TV Uncategorized

Missing LOST

I miss LOST.

For six years, ABC’s daring sci-fi/adventure/mystery cross-breed topped my list of favorite shows. Each new episode was a household event; guests were welcome—if they agreed not to talk over the plot twists.

LOST’s strength was its ensemble approach. The show’s genre shifted, depending on which character was featured that week. It could be melodramatic tragedy—John Locke’s pitiful story. Or a bad-luck comedy, starring the adorable Hurley. Would you get an action-heavy thriller, starring Jack? Or a sci-fi head-scratcher revolving around Desmond?

Whatever character was featured, one thing was certain: the episode would end with a mind-blowing cliffhanger, accompanied by dissonant trombones and a black title card. These crazy plot twists kept you hooked, obsessively tuning in week-by-week to learn more.

But there’s a downside to a show so heavy on cliffhangers: you can’t really rewatch it. Sure, you can find the series on DVD or Netflix; it’s perfectly suited to binge-viewing by LOST newcomers. But if you already know every plot twist, why bother? where’s the suspense? What’s the fun?

You already know, for example, that [spoiler alert!] John Locke was paralyzed when his dad shoved him out a window. You already know that Claire (or Jin, or Locke, or just about anyone who “dies”) isn’t dead. You already know that there’s a Brit on a bike inside the Hatch. You know Henry Gale’s real identity. It’s downright boring when you already know what’s hiding behind the curtain.

LOST mastered the big reveal—but at a cost to its viewers. No matter how much you’d like to, you can never go back to the Island.

sports Uncategorized

Robot umpires

Why do we still have human baseball umpires?

Of the four major American sports, baseball seems best-suited to computerized referees (hereafter, “robots”). In hockey, football, and basketball, the action happens quickly, in multiple places, and in infinite variation. America’s pasttime moves slowly, focuses on a single location, and allows relatively little improvisation. Baseball umps stand still, stare in one direction, and make straightforward observations (e.g. “Did the ball pass through the strike zone?” and “Did the ball or the runner get there first?”). It seems likely that a well-tuned robot would out-ump a middle-aged man, weighed down with gear, secret allegiances, and consummate dramatic flair.

Professional tennis has already deployed a camera-and-computer system for tracking the ball’s trajectory. “Hawk-Eye” does not supplant the umpire (yet), but it is authoritative in player appeals. Could something similar work in baseball? In fact, it already does. PITCHf/x determines a pitch’s location, speed, and movement almost instantaneously. Why not perfect this pitch-perceiving tool, then make its rulings canonical?

America’s theater

If accuracy were the only issue, this might make sense. But it isn’t, so it doesn’t.

In fact, sometimes we celebrate inaccuracy. We love the fact that umpires sometimes get it wrong. They add uncertainty to what might otherwise devolve into a rote arithmetic exercise. Baseball, after all, is a simple game. Hit the ball, run the bases, beat the tag. But with umpires on the field, every play is a potential revelation. Did he see it? Will he get it right? The stadium holds its breath, waiting for the ump to twirl his finger (“Home run!”) or punch out the incredulous victim of a wicked knuckler.

Sports is not math. It’s America’s theater. We love drama, and drama needs actors. The ump plays his part: conductor of cheers when our ace rings one up. Sparring partner for a feisty manager. Arch-villain when things go wrong. And robots make terrible actors. Why bother booing an algorithm–especially if it’s 99.99+% accurate? Does booing even make sense when there’s no one standing behind the catcher?

As Gerard Martin writes, “While artificial intelligence may provide a superior solution on balls and strikes, there is no technological substitute for an umpire’s ability to control the emotional aspects of the game.” Sure, robots make more accurate calls. But who cares? Robots would out-pitch humans, too, but no one wants a machine on the mound. It’s not about perfection; it’s about story.

Robot actors

So, there we are. Humans are inaccurate and robots are impersonal. Something’s got to give.

Could robots someday handle the dramatic role? Here are some thoughts on how this might look:

  • Wherever the computers, cameras, or lasers end up, put an avatar on the field itself. Tennis’ disembodied squawk just won’t fly. Fans need somewhere to look and (more importantly) direct their boos. Give them a mechanical man, a bank of lights, a press box section to yell at—anything.
  • Develop real artificial intelligence—computers with personality. Program the robo-ump to glory in a ninth-inning strike out, to belly-up to an argumentative manager, and to stare down a borderline pitch before making its call.
  • Make each city’s ump unique. Even if the underlying algorithm is identical at every ballpark, make its visible manifestation different. The Yankees might project a CG Yogi Berra on the Jumbotron. Detroit might build a Transformers™-esque Ford truck behind home plate. Boston could make the Green Monster bellow balls and strikes.

Augmented umps

These are terrible ideas. Rather than dressing up machines like people, let’s give our human umps better tools. We’ve already got decent data; why not make it available to the umpire?

Once the tech makes it feasible, MLB umps might rely on an augmented reality system, integrated into their masks. In real-time, a heads-up display could draw the strike zone, and each pitch would paint its path as it crosses home plate. TV broadcasts would have access to this video feed, too, and fans could access it on the web.

Until such technology is available, a wireless headset could enable conversations between the on-field ump and booth officials, plugged into the computer. Or, to keep the game moving, uncertain umps could tap a button and have the calculated verdict automatically piped to their earphones. Such solutions would preserve the ump’s starring role, but give him more direction during the show’s big scenes.

music sports TV Uncategorized

Bugler’s Nightmare

It’s high drama in concert band form. Brutish, martial timpani pound out a perfect fourth. A reckless cymbal crashes. Chimes toll out the measures. And then, with almost dizzying pomp, the brass enters and exults.

No, it’s not the official Olympics theme music; some lame hymn claims that title. But (at least in the American imagination) “Bugler’s Dream” is the Olympic soundtrack. That’s all the more impressive when you consider that Léo Arnaud didn’t compose the piece ‘til 1958. And “Dream” didn’t show up in an Olympics broadcast until ten years after that. Think of it: seventy-odd years without “Bugler’s Dream”! One wonders how the tournament survived those dark decades, its listless, “Dream”-less athletes too depressed to compete.

So maybe I should be grateful that NBC included the piece at all in their February broadcasts. After all, they haven’t always played “Bugler’s Dream” for the Winter Olympics; too often, it was reserved exclusively for the Summer Games. But, no, they used it, ad nauseum—or at least a rearrangement of the piece by John Williams (of Star Wars fame). Yes, we got “Bugler’s Dream.”

But we didn’t get all of it. Here’s the opening page from the classic score:


That last line is the timpani part; the pic’s resolution is low, but you should be able to count two measures of timpani intro before the brass bombasts. Now, here’s the opening montage from NBC’s nightly Olympics broadcasts for comparison:

Great, right? The clip starts late, but NBC clearly includes both measures of timpani.

Unfortunately (and here’s the key point), this was rare during NBC’s 2010 Olympics coverage. More often than not, when NBC played Arnaud’s “Dream,” they cut out a whole measure of the timpanic intro. We were given just five notes to prepare for the brass blast-off. In other words, NBC forced me to revel too early. I need both measures to gird my loins for the full orchestra’s triumphant entry. The solo timpani, simple and spare, provides the contrast that makes the trumpet smack-down so breathtaking in the first place! Chop out a full measure, and you’re left with a dull dramatic hiccup.  Why would NBC do this? Why short-circuit their own spectacle?

Why else? Making room for commercials, baby. More often than not, “Bugler’s Dream” served as the soundtrack for a tightly-edited roll of corporate sponsors. With their broadcast costs spiraling out of control, NBC sacrificed sports showmanship for sports sponsorship. No time for drama! No time for the majesty of sport! We have a Visa logo to display! We have a Samsung slogan to spout! We have a semi-sacrosanct Olympic symbol to desecrate!

UPDATE: Here’s what I’m talking about. Listen for the single measure of timpani going into the commercial break.