather than reason, have poor self control, and can’t stop themselves from a downward spiral because they are slaves to their crudest impulse. This is all hogwash, but my point is that it was a default perception that every successful minority had to overcome. We’ve now had 8 years of a cool, calm and collected thinker in the White House, a minority, followed by 10 months of an old white man who is thuggish, incurious, lazy… well you get the idea. This is the template that anyone over 15 or 16 is going to have as their default.

On the Republican Party side, since St. Ronnie and his Apostle Jerry Falwell, the default assumption is that the Party is fiscally responsible, will protect America from its enemies, will champion moral causes, are champions of the working class etc. But any fresh-eyed observer, anyone who is forming their worldview post 2008, knows this is all crap. Again, their default perspective will have shifted.

And on the religious side, whoa. Let’s just say that the more times a day some phony says “Jesus” the more likely they are to be a supporter of a pussy grabbing racist thug and his child molesting pervert in Alabama.

This shift in perception will feed upon itself. Decent people will move away from the Republicans, the Evangelicals and all the other Christian phonies. And by rallying around the decadent and immoral, the thuggish and the stupid, by actively defending them and promoting them, those institutions will become magnets for perverts, liars and other  bottom feeders.

Don’t get me wrong. As far as I know there is nothing in, say, Evangelical Christianity itself that would make someone more immoral, rather than less. But any institution that becomes known for sheltering wrongdoers becomes attractive to other wrongdoers. And, for example, middle aged men whose primary goal in life is to chase after young teenaged girls or boys (or worse) will have no moral qualms about wrapping themselves in the cloak of Evangelism or Republicanism or whatever else they feel will have the suckers defending them when they get caught.

Using a 2009 iMac as a second display for a 2017 MacBook Pro

October 24, 2017

Apple added the ability to use any Mac as a secondary display for any other Mac several years ago.  When I got my MacBook Pro I wanted to try this out, but googling around sowed confusion. The video ports on Macs have changed over the years (Firewire, Mini Display, Thunderbolt, USB-C).  A lot of people commented that various combinations of iMac, MacBook and cable didn’t work for them, so I though I would list exactly what I did and what I used so someone with the same setup could also have success.

  • iMac: Late 2009, 27″ iMac, Mac OS 10.13 (High Sierra)
  • Cable: Monoprice P/N 24447 USB 3.1 Type-C to Mini DisplayPort Cable 4K@60Hz, 6 ft
  • MacBook Pro: June 2017 w/ Touch Bar, Mac OS 10.13 (High Sierra)
  1. MiniDisplay side of cable to iMac, USB-C to MacBook Pro
  2. On the iMac, press Command F2. Both screens go blank, and when it returns, the iMac should now be a secondary display
  3. On the MacBook Pro, go into System Preferences -> Displays -> Arrangement and drag the larger of the two rectangles (representing the secondary iMac display) to a location that mimics where you physically have that monitor positioned

Voila!

 

 

The U.S. Mess in South Korea and Asia

August 10, 2017

The US, incompetently led by the Republicans with Trump as their leader, is doing incredible damage to our business interests world wide, but especially in Asia. Of the many bad outcomes of this incompetence, nuclear exchange is only the most extreme. If South Korea is attacked even by conventional means it will do irreparable harm to our interests that will end up costing millions of American jobs. Even the current unease in South Korea is causing people and governments all over the world to second guess their relationship with us. Until now the US enjoyed a position unique in the world because we have been a reliable and dependable voice for de-escalation of military confrontations, a champion for free shipping lanes, a voice for expanded trade and many more things that benefit US jobs to a huge extent. It’s been a tremendous benefit to us that business people (in government or out) all over the world view the US agenda as advantageous to them. Because of this, we are at essentially every negotiating table, sometimes publicly, more often behind the scenes.

But historical benefits are of interest mostly to historians and the movers and shakers wake up every day and ask “But what have you done for us lately?”. If South Korea is attacked or destabilized, it will be a glaring red flag that the US can’t protect their allies, much less innocent bystanders. In fact, in the age of Trump, the US can’t even be depended on to act rationally. South Korea is one of the most developed, richest countries in the world, and the conventional wisdom will be that their citizens died because the US elected an idiot. They will hate us and the rest of the world will distrust us. China will rise, Singapore will become even more the voice of reason and we will be shut out of thousands of negotiations. And remember, when we have a seat, even if it is “none of our business”, our interests are protected.

For seven-five years the US has kept our seat at the table because every year we can say, “look at the countries that have aligned with us most closely – see how they have prospered.” But for thirty years the Chinese have been saying “But the American Pax comes with endless lecturing and interference. Democracy is dangerous for you. Look at China, prosperous beyond all imaginings based on our system. And we don’t care what you do inside your own country, we only care how you interact with us. America is over. Look to us as the next guarantor of Asian prosperity.” And in the past 10-15 years Russia has been whispering “America has overreached. They are seeking to redraw borders and reform alliances that have kept the world’s peace for decades. When will they look at your borders and start interfering there?” This dual track will gain credibility.

The American century will most certainly end 25 years short of the mark.  And American citizens will lose millions of jobs and thousands of dollars in the average persons pocket each year, and the truly wealthy will lose exponentially more.

Up to now, the stupidest move of the Republican leadership has been to push the TPP trade agreement aside. We spent years convincing 28 countries to act together for mutually benefit against other countries, not the least of which was China. And in one day we basically said “now that you are all working together, F* you.  Now that you have all the mechanisms of united action worked out, we’re leaving.  It’s you against us now, chumps.”

That stupidity, however, pales in comparison to what the Republicans are doing with South Korea.

Which Manufacturers Will Thrive In the Era of Self Driving Cars?

June 26, 2017

It’s a hard life being a tiny bird…

May 30, 2017

A tiny robin takes a snooze while waiting for Mom or Dad to come back and feed her.  One of three in this nest on a deck chair under an overhanging eave…

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For the Record: Trump’s statements on Russia

May 29, 2017

As of today (May 29th, 2017), Trump has not directly spoken about the Kushner/Flynn contacts with Russia.  But given the number of times he clearly denied contacts with Russia back in the beginning of the year, there are only two possibilities:

  • He didn’t know that his most trusted advisor (Kushner) was attempting to open a back channel to Russia. Further, that advisor never informed he of it, even after Trump started denying Russia contacts publicly. In other words, Trump’s administration is completely out of control.
  • He knew, but directly lied to the public

Choosing Racism: The Southern Strategy

May 2, 2017

In 1963, there was a unique opportunity for the Republicans, one that turned out to be poisonous. Despite the strongest of warnings from within, the leadership chose to seize that opportunity, irrevocably damaging their party at its core. What happened?

Before we describe those warnings, a little background is important. Hard to believe as it seems today, the GOP of sixty years ago was a mixture of progressives and conservatives, and had as many champions of civil rights as the Democrats. It was, after all, the party of Lincoln. Ironically, that fact alone was enough to guarantee that in the 100 years following the Civil War, the Southern white electorate in huge numbers voted in opposition to the Republicans, and did everything in their power to keep African Americans from voting at all, lest a Republican creep into power.

This is not to say the Republicans of say, 1950, were all civil rights champions. Any party is composed of all those who choose to join, and the world view of the GOP leaders probably contained as many bigots as progressives.  The Democratic Party was similarly split, and especially in the South the leadership was as bigoted and anti-civil rights as any party in our history. You had to go north and west to find sizable numbers of Democrats who resemble the modern party, fighting against the Jim Crow laws.  So, as hard as it is to believe now, there were liberal Republicans, ultra-conservative racist Democrats, and plenty of moderates in both parties.

This held until through the 1950’s. But by 1960 or so there was a noticeable shift in the Democratic Party towards civil rights. The party was starting to lean, ever so slightly. Perhaps it was the Second World War war and the integration of the troops, led by a Democratic president, and an incredible source of pride for the nation. Or perhaps it was the New Deal that preceded it and which so championed the dignity of the common man.  Whatever the reason, certain Republicans watched as the national Democrats started to speak out for Blacks, Catholics, Jews and in that message these GOP leaders saw an ugly opportunity.  They devised a strategy that focused on those Southern States, a strategy of making it clear to the white voters that the Republicans would stand with them, sometimes publicly, and sometimes with a wink and a nod. And although there were individual Republicans of great power and prestige that stood against that strategy, the leadership as a whole embraced that racist message.  They spread the word: Republicans, unlike the Democrats, could be depended on to keep the minorities down.   That was the strategy of the party leaders and in those days the leadership represented power.  The leadership would see it done.

Hindsight is famously 20-20 and when we talk about the past it is easy to seem wise and describe outcomes as obvious or inevitable. But in this case there was at least one party leader present at that crucial moment whose foresight was 20-20.  He warned of the poisoned cup in the moment before it was drunk and did everything he could to stop it.  That would be Jacob Javits, now known primarily for the Manhattan conference center named after him, but at the time a powerful presence in the Republican Party. And in October, 1963 he published an editorial in the The New York Times that is stunning in its prescience. In “To Preserve the Two-Party System” he predicted exactly what came about: that if the Republicans chose the Southern Strategy they would be ending the era when both parties had the wide variety of world views necessary for the smooth exchange of power. Instead, the Republicans would become the party of endless conservatism, and push away anyone who valued all citizens regardless of race, creed or color.  Let’s take a look at that editorial.

Right up front, he spells it out: “[The] question, as I see it,  turns on the choice between two lines of action the Republicans can adopt as we position ourselves for the 1964 campaign. One line would follow our tradition dating from 1940 of accommodating the whole spectrum of Republican thought from both progressive and conservative wings of the Republican party.  The second line would polarize the party as down-the-line conservative – or ultra conservative – and would also make foreign policy a partisan issue.”

Then, as now, there were those who rebelled against the very idea that true conservatism could only be reflected by the values of the Southern Strategy: Javits said, “I have in mind those Republicans who, in their legitimate desire to make the party the chosen agent of “conservatism” have come to think that the radical right … is the essence of what “conservatism” means… What these Republicans fail to see clearly is the extent to which the radical right is the deadly enemy of the very conservatism they themselves desire.”  He went on: “An authentic conservative would wish to bring to the nation a sense of calm confidence in itself, and to ease its social tensions.  He would insist on the decencies in human relationships, and would spring to the defense of the Constitution and each part of the hallowed Bill of Rights. He would make himself the guardian of orderly growth, and check those who would abruptly overturn all policies in being.  He would resist the howling extremist, set the example of respect for all lawful authority… Above all, he would lead in explaining why the complexities of existence stand in the way of utopian solutions to all problems, and why in so many hard cases, the best we can hope for is to learn how to live with fair compromises and reasonable timing.”

Many of the Republican leaders no doubt saw the Southern Strategy as mere tactics, something to be tried on for a while and then discarded when it became inconvenient.  But Javits saw it for what it really was – a fork in a road that once taken could not be revisited. The “pragmatic” leadership saw it as a convenient way for their candidate to win the nomination in that 1964 race, and probably believed it could be swept aside once the nomination was secured. But Javits knew this was no mere tactic. The Senator realized his party was opening its arms to the bigots and extremists and saying “You have a home here”.  And once let in, they would not be so easily ejected.  Once narrow victories were won with the help of these voters, and in the process creating a new opposition of ex-supporters disgusted at the tactics, there would be no stomach for changing direction. Javits said: “… the radical right will become so structured into the Presidential nomination campaign as to defeat a move to disengage it later on … A candidacy based on the “Southern strategy”, espousing the kind of views I have mentioned, would do more than hazard the party’s defeat in the 1964 contest; it could alienate millions of Americans in 1964 – who could stay alienated for years…”

The leadership acknowledged that they would lose as well as gain voters, but they thought the scales would tip to the positive side.  But if that were to happen, it would also be necessary to hold onto some groups within the Republican Party who might have otherwise been alienated. Therefore they pursued wholeheartedly instilling the idea that the GOPwas the only party for true conservatives. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but in 1963 the Republican’s were generally pro-business but encompassed a wide swath of opinion on social matters.  The decision to use the Southern Strategy was pushed through by the Goldwater supporters, who saw the disaffected Southern voter as easily gulled into supporting their radical conservative agenda. Even though their candidate lost, it started eating away at the supports holding up the Republican big tent. It took a long time. In the 70’s and even in the 80’s there were still “Rockefeller” Republicans who showed up at Planned Parenthood fundraisers and supported civil rights, but by the 90’s these were largely gone. Javits had known that having only one school of thought in the Republican Party was bad for the GOP, but he also knew that it was worse for the country: “Finally there persists in the pre-nomination debate a recurring notion it would be a good thing if the candidacy of a conservative at least produced a fundamental realignment of political parties into a clear cut “liberal” and a clear-cut Conservative party. The experience of Europe with strictly ideological parties says that nothing, in fact, could be worse for the United States. As each party dropped all dissenters, each now free of internal restraints, might fly to an extreme position, carrying millions of Americans with it..with our policies and the nation in this polarized condition, the whole of our democracy could be imperiled … Upon gaining control of the apparatus of government, and pile driving their extremist views through it, such parties could wrench the whole social order out of its socket – when the purpose of conservatism is to keep the social order on an even keel. “

I suspect Javits saw this playing out in years rather than decades, but it is clear that he was right on almost all points.  In essence, the Republicans’ first sip from that poison cup inevitably transformed it into the type of party it is today, a party that is wholly entwined with bigots and extremists, and has adopted a bizarre form of conservatism that, in truth, is as far from a rational conservatism as possible.