Thursday, April 29, 2010

Hawking Warns of Close Encounters of Any Kind

Article first published as "Hawking Warns of Close Encounters of Any Kind" on

As a child I often stared up at the stars wondering about what was going on up there. My parents had a summer house on the south shore of Long Island, and at night sitting on the beach, I could see more stars than I ever knew were possibly there back at home in New York City. As they glistened in the night, instead of wishing on one, I hoped to visit one in the future, no doubt encouraged by my love of the television series Star Trek, with its depiction of a world of warp speed, easy planet hopping, and most friendly aliens wanting to form a federation of planets.

Now British scientist Stephen Hawking, featured in a new series Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking on the Discovery Channel, is warning us that we should not be too eager for close encounters with aliens from other worlds. He says, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”

Hawking goes on to describe alien beings who would be “nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach.” No doubt leaving their own dying planets, these space explorers would not be like the sweetly depicted E.T. from the famous Spielberg film, but probably a lot more like the ones we have come to know in films like Predator or Alien. These are not guys we would invite to the family picnic.

Which brings us back to my naïve childhood fantasy of wanting to reach out to those stars I saw twinkling above me. Is the dream of a peaceable universe so far-fetched? Perhaps as inconceivable as a peaceful world right here on Earth?

Some people may argue that there is no proof that aliens even exist. How can we be so certain that they are out there somewhere? Well, I remember watching the stars with my father when I was a boy. He told me that every star was a sun, and so that means they probably have planets just like our sun does.

Well, once my nine-year old brain heard that, then every Captain Kirk fantasy kicked into place. I started thinking, “Even if every star has just one planet capable of supporting life, as did our sun, that would mean there’s a heck of a lot of earth-like planets up there.” I must say that all these years later, I still believe that must be the case. We cannot be so egocentric to believe that our planet is the only one with intelligent life in an entire universe. That kind of thinking should have gone out with the world is flat theorists who saw men and ships didn’t fall off the edge of the planet when they turned left at Greenland.

It is nice to know that Hawking and I agree on this. He says, “To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational.” Where we obviously disagree is that he feels they will be coming in and wanting to wipe us out (just watch the weekly television series V to get an idea about that), but I am thinking they aren’t going to come all this way just for that. Besides, aren’t there other possibilities?

For one thing, many people believe that aliens have already visited this planet. Actually, taking a walk through Manhattan on any given day of the week, I can pretty much tell you that is a fact. The truth is that aliens with advanced technology (and it would have to be very advanced because they would be coming from other solar systems requiring vastly superior ships to anything we have or will have in the next hundred years) could have been here since the days of the dinosaur. They may be still here among us, or watching us from afar, because we are probably not ready yet for them to make their presence known.

If we even accept this as a possibility, then we must know that these aliens do not mean us harm. If they meant us harm, they would have eradicated us when we were living in caves, taken the natural resources they wanted, and maybe even burned our planet to a cinder. Obviously, if they have been around this long, they are benevolent enough to leave us to our own devices; unfortunately, we haven’t been the best custodians of this blue jewel of a planet we have been given.

Those who know me know that I believe in these aliens because I am open to the idea, but I also believe that I have been led down the path by all the films and television shows that nurtured my beliefs. Perhaps the strongest of all these is the original The Day the Earth Stood Still because it featured a superior alien force that understood, like Spider Man’s Uncle Ben, that with great power comes great responsibility. The alien robot Gort stands as a symbol of great power, power we cannot possibly conceive, and yet is a reminder that we will pay a price if we continue our history of belligerence.

I respect and admire Stephen Hawking a great deal, and I plan on watching this series on the Discovery Channel because how often do we get a window into a brilliant mind like his? Yet, I remain skeptical of his grim portrait of aliens who may or may not be out there. I guess I will cling to my cinematic inspired hopes for the force to be with us, so we may live long and prosper, because the prospect of anything else would be a close encounter of the most unwanted kind.

Klaatu Barada Nikto!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Baseball Needs Sandra Bullock

Do you remember that great movie Speed? One of the best things about it was Sandra Bullock. She played gutsy girl Annie Porter who lost her driver’s license for speeding, only to find herself behind the wheel of a fifteen-ton bus being ordered to speed by police officer Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves). She has to do this because there is a bomb on the bus that will detonate if she goes below 50mph. It’s a terrific movie, and its premise is that speed will keep you alive, and I think it can be applied to baseball and hopefully keep it from a slow, painful death.

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig recently formed a committee to improve baseball, and what is one of their most important tasks? They must find a way to “speed” games from their tortoise-like pace. Selig spoke to the Associated Press Sports Editors yesterday, explaining that the committee includes former baseball great Frank Robinson, Dodger manager Joe Torre, and Tigers manager Jim Leyland.

You may recall that baseball umpire Joe West recently called the deliberately slow pace of the game between the Yankees and Red Sox “a disgrace.” This got a lot of coverage here in New York newspapers, mostly skewering West for daring to say anything negative about the Yankee gods of the diamond, but the truth is the truth: four-hour (or longer) games are a disgrace, especially when batters keep calling for timeout during an at bat.

Speaking as a parent, I enjoy taking my kids to a game, but there is just so much time I can expect them to be able to sit. Yes, you can get up for the bathroom breaks kids need, to get hotdogs or ice cream , but in the end if the game drags on too long, there is nothing but whining and wanting to go home. Because of this bad experience, if I do not take my kids back to a game, it is bad for me, but also it is ultimately bad for baseball if other parents make the same decision.

There are many things that slow down the game besides the batters stepping out of the box. How many times does a catcher go to the mound? What about a third base coach having to explain signs to a hitter? The pitching coach ambles to the mound to give the reliever time to warm-up. The third baseman walks over to say something to the pitcher, and then maybe the rest of the infielders join in.

This does drag out the time of the game, and this is what Selig and the panel he has assembled are going to address. The big question is how are they going to stop this? Will they give umpires like West the power to keep coaches in the dugout, deny batters a chance to step out of the box, and prevent confabs on the mound?

In the end I think it should be about what is good for baseball. What is good for it, in my opinion, is to keep the games family friendly. Four-hour or longer games simply are not good for people with kids. If I go to a 7 o’clock game with them on a school night, I do not want to be bringing them home and putting them to bed at midnight. It just doesn’t make sense to even go to the game and chance that.

Selig addressed other issues, including the length of the playoffs. This is another “time” issue, and I wonder why teams need two days off between playoff games. Selig must realize that the game is being played deeper into cold weather. The frost is not only on the pumpkin by the time World Series rolls around; it’s on the baseball too.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the Series being played in November. With calls to expand the first round of the playoff from five to seven games, do we have to worry about snow-outs in the future? If the Minnesota Twins would make it to the World Series, that could be a real possibility.

I think this is a good start, but I wonder if Selig and his panel will make any real changes that will impact games this season. The pace of the games I have been watching this year so far has been excruciatingly slow, even more so when the game is on Fox or ESPN. There seems to be a commercial whenever there is an opportunity, and the game is just losing me because I feel compelled to switch the channels; sometimes I get interested in something else and do not switch back.

What the game needs is speed. There is no question about it, so my advice is to bring in Sandra Bullock and let her step on the gas. She could give every team a pep talk like she did in The Blind Side, and I don’t know if that will help, but it sure wouldn’t hurt. Let’s get the game moving because there’s a bomb on the baseball bus and, if it keeps slowing down, people are going to want to jump off before it blows up.

This article was first published in Blogcritics Magazine

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Obama Says: To Infinity and Beyond!

If you are like me, the news from Cape Canaveral yesterday was as welcome as last year’s new Star Trek movie. President Obama announced plans for NASA that were very exciting. Recently, we had heard from former astronauts that Obama had abandoned the space program, but this was a welcome shot in the arm for all of us who grew up dreaming about the stars and wishing Scotty could beam us up out of bed in our space pajamas.

Mr. Obama said that American astronauts would make it to Mars in his lifetime, echoing the inspiring words of President John F. Kennedy who in 1961 told Americans that there would be a manned landing on the moon by the end of the 1960s. As one of those kids who watched in grainy black and white as Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind in 1969, I believe that Mr. Obama is setting a goal that once again can be accomplished.

“We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history,” Mr. Obama said. “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow.” These words show true support for a long-range plan that extends NASA’s mission in the right direction.

Those who had hoped for a return to the moon are missing the whole point, and as Mr. Obama explained it, there is no reason to look back when we can look forward. “We’ve been there before,” Obama said. “There’s a lot more of space to explore.” Indeed there is!

This is like music to the ears of someone who kept thinking and hoping for eventual deep space exploration. Yes, as a child I was caught up in the fantasy of outer space and even dreamt of exploring strange new worlds. It was William Shatner as Kirk whose voiceover in the opening credits for the original Star Trek series that got to me: “To seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

In the 1960s, many of us saw the distant future (and yes, that meant the year 2001) as a place for our space odyssey. Since then we have all been caught in a reality check. The space shuttle seemed for a long time to be the end of the line, and the International Space Station more or less a bucket of bolts that astronauts kept adding to and fixing as necessary.

Now all of us: the former space cadets and future space explorers, have something exciting to look forward to. Mr. Obama did not mince words when he said, “The bottom line is: Nobody is more committed to manned space flight, the human exploration of space, than I am. But we’ve got to do it in a smart way; we can’t keep doing the same old things as before.”

If this doesn’t put a Flash in your Gordon, if this doesn’t Buck up your Rogers and Captain your Kirk, then nothing else will. I commend Mr. Obama for looking ahead to make the program something that makes sense in this new century. Everyone should be pleased with the notion that NASA’s past work is being honored by this commitment to a bright future for the agency and the prospect of new and exciting missions to come.

While I am sure there will be some critics of the President’s initiative, the move is a sound one on many levels. The most important thing to remember is that the moon is always there. Someday it makes sense that it will be a place for bases as a jumping off point for other missions. Huge interplanetary vessels will probably have to be constructed there to take advantage of the gravity and to avoid issues with leaving our atmosphere.

There is also the thought of Mars in our collective consciousness: it is a place of mystery, of little green men, of hopes and dreams that swirl in its iconic red dust. Reaching Mars is a most necessary emotional and physical first step to exploring the rest of our solar system and eventually going beyond to the stars.

Mr. Obama’s plan is visionary, yet it also makes sense and addresses the realities of our time and place. Until we make the next big discovery (damn it Jim, we need to find those dilithium crystals fast), this is a smart way of looking beyond the clouds and reaching for the stars.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Season 8 of 24: The Unbearable Darkness of Being Jack Bauer

If you have been faithfully watching 24 since the very beginning, in those crazy and scary days of uncertainty after 9/11, you probably have been caught up in the increasingly arduous and uncertain life of Jack Bauer (played by Keifer Sutherland). As we have been given windows into eight days in that life, we have seen Jack unravel, spiral to the depths of despair, and yet always rebound in sheer perseverance and determination to save the day (and the people he is sworn to protect) against all obstacles.

Watching episode 17 of season 8, I (like many of the rest of you I am sure) was temporarily lulled into a false sense of happiness for Jack. He tells CTU and the world that “It is over,” and he takes former FBI Agent Renee Walker (Annie Wersching) by the hand and makes his way back to the life he hopes to construct with her. They go to his apartment and make love, and after all this time we are happy to see Jack attain some human connection, one that he so desperately needs.

Alas, this is not to be for more than a few fleeting moments. While we suspect Jack and Renee are thinking of a life together, a sniper named Pavel is sitting in a window across the street with other plans. He spotted Renee at the crime scene where President Hassan had been murdered, and the one surviving henchman Samir would have too much information, so Pavel gives him a lethal dose of something. In keeping with the infuriating 24 tradition, no one sees him and he gets away, but Renee notices him, causing his antennae pop-up.

We learn in this episode that the Russians are behind the whole plot, or at least Russian delegate Novakovich at the U.N., when Pavel calls him just as he happens to be going into a conference with US President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones). Obviously, the plot thickens as Pavel waits to take out Renee and Jack Bauer as well.

Meanwhile, back at the U.N. President Taylor meets with assassinated President Hassan’s widow Dalia, and she presents a plan to keep the IRK in the peace process by getting the IRK government to install her as its provisionary leader. While at first taken back by the offer, Dalia recognizes the importance of her husband’s work (and his legacy). Dalia has the inner fortitude to try this (against her daughter’s wishes), and she accepts Taylor’s offer. Needless to say when Novakovich finds out about this, he is not pleased and says the Russians are pulling out of the conference.

This sets the stage for the return of one of 24’s most slitheringly delicious villains, former President Charles Logan (played with icky delight by Gregory Itzen). This most Shakespearean moment is a dramatic delight as the disgraced, but pardoned, ex-President meets face-to-face with the current one. President Taylor knows she has to deal with Chucky, but she doubts he will be her friend to the end.

Back at CTU, Brian (No Neck) Hastings has been given a pink slip. He, of course, recruited Dana Walsh (now a known terrorist) and mishandled other events of the day, so Hastings is relieved of his duties and our girl Chloe O’Brian gets elevated to temporary head of the agency. No, this is not like a mistake or any typo; Chloe has finally received the recognition she richly deserves. Chalk one up for the good guys (and gals).

Hastings says “Bye-bye” to the troops and then slinks off, presumably to return to Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and perhaps to eventually have an operation to restore his neck. Chloe, flustered by being given authority, has to deal with the immediate crisis of Samir dying in CTU Medical (the list is endless of people who died there, including Tony Almeida who then came back to life, but that’s another story).

Once Samir kicks the bucket and Chloe understands that someone injected him with something a lot worse than steroids, who is she going to call? Since The Ghostbusters are not available, she calls her best bud Jack Bauer. This is exactly what Chloe would always do, but she picks the worst possible time.

Jack and Renee have finished making whoopee, and they lay in a passionate embrace briefly. Thoughts are no doubt of good things to come for them as a couple, reestablishing the domesticity Jack lost long ago but has always wanted. Jack has to get up and make some coffee (we have been waiting seven seasons to see Jack ingest something since season 1). Renee runs her hand gently along the scars on his back, knowing she can’t erase his pain but perhaps can create a new happiness for him.

Sniper Pavel sees Jack emerge from the love den, but he doesn’t shoot him because Renee is his main target. The phone rings and, though Jack tells her not to answer, Renee does and talks to Chloe. When Renee learns of Samir’s death, she remembers the guy she saw at the crime scene and puts two and two sadly together. As she runs out of the room to tell Jack, Pavel shoots her and then tries to get Jack but fails. Big mistake, Pavel!

Jack rushes Renee to the ER in a taxi, as Pavel slithers back into a hole somewhere to await instructions. The taxi driver makes a wild rush to the hospital, and Jack carries Renee in and the doctors push her into the OR. Jack gets yet another call from Chloe, and she updates him on all that has happened. Jack is trying to keep it together, hoping that all will go well, but the doctors come out with grim faces and one tells him Renee is gone.

At this point, dear readers, we have seen Jack plummet from a hopeful pinnacle to a nadir of frustration and anger. He goes into the OR and stares at Renee’s lifeless body. As he stands there helplessly, we are with him, thinking that even the trials and tribulations of the Biblical Job weren’t this bad. Jack walks over and gives Renee one final kiss, and we know from this that there is going to be hell to pay and Jack is taking no prisoners.

It is safe to say that Jack Bauer is the most long-suffering dramatic character in TV history. Some may think of Andy Sipowciz (Dennis Franz) from NYPD Blue, but even he had a chance for more happiness. Jack Bauer has lost so many people, but during the course of it all he has never lost his desire to do what is right, no matter what the personal cost. In doing so he has set himself up to be more than damaged and, as Secretary of State Heller (father of his now comatose former lover Audrey) once told him, to be a man who is “cursed” and that everything he loves seems to crumble in his path.

We don’t know for sure what will happen in the last seven episodes, but I recall that the most dangerous Jack Bauer is the one who thinks he has nothing to lose. I remember the scene from the last episode of season 1, when Nina Meyers lied to him about his daughter Kim being dead, and Jack went on an explosive tear and single-handedly killed Victor Drazen, his son, and all their men.

Judging from next week’s preview, Jack is ready to do whatever it takes to get justice. Since he seems to not be able to find happiness, it may be the only way he can make some kind of peace for himself. In doing so, he may descend to even darker depths, but in the end the rest of the world will be a safer place, even though Jack Bauer will continue suffering, probably for the rest of his life.

Until next time, Klaatu Barada Nikto!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

2010 Mets Are a Pain in the Grass

Okay, I should have posted this column before the start of the season, but I wanted to wait until the first Mets loss before I did. In truth, the loss against the Marlins only makes the Mets 1-1 on the season, but the obvious reality is staring us in the face: there will be many more losses than wins this season. The oft-injured Metsies are once again a pain in the grass.

As a lifelong Mets fan, I take no pleasure in stating what is true here. I would have loved to write about our great winter acquisitions of John Lackey, Benji Molina, and Orlando Hudson. Alas, I can say we have Jason Bay, but that’s like saying the Titanic had waterproof doors. I think Bay is a tremendous asset, and a real improvement over the likes of past leftfielders George Foster or Stork Theodore, but he can’t get the job done alone.

When I see an opening day lineup featuring Met retread Mike Jacobs as the cleanup hitter, I start thinking fondly of the days when “slugger” Marvelous Marv Throneberry was in that spot for the Mets. How can the management of this team believe this is an equitable way to treat the fans: the ones who have to plunk down mucho dinero to get seats in the house that Citibank built?

All of this started last year: 2009 was the first year of pain in the grass at Citi Field. One by one like blue and orange dominoes, our Metsies fell onto the disabled list. Our wounded boys of summer included Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, and Johan Santana. David Wright, who was hurt but valiantly played that way, had no help in the lineup, giving him as much protection as an acne-scarred teenager on a blind date with the head cheerleader.

We all suffered through the dubious explanations of what happened in 2009. We listened to the comic relief of skipper Jerry Manuel in his press conferences, holding his disabled list and walking and talking like Hamlet going across the stage with the skull of Yorick the fool. No matter how much goodwill Jerry managed to establish, the aftertaste of 2009 eventually resonated with fans like a greasy burger and a glass of curdled milk.

Everyone wanted to get past last year. We had the beautiful new stadium to think about. All the excitement generated by the dedication of the Jackie Robinson Rotunda helped matters a bit, but one couldn’t stop from gazing at the hallowed ground where the simply wonderful but ugly Shea Stadium once stood and thinking, man, those were the days. Can you imagine actually feeling nostalgic for Shea Stadium after all the horrible seasons there? That is what the 2009 Mets did to us.

Along comes 2010 and we Mets fans have been waiting for the year that should have been last year. We hear the good news about Jason Bay, but we keep wondering when they’re going to pull the strings and get some more help. We need a starting pitcher, we need a second baseman, we need a first baseman, and we need some arms in the pen. As we were waiting for this good news, Carlos Beltran goes down as the first casualty of 2010. Carlos is hurt again? Kids were wandering around Flushing muttering, “Say it ain’t so, Carlos!” Can you imagine kids wandering around a place called “Flushing” saying anything else?

Along the way to spring training we got pictures of Jose Reyes running bases and looking good, and then the next thing we know he is being shut down because of an undisclosed illness. Another guy on the DL? It’s only March. We learn about his thyroid problems and start longing for the days when Chico Escuela was telling the world how "berry" good baseball had been to him. Damn, we would even take good old Felix Millan back if we could get him in a trade for Luis Castillo.

In silence Mets fans suffer as the Yankees management always adds this and that to the pot, like chefs who find the right ingredients to make the stew delicious. No matter how much I hate the Yankess (and it grows more intense with the passing of each season), I do have to give them credit for going out and getting talent. The problem is how they treat that same talent when they’re done with them. Just ask Bernie Williams and Johnny Damon how it feels. Or even better yet, ask Joe Torre. He knows how it feels to be kicked in his former Yankee butt.

But I digress, because the problem here is the 2010 Mets. We just have to face reality, Mets fans. I am going to predict a very stark reality for you: we will be lucky if we get a record of 72-90. I don’t know if we can even expect that much. Hey, I’m being honest as I can be.

What can we expect of the 2010 team. Oliver Perez will melt down faster than a candle in a furnace. John Maine will probably win 10-12 if he can get his head on straight. Pelfrey wins 9 or 10 games if he’s lucky, and while Niese is nice, I don’t think we can expect more than 9 or 10 wins from him either. That leaves poor Johan, who is probably thinking I should have signed with the Nationals and would have had a better shot at winning. If Johan stays healthy, his record will be something like 14-10.

As for the everyday guys, I like Franceour and Bay and Wright. They will get their numbers, but not anywhere near what they would get if they were playing somewhere else. Besides, if you have been to Citi Field, the ball goes up and then it dies up there in some kind of stagnant air that comes in off Flushing Bay. Wright hits 20 homers if he is lucky; Bay gets to 25, and Franceour maybe hits 15. If the team gets 100 homers this year, we’ll give them the old Ed Kranepool trophy for power hitting. By the way, I always loved sweet old Ed. I wonder if he is still available to play first base?

I hope I am wrong, Mets fans, but I don’t think so. If Santana could pitch on two days rest, maybe we’d have a chance. Right now I am thinking the worst, and I wish it could be otherwise. I will still wear my orange and blue because those are my team colors, and I will accept the losing because our Mets were born from losing. As the great Casey Stengel used to say, “You can look it up.” Of course, you can. One thing I can tell you is that we won’t lose 120 games this year. Of that I am certain, but we will get to around 90 losses and that means 2010 will be another real pain in the grass at Citi Field.