Sunday, January 26, 2020

A new TV comes into focus

I am a child of the '50s.

Which means I am a child of the television generation.

Out with the old...
 (Well, OK, so the first televised picture occurred in London in 1925. But television as a commercial [pun intended] mass medium hit its stride in the 1950s. Captain Kangaroo. Mighty Mouse. Mickey Mouse. Superman. Howdy Doody. Sky King. So if you are of a certain age, you know what I mean).

But I grew up with it, even though commercial television was once famously described as a "vast wasteland" by some fellow named Newton Minow, who just happened to be the Federal Communications Commission chairman in 1961. I was 10 years old. I didn't care. I loved my wasteland.

So television, as either background noise or source entertainment, has always been a fixture in my life. I can't remember a time without a Philco or a Motorola somewhere close by.

But a couple of weeks ago, our ancient 20-something year-old RCA console started showing its age. Unrelenting white horizontal bands kept flipping upwards through the screen whenever I turned on the set, and they simply weren't abating.

The message was clear: it was time to upgrade.

I did my due diligence and visited various electronics stores and warehouses, got help from Google and bored to tears all my friends when I asked them what kind of TVs they had. with the new.
 About a week ago, we took another plunge into the 21st century when our 49-inch LG SmartTV arrived from Shumakers (I like to buy local, when I can, to keep our tax dollars in Davidson County, and you can't beat the personalized service).

Although I've seen flat screen TVs in sports bars and elsewhere, I was astonished by the picture that was now in my house. The new 49-inch screen audaciously replaced the obsolete 32-inch RCA, and suddenly, I felt like I was in a theater. I was almost taking snaps from center when I watched the NFL playoffs, or standing over testy putts while reading the green as I watched tournaments on the Golf Channel.

Close ups of human beings actually showed blue eyes, wrinkles and nose hairs.

Holy smokes.

I think we're probably going to cut the cable soon, and go with a streaming service, which will knock down the number of all those wasteland stations I don't watch but still pay for.

I'm still a little intimidated, though. My new TV is asking me if I want to update my software. I didn't expect that. I just wanted to see the basketball game. I don't want to be an IT guy.

It seems just about everything I own now is smarter than me (probably not a surprise to some people): My new 4G cellphone upgrade is a computer, my TV is a computer, my car is a computer, even my computer is a computer.

It's not easy being a child of the '50s.

Sunday, January 19, 2020


How did they do that?

I'd been wanting to see the movie 1917 ever since it was first released in limited run over the Christmas holiday. For any number of reasons, there aren't that many quality World War I movies out there, so this one attracted my attention.

But I didn't want to see it so much for the action, or the plot, or the historical accuracy – or lack thereof – that there might be. I wanted to see it because of a technique used in shooting the film known as a one-shot take. It's a rarely-used method of movie making that gives the viewer the impression that the movie was filmed with only one camera and in real time. There are no shifting of scenes from one character to another, no breaks in movement – just one continuous motion of cinema for 117 minutes.

So that's why I ask, how did they do that?

The movie obviously required intense planning and choreography, as well as seamless editing. Clearly, more than one camera was used: some were mounted on jeeps, some on cranes, others on drones, and some were hand-held. Whenever an actor was briefly out of the frame – passing behind a tree or building, for example – that's where the splice is made.

The result is stunning movie making by director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakens.

The plot revolves around two young British soldiers (convincingly played by relative unknowns Dean-Charles Chapman as "Blake" and George MacKay as "Schofield"), who are tasked to deliver a message to another unit to halt an attack that could result in the massacre of 1,600 men, including the brother of one of the couriers. The two soldiers have less than a day to traverse No Man's Land (they are told by Intelligence that the Germans have vacated that part of the line. Easy peasy) to complete their mission, since the attack begins at daylight the next morning.

The action is intense almost from the start, so consequently for me there is an inclination to compare 1917 to Saving Private Ryan, one of the most intense war movies I've ever seen. But this is a different kind of intensity. While SPR was graphically unrelenting, 1917 shows little wartime violence, yet builds a growing sense of urgency within the viewer.

The movie is loosely based on the wartime memoirs of Lance Corporal Alfred Mendes, the paternal grandfather of the movie director who also co-wrote the screenplay. Alfred Mendes served as a messenger (or "runner") with the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade during World War I and who had to cross No Man's Land to find several companies that had lost contact with his own. The movie is dedicated to him (see here).

 There's been a nice run of quality movies lately, starting (for me) with Judy, followed by Ford v. Ferrari, then Midway, then It's  Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and now 1917.

If this keeps up, I'm going to need a raise in my allowance.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

On fire

The number is almost incomprehensible:

More than one billion (that's billion, with a "B") animals have perished in the Australian brush fires, raging since September, and that have nearly ringed the perimeter of the island continent. Uncounted others have lost their habitats. It's unclear what this damage could do – and has done – to the myriad ecosystems in the region, including the human ecosystem. For starters, smoke and debris lifted into the atmosphere have reached New Zealand, another island nation, more than 2,500 miles away.

The cause of the fires is unclear, but more than two dozen people have been arrested by Australian authorities on suspicion of arson, which makes you wonder where some of these people keep their IQ points in a country dehydrated by a sustained, devastating drought.

And so far (the phrase "so far" is a depressing portend when used in this context), 27 people have died in the Australian fires, with more than 2,000 homes destroyed.

Couple those numbers with the searing images of burned koala bears and kangaroos, of emus and livestock seeking safety, well, it's a disaster that is overwhelming if not just flat-out disheartening.

Climate change may not be the cause of the wildfires, but it seems evident that rising mean temperatures on the planet have extended Earth's naturally existing dry seasons, thereby exacerbating conditions for wildfires and droughts. (Keep in mind that brush fires are actually considered to be part of Australia's ecosystem). Wildfires in our own Midwest, not to mention in the Brazilian rain forest, seem to bear this out. To me, the ever lingering wildfires, burning with ever growing intensity, are evidence right in front of my eyes that climate change exists.

So do 70 degree temperatures in January in North Carolina.

I am not a scientist, so I have to depend on the research and conclusions of scientists to help me form my opinions. Therefore, I'm going to believe the vetted and educated specialists over the conspiracy theorists every day (There seems to be a conspiracy for every fact these days, forcing us to make up our own minds). If science tells me hydrocarbons, coal and fossil fuels are contaminating the planet and changing climates, well, it makes sense to me.

Even if you have doubts about the authenticity of climate change, what could it hurt to be on the safe side of saving the planet, as opposed to the fiscal side of extending corporate profits because you might think environmental conservation is a misdirection of money?

I vaguely remember a Sunday School class I once had as a middle schooler discussing stewardship and that we, as mankind, were tasked by God to take care of the world (Genesis 2:15 – "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it.") So there. What higher authority do you need?

Sometimes, I think we left those instructions at home.

In the meantime, backed by measurable scientific data, glaciers retreat, sea levels rise, hurricanes howl.

And the Earth burns.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Real ID realized

There was this migrainey vision in my head: of long lines with short tempers; of mumbled vulgarities with vacuous vacancies; of snide asides and rude results.

Yes – it was time to visit the Department of Motor Vehicles.

I wasn't looking forward to this. Off the top of my head, I can think of no government agency – not even Social Security  – with a bureaucracy so devoted to paperclipism as the DMV. No matter what business you have to conduct with this office, there's usually a two-hour wait involved (unless you have an appointment). That's two hours of our lives we'll never see again.

And this time, you have to be there. You cannot get your Real ID online. You have to appear in person, bringing with you as proof of your existence your certified birth certificate, your Social Security number and two documents showing your North Carolina residency with your name and address (in my case, it was my voter registration card and my Spectrum bill).

Kim had to bring all of this stuff, along with a marriage certificate to explain why her last name is Wehrle and not Martin, since Martin is the last name on her birth certificate.

Pass the paper clips, please.

Under a Homeland Security mandate, you need to get your Real ID before October of this year. Your Real ID – indicated by a star in the upper right hand corner of your driver's license, which pretty much explains why we're going to the DMV – allows you to fly domestically. This is important to me because I have one brother in Alaska and another in Oklahoma. Two of us are already collecting our Social Security and the other has gray in his beard, so you never know when short notice will tell you to take wing.

So with our proper documents in hand, the quest for our Real ID was on.

Kim had off from work on Dec. 26, so we decided that would be a good time to go to the DMV.

Wrong. We got there around 2 p.m. (the DMV closes at 5 p.m.) and there was a line running down the hallway of people just trying to get their number to be called for their turn to be processed. The line ran past the 24-seat waiting room. The woman in front of me stuck her head in the door and asked, to anybody, "How long have you been waiting?"

A waiting room wag responded, "Two days," and nobody laughed. Then he said, "About two hours."

"That's it for me," said the woman, and she huffed out the door. Maybe she can drive to Alaska – or wherever – if she needs to. My guess is that she'll be back.

Kim and I decided to leave, too, and try again another day. But at 4:30, just out of curiosity, we drove by the DMV on our way to get a meal, just to see if they were open on Saturday (they are not). This time, the parking lot had only a handful of cars. I got out and walked in the front door and took a look inside. With a half-hour to go, there was no line. Hmmm.

Unfortunately, we didn't have our documents with us.

Anyway, on Dec. 31 – New Year's Eve Day – I drove by the DMV at 8 a.m. just to run a reconnaissance, thinking who would show up on a holiday?

Everybody, it seems. This time, the line ran out the front door and into the parking lot. I was getting antsy.

But based on what I had seen late on the day on the previous Friday, we showed up again, this time around 3:30 p.m.

There was no line. We got our numbers and headed to the waiting room, where there were two other people. Within five minutes, Kim's number was called. A few moments later, so was mine. We were both processed within 15 minutes and issued temporary licenses (at $13 apiece), with the real Real IDs coming in the mail in 10 business days.

I think we got lucky, but I still sighed a huge sigh of relief. I can fly to Alaska now. I can go to a military reservation or enter a Federal building. I can even visit a nuclear power plant, if I want.

I've got my Real ID. It doesn't even matter that, based on my DMV experience, it's 15 minutes I'll never get back again.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Christmas denouement

Gloomy. Grey. Cold. Wet.

It's the perfect day to take down the Christmas decorations.

Well, it is January 2, after all. The holiday season is over. It's time.

I've never really looked forward to this day. Although winter officially began on Dec. 21, the day I take down the Christmas paraphernalia seems like the real first day of winter. I mean, c'mon. What's ahead? January. Quickly followed by February. And while it's a good thing February is the shortest month of the winter season, it's not so good for 2020: it's leap year.

Oh, good. An extra day of winter. Thanks, Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1582 as a revision – or correction – to the Julian calendar. So thanks, Julius Caesar, who created the Julian calendar as a revision to the Roman calendar in 46 BC. (That's Before Christ. So how can we really be sure that Christmas is on Dec. 25 anyway?)

I'm a little suspicious Julius and Gregory actually got it right in the first place.

There is a complicated algorithm behind leap year, which says "Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. For example, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 are not leap years, but the years 1600 and 2000 are."

Huh? That kind of logic to compensate for the planet's drift through time and space is way beyond my sportswriter's pay grade. Besides, I'm always leery of any algorithm that features the word "except," which is clearly the CYA ("Cover Your Posterior") gum in the works.

Anyway, none of this figured into my packing up my Christmas window candles, artificial wreaths and Moravian Star for another year.

I started my repacking chore shortly after Kim went to work this morning. It usually takes me about an hour to put the decorations up, and it took me about an hour to take them down. It wasn't that difficult. Plus, we haven't put up a tree in almost a decade, so that saved me a lot of time from carefully repacking legacy ornaments.

But it was a little sad, too. It's the end of another holiday season. Winter beckons. We're no longer in Advent season. Rather, we're in Prevent season.

I also felt a little disingenuous, too. Our block was recently recognized as the best block in the city in its inaugural "Light Up the Block" contest. The signs are still up at each end of our block announcing this honor. I assumed the signs weren't meant to stay up all year. There's not many lights still up, and there is the occasional $75 Christmas tree lying in the gutter.

On the other hand, if the signs were meant to stay up all year, I guess I wouldn't have to put up my decorations, huh?