“Devs” Is an Excellent Series, Except…

Devs is a science fiction series that’s streaming on the Hulu service. You have to pay for Hulu, but they usually have a free trial for new subscribers. If you have the right kind of Spotify account, Hulu is free.

The people who made Devs have done a brilliant job. The scripts are intelligent, the actors are talented. One thing that sets it apart is that it’s visually stunning. It’s a TV show that looks better than most big-budget movies. One reason it’s so good is that it’s written and directed by Alex Garland, the filmmaker hugely responsible for 28 Days Later, Ex Machina and Annihilation.

Another thing that sets Devs apart is that it concerns the nature of reality. Is the universe deterministic? What is the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics? Are there multiple worlds? Do you and I have free will? Should we be held morally responsible for our decisions if we couldn’t have chosen otherwise?

I haven’t finished the series yet. Maybe when it’s over, my opinion will have changed. I think Aristotle said we should judge a work of art as a whole.

What motivated me to write this post, however, was that one of the characters, Lily Chan, is now faced with what might turn out to be a truly momentous decision, possibly the biggest decision anyone has ever made. (A determinist would say I had no choice — the history of the universe made me start writing.) It isn’t giving much away about the show to say that Lily has been told she will be at a certain place later tonight and, assuming she is, things are going to go terribly wrong. She and her friend both think it’s crazy to think anybody could reliably predict such a thing, but at the same time she wants to make sure the prediction doesn’t come true. How should she make sure of that?

Here are two options:

(a) She and her friend, who are in the beautiful city of San Francisco, should get some cash, turn off their phones and start driving. They should drive as far away as possible from the place she’s predicted to be later tonight. They should definitely not stay in San Francisco, since it’s only a few miles from where the big, bad event is supposed to happen. Come on, Lily! Run away!

(b) Lily and her friend should stay in her apartment in San Francisco, but not go outside. That should be good enough.

If you were in her situation and you wanted to prove the prediction wrong, which option would you choose? Would you choose (a) or (b) to make sure the very, very bad thing didn’t happen?

This is a TV show. Which option does she choose?

I think we all know the answers to these questions.

A Big Reason Why There Is a Monster in the White House

One of the 2016 election’s least reported stories was how a certain candidate benefited from starring in a “reality” TV show for the 14 years before he ran for president. The program was The Apprentice, sometimes known as Celebrity Apprentice. It was created and produced by a man named Mark Burnett, now the head of MGM Television. Burnett is the subject of an article in The New Yorker written by Patrick Keefe. Here are excerpts regarding the program’s star performer.

Trump had been a celebrity since the eighties, his persona shaped by the best-selling book “The Art of the Deal.” But his business had foundered, and by 2003 he had become a garish figure of local interest—a punch line on Page Six [the New York Post‘s gossip page]. “The Apprentice” mythologized him anew, and on a much bigger scale, turning him into an icon of American success…. [Mark Burnett’s] legacy is to have cast a serially bankrupt carnival barker in the role of a man who might plausibly become the leader of the free world. “I don’t think any of us could have known what this would become,” … a producer on the first five seasons of “The Apprentice,” told me. “But Donald would not be President had it not been for that show.”

Tony Schwartz, who wrote “The Art of the Deal,” which falsely presented Trump as its primary author, told me that he feels some responsibility for facilitating Trump’s imposture. But, he said, “Mark Burnett’s influence was vastly greater,” adding, “ ‘The Apprentice’ was the single biggest factor in putting Trump in the national spotlight.” Schwartz has publicly condemned Trump, describing him as “the monster I helped to create.” 

“The Apprentice” was built around a weekly series of business challenges. At the end of each episode, Trump determined which competitor should be “fired.” But … Trump was frequently unprepared for these sessions, with little grasp of who had performed well. Sometimes a candidate distinguished herself during the contest only to get fired, on a whim, by Trump. When this happened, … the editors were often obliged to “reverse engineer” the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage to emphasize the few moments when the exemplary candidate might have slipped up, in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense. 

“The Apprentice” portrayed Trump not as a skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters but as a plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth—a titan who always seemed to be climbing out of helicopters or into limousines. “Most of us knew he was a fake,” [one of the show’s editors] told me. “He had just gone through I don’t know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king.” [One of the producers] recalled, “We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture. We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise.”

Trump maximized his profits from the start. When producers were searching for office space in which to stage the show, he vetoed every suggestion, then mentioned that he had an empty floor available in Trump Tower, which he could lease at a reasonable price. (After becoming President, he offered a similar arrangement to the Secret Service.) When the production staff tried to furnish the space, they found that local venders, stiffed by Trump in the past, refused to do business with them.

More than two hundred thousand people applied for one of the sixteen spots on Season 1, and throughout the show’s early years the candidates were conspicuously credentialled and impressive. Officially, the grand prize was what the show described as “the dream job of a lifetime”—the unfathomable privilege of being mentored by Donald Trump while working as a junior executive at the Trump Organization. All the candidates paid lip service to the notion that Trump was a peerless businessman, but not all of them believed it…. Fran Lebowitz once remarked that Trump is “a poor person’s idea of a rich person,” and [one contestant] was struck, when the show aired, by the extent to which Americans fell for the ruse. “Main Street America saw all those glittery things, the helicopter and the gold-plated sinks, and saw the most successful person in the universe,” he recalled. “The people I knew in the world of high finance understood that it was all a joke.”

This is an oddly common refrain among people who were involved in “The Apprentice”: that the show was camp, and that the image of Trump as an avatar of prosperity was delivered with a wink. Somehow, this interpretation eluded the audience. [An editor] marvelled, “People started taking it seriously!”

The show was an instant hit, and Trump’s public image, and the man himself, began to change. Not long after the première, Trump suggested in an Esquire article that people now liked him, “whereas before, they viewed me as a bit of an ogre.” [A Trump publicist said] that after “The Apprentice” began airing “people on the street embraced him. All of a sudden, there was none of the old mocking. He was a hero.”

The show’s camera operators often shot Trump from low angles, as you would a basketball pro, or Mt. Rushmore. Trump loomed over the viewer, his face in a jowly glower, his hair darker than it is now, the metallic auburn of a new penny. (“Apprentice” employees were instructed not to fiddle with Trump’s hair, which he dyed and styled himself.) Trump’s entrances were choreographed for maximum impact, and often set to a moody accompaniment of synthesized drums and cymbals. The “boardroom”—a stage set where Trump determined which candidate should be fired—had the menacing gloom of a “Godfather” movie. In one scene, Trump ushered contestants through his rococo Trump Tower aerie, and said, “I show this apartment to very few people. Presidents. Kings.” In the tabloid ecosystem in which he had long languished, Trump was always Donald, or the Donald. On “The Apprentice,” he finally became Mr. Trump.

Originally, Burnett had planned to cast a different mogul in the role of host each season. But Trump took to his part more nimbly than anyone might have predicted. He wouldn’t read a script—he stumbled over the words and got the enunciation all wrong. But off the cuff he delivered the kind of zesty banter that is the lifeblood of reality television. He barked at one contestant, “Sam, you’re sort of a disaster. Don’t take offense, but everyone hates you.” … Producers often struggled to make Trump seem coherent, editing out garbled syntax and malapropisms. “We cleaned it up so that he was his best self … I’m sure Donald thinks that he was never edited… We didn’t have to change him—he gave us stuff to work with.” 

By the time Trump announced his campaign, ratings for “The Apprentice” had fallen, and the show had been repackaged as “The Celebrity Apprentice.” The contestants were now D-list celebrities… Still, everyone gamely pretended to take it seriously….

Burnett’s reluctance to discuss the Trump presidency is dismaying to many people involved with “The Apprentice,” given that Trump has succeeded in politics, in part, by borrowing the tropes of the show…. When Trump announced his candidacy, in 2015, he did so in the atrium of Trump Tower, and made his entrance by descending the gold-colored escalator—choreography that Burnett and his team had repeatedly used on the show. After Trump’s announcement, reports suggested that people who had filled the space and cheered during his speech had been hired to do so, like TV extras, for a day rate of fifty dollars. Earlier this year, the White House started issuing brief video monologues from the President that strongly evoke his appearances on Burnett’s show. Justin McConney, a former director of new media for the Trump Organization, told New York that, whenever Trump works with camera people, he instructs them, “Shoot me like I’m shot on ‘The Apprentice.’ ”

I asked [a psychologist] what kind of personality profile he might have prepared for Trump as a candidate for the show. He said he would have noted “the energy, the impulsiveness, the inability to articulate a complete thought because he gets interrupted by emotions, so when he speaks it’s all adjectives—‘great,’ ‘huge,’ ‘horrible.’ ” What made Trump so magnetic as a reality-television star was his impulse to transgress, … and it is the same quality that has made a captive audience of the world. “That somebody can become that successful while also being that emotionally undisciplined—it’s so macabre that you have to watch it,” he said. “And you keep waiting for the comeuppance. But it doesn’t come.”

There has likely never been a man who, in his own lifetime, has been as widely spoken and written about as Donald Trump. Politics has never been so spellbinding. “It’s the reason people watch a schoolyard fight,” [the psychologist said]. “It’s vicariously watching someone act out and get away with it.” Burnett once remarked that “Lord of the Flies” is so absorbing because all the characters are suddenly transported into a world in which “the rules are changed, and convention, law, and morality are suspended.” It’s an apt paraphrase of the Trump presidency.

Those TV People Are Arguing Again

I stopped watching television news during the Clinton administration (the real one, not the administration Comey killed in its cradle). I got sick of lengthy, supposedly balanced coverage of the Whitewater non-scandal and the Clinton/Lewinksy episode. But from what I hear, TV news has gotten even worse during the past 20 years. Vox has a little bit of text and a six-minute video that helps explain why:

In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, CNN president Jeff Zucker described the network’s approach to covering politics, saying, “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way.” That politics-as-sport approach has placed a heavy emphasis on drama, with much of CNN’s programming revolving around sensationalist arguments between hosts, guests, and paid pundits.

… CNN’s fixation on drama and debate has turned the network’s coverage into a circus of misinformation. CNN’s [DT] supporters derail segments critical of the president, misrepresent [his] positions to avoid tough questions, and peddle false and misleading information on national TV while being paid by the network. In many cases, CNN’s [DT] supporters repeat the same lies and talking points that CNN’s serious journalists spend all day trying to debunk….

All of this would be fine and normal for a [sports] network like ESPN — but when you treat politics like a sport, you end up with news coverage that cares more about fighting and drama than it does about serious truth telling.

The video is interesting in a train wreck kind of way. Everyone who watches CNN should watch it.

But so should everyone who wants to better understand what the hell’s going on in our modern world. The Vox thing reminded me of Neil Postman’s classic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published way back in 1985. Here’s a quote from Mr. Postman:

… television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this world almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information–misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information–information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.

In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well-informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?

And it’s gotten worse since then. Here’s the video.

Submitted For Your Approval

Many of us with gray hair find it almost impossible to encounter a bizarre situation without invoking the title of an ancient television show. It ran from 1959 to 1964 and was in black and white. The program was created and hosted by Rod Serling (1924-1975), a talented writer and Unitarian from upstate New York with a reputation in the TV industry as an “angry young man”.

Sometimes the best part of a Twilight Zone program was when Serling appeared on screen to introduce the show and then later to comment on the weird or scary stuff that just happened. And there was that great theme music!

Given the recent tragedy, it’s safe to say that millions of Americans, including whoever created the image below, had the exact same thought: “It’s like we’re in The Twilight Zone“.


To worldwide acclaim, a reporter for Scotland’s Sunday Herald newspaper named Damien Love used his “TV Highlights” column to brilliantly say the same thing (text below):


 “After a long absence, The Twilight Zone returns with one of the most ambitious, expensive and controversial productions in broadcast history. Sci-fi writers have dabbled often with alternative history stories – among the most common is the “What If The Nazis Had Won The Second World War” setting – but this huge interactive virtual reality project, which will unfold on TV, in the press, and on Twitter over the next four years, sets out to build an ongoing alternative present. The story begins in a nightmarish version of 2017 in which huge sections of the US electorate have somehow been duped into voting to make Donald Trump president. It sounds far-fetched, and it is, but as it goes on it becomes more and more chillingly plausible. Today’s feature-length opener concentrates on the gaudy inauguration of President Trump, and the stirrings of protest and despair surrounding the ceremony, while pundits speculate gravely on what lies ahead. It’s a flawed piece, but a disturbing glimpse of the horrors we could stumble into, if we’re not careful.”

Believe it or not, that was all preface to what I really wanted to share today. 

Some linkages between The Twilight Zone and the current crisis aren’t so successful:


We’ll have to wait and see if the Republican Party committed suicide or not, but the real problem here is that Rod Serling never opened The Twilight Zone with “Imagine if you will”. Nor did he say “Consider if you will”, although he sometimes asked us to “imagine” something.  

How do I know this? Because we have Wikiquotes and internet browsers with a “Find” feature. 

It’s amazing but true. One or more devoted souls have transcribed everything Rod Serling said during the five-year run of The Twilight Zone. You can read every word right here.  

Mr. Serling once said “Pleased to present for your consideration”, but it turns out he preferred the word “submitted” as in “Submitted for your approval”:

“Respectfully submitted for your perusal, a Kanamit. Height: a little over nine feet. Weight: in the neighborhood of 350 pounds. Origin: unknown.” (“To Serve Man”, March 2, 1962)

“Submitted for your approval: the case of one Miss Agnes Grep, put on Earth with two left feet, an overabundance of thumbs and a propensity for falling down manholes.” (“Cavender Is Coming”, May 25, 1962)

“Major Robert Gaines, a latter-day voyager just returned from an adventure. Submitted to you without any recommendation as to belief or disbelief.” (“The Parallel”, March 14, 1963)

“Submitted for your approval or at least your analysis: one Patrick Thomas McNulty, who, at age forty-one, is the biggest bore on Earth.” (“A Kind of a Stopwatch”, October 18, 1963)

He also liked “picture”:

“Picture of the spaceship E-89, cruising above the thirteenth planet of star system fifty-one, the year 1997.” (“Death Ship”, February 7, 1963)

“Picture of an aging man who leads his life, as Thoreau said, ‘in a quiet desperation.’ (“A Short Drink From a Certain Fountain” (December 13, 1963)

When we used to listen to Mr. Serling’s clipped, sonorous tones each week, we supposed the present age would feature marvels like a three-day workweek and astronauts voyaging to Jupiter and beyond. Some things have turned out better than expected, but we haven’t cured the common cold, it’s legal to parade around with a six-gun on your hip in much of the United States and a mentally-ill game show host in thrall to a foreign dictator will soon be the Commander-in-Chief. I mean, it’s like living in The Twilight Zone.

It’s My Blog and I’ll Rant About My Visit to the Doctor If I Want To!

Yesterday, a friend and I happened to get on the subject of restaurants, waiting rooms and (yes) elevators that have televisions. We agreed that the relatively recent practice of putting a TV everywhere possible in order to entertain or distract us is annoying. Obviously, some may enjoy watching TV while they’re waiting to see their doctor or eating lunch in a cafe or riding in an elevator. Also obviously, some people don’t. 

So I was psychologically primed when I entered a doctor’s office today and found a TV in the far corner of the empty waiting room. It was tuned to a talk show about cooking. Even worse, the sound was extremely loud. Instead of politely asking the staff if it would be possible to turn off the TV, I did it myself. In retrospect, I should have asked, but since I was the only one in the room, pushing the “off” button seemed like an acceptable thing to do. (Have you ever noticed that they never leave the remote control next to the television, a courtesy we patients might appreciate? Given how loud that TV was today, I think it’s really there for the office staff, who happen to be in a different room.)

After a while, one of the staff noticed that the TV was off and used the remote to turn it back on. I objected, saying that I had turned it off. We went back and forth a bit, and I raised my voice a little (no personal attacks were made). The staff member said the TV was there “for the entertainment of the patients” and having it off was merely my preference. Since another patient had entered the waiting room by then, I gave up. Even when I was alone again, the TV kept going, albeit with reduced volume.

Eventually, I got to see the doctor. He seemed upset about something. He spoke very fast and not very clearly. He was brusque, interrupted me when I asked questions, and kept telling me I didn’t understand his precise reasons for doing an MRI of my hip. Near the end of the examination, I said “Well, it will be good to find out what’s going on in there” (referring to my hip). I thought that was a pretty innocuous thing to say, but he insisted on again repeating why an MRI was a good idea (it was merely to rule out the presence of an anatomical abnormality or a tumor, not “to find out what’s going on in there”).

Having agreed about getting an MRI, I then made the mistake of asking about a different bone-related issue, since this doctor is an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in knees and shoulders and similar bones. My question was “Is surgery often done for bone spurs in the foot?”. He told me in no uncertain terms that asking a doctor a question like that is the worst thing a patient can do. He gave me a brief lecture, explaining that you should never ask a doctor about anything the doctor isn’t prepared or qualified to talk about. He seemed quite upset and left the room. I called after him “Should I follow you?”, he made a noise and I did.

While waiting for the MRI to be scheduled, I asked him if I could speak to him about something else. He said “No”. I then said I wanted to discuss the TV issue. I said that if a patient wants the TV off, it would be a good thing for the staff to honor that request. In response, he severely criticized my failure to initially ask the staff to turn off the TV, instead of pushing the off button myself. “How would you like it if I came to your house and drove your car? Or came into your house and turned off your television? It’s not your television. It’s ours.” (Gosh, I thought the TV was for the entertainment of the patients.) I admitted I would have asked if there had been anyone else in the room, but still felt what I had done wasn’t so bad.

At this point, I told the doctor that he had the worst bedside manner of any doctor I’ve ever visited (and I’ve visited a lot). Talking fast, interrupting, constantly correcting my choice of words, saying he didn’t “give a sh@t” about something and generally looking and sounding pissed off. He said he was still willing to treat me. I said “I don’t think so” and left. (This area isn’t short of orthopedic surgeons.)

Now, I assume this guy was angry about the TV thing when he entered the examining room. Maybe he heard my exchange with his staff. Maybe one of them mentioned the difficult patient in the waiting room. But if he was already angry with me, it would have been much better (and more “professional”) if he’d said so up front. He might have even declined to treat me. I would have been surprised but would have left quietly. Instead, he behaved like a jerk (another word came to mind, but this aims to be a family-friendly blog). Or maybe he treats lots of patients that way and it had nothing to do with the television.

So here’s a good part of this story (ok, this saga). I thought it would be appropriate to share my strange experience with the rest of the world (meaning the part of the world that, for some mysterious reason, doesn’t read this blog). Since we now have the internet, I went to a couple of those doctor-rating sites, Healthgrades and Vitals. That last site allows you to enter comments. So I did.

My conclusion was that this doctor might be very good, except for his personality. The treatment plan (the MRI) he recommended made sense. But I wouldn’t recommend him and would never see him again. 

After entering my comment, it occurred to me that maybe I was being a little unfair to the guy. Maybe he was having a bad day. So I looked at the other comments. These are some of my favorites:

Only drawback – he is very hard to talk to or get understandable information from. He gets very impatient with explanations.

He has a big ego. He does not like being questioned…. Instead of giving you understandable answers and showing that he cares, he gets impatient and annoyed very easily.

AVOID [Dr. X] AT ALL COSTS. There is not enough room for his ego and the patient in the exam room.

My experience with [this doctor] was disastrous.

... a horrible and unprofessional surgeon… As [the vomiting] got progressively worse I decided to page [Dr. X]… His words went something like this (and keep in mind I could barely talk because I was vomiting so often) He basically told me that I was interrupting his dinner and that it was not right that I was doing so….I actually started crying so my amazing sister took the phone … This is but one of my horrible experiences with [Dr. X]. Please Please Please Please, I beg you not to see this Doctor!!! 

One of the worst experiences of my life… I told him about the problems I was having after the surgery. He went off the handle and acted very unprofessionally by yelling at me. His behavior made me cry and I never went back to him.

I echo all of the negative comments already posted here: he is impatient, belligerent, insulting, difficult to comprehend, excessively … antagonistic when you explore his incomprehensible answers, actually told me one of my questions was “Bullsh-t”, and that I was wasting his time by asking questions…I would not feel comfortable going under the knife of such a disordered personality. I think he’s sociopathic.

Of course, there are glowing reviews as well. But the lowest grade he gets is for (surprise!) “bedside manner”. All I can say is that if you’re ever in the market for an orthopedic surgeon in or around Springfield, New Jersey, be careful. It’s a jungle out there!

PS — Other people object to all these televisions. From a doctor:

Welcome to the world of the “captive audience… Take them out. Take them all out. That includes the four flat screens on different channels at the local restaurant. I can’t find a single study that shows any legitimate health benefit to support their presence in a doctor’s office, but I can think of 100 reasons to take them out.

From an educational site for doctors:

An informal survey conducted in a variety of waiting rooms found that the presence of television adds to stress, especially when people believe they are unable to control the volume or programming…. If your waiting room includes a television, consider offering patients options. Rather than exposing them to specific programs at a certain volume, for instance, offer television with closed captioning or hygienic headphones on loan from the waiting room desk.

And keep them out of the damn elevators too!