Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” Outstanding, Creative and Unnerving; “Mythbusters: The Search” An Unwatchable Rip-off

Every once in a while, I come across entertainment options – be they movies, television shows, miniseries, music or books – that are good (or bad) enough that they merit mention. For the most part, I try to concentrate on those things that are good because there’s enough crap that is out there (you hear me, Taylor Swift?) that people can normally pick out and ignore. The last time we looked at entertainment, we chose the NBC television series Timeless and, so far, that looks good. All the brass at NBC seem to be leaning towards giving the show a second season (but the jury is still out).

So what looks good right now? And what is total crap? Follow along and see if you agree, disagree or have some suggestion for something to check out. I’m always looking for something enjoyable (WRITER’S NOTE:  I am not saying I am “first” on these things; I’m merely saying they’re well worth (or, in those certain cases, not worth) your time to check out).

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

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My first experience with Whitehead was with a book called The Noble Hustle. The book in principle was about the world of poker but, as I read it, I wasn’t entranced with what Whitehead was doing. He wrote the book as a semi-autobiography, a tome to excoriate the demons in his own soul, and as such never really reached me in trying to write a “poker book.” In fact, when you use such lines as “I have a good poker face because I am half dead inside” and pretend to be from a country called “The Republic of Anhedonia” (anhedonia – the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable, such as hobbies, music, social interactions), you get the idea.

Thus, the idea of reading another Whitehead book was roughly akin to having a manicure done with bamboo shoots.

Recently, my lovely wife and I wanted to experience some “adult time” by getting involved with a local book club. The book of their choice for the month was Whitehead’s latest effort, The Underground Railroad, which made many Book of the Year lists for 2016 and was on the New York Times bestseller list for several months. I reluctantly picked up the book and, after reading the premise, decided to give Whitehead another chance.

Whitehead’s book is, as you might figure, about the Underground Railroad of Civil War history. In Whitehead’s vision, however, the Underground Railroad isn’t a metaphor for the hundreds of miles that runaway slaves had to traverse; in his writings, the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad line, complete with trains, engineers, conductors, stops and rails to convey those runaway slaves to a supposed “better place.” With this creative starting point, Whitehead has gone on to write an outstanding book, albeit one that is also quite unnerving.

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The Underground Railroad is the story of a slave named Cora who, even for someone of her race in that era, had a very difficult life. Her mother was a successful runaway (or was she?) who left her an orphan when she was but 8, immediately banishing her to a life as a second tier being even in the slave community. The resulting banishment to a place for the “unwanted” called “The Hob” on her plantation – as well as other brutal moments – helps to formulate the person she becomes.

Cora meets a slave named Caesar who, in a spirited discussion, invites her – and I guess that would be the term – to run away with him. She initially spurns his offer but Cora, after a particularly vicious beating by the slave master while she protected one of the children from being assaulted over an accident, decides to follow in her mother’s footsteps and flee the plantation.

The twosome head off on the trek on the literal Underground Railroad and the book traces their travels on the rails as they attempt to journey to freedom – or what is supposed to be freedom. The book winds its way through the south (North Carolina is treated particularly harshly and, knowing Whitehead’s research abilities, deservedly so) to Indiana (also the recipient of harsh review), with Cora the central part of the action. There are several chapters that focus on other characters in the book (of particular interest is the slave hunter looking to bring Cora back to the plantation), but those are used by Whitehead in a Tarantino-esque manner, jumping about in time, to provide backstory to what Cora is going through.

Be forewarned…this is not a pleasant read (and part of the reason why my lovely wife decided she couldn’t work her way through it). There are brutal examples of the harsh life on the plantation, including the inhuman treatment of runaways when they were returned to their masters. It is a part of the story, however, and if Whitehead were to gloss over such issues or treat them with “kid gloves,” then he wouldn’t be doing his job as a writer or a storyteller.

Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is deserving of all the accolades that he and the book have received. It is critical to be able to see what our past was to ensure that in no way or manner should it happen to another segment of the population in the future. While it used a little trick to get me in the door – the Underground Railroad being an actual railroad – the overall story gave me a more extensive knowledge of 1860s America and gave me a better appreciation of Whitehead and his talents. The next book I see from him, I will not be as dismissive as I was in the past.

Mythbusters: The Search, Saturdays (check local listings)

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They’ve been saying that the reality television genre is dying, but for me at least it died when the Discovery Channel program Mythbusters went off the air in 2016 (repeats can still be seen on the Science Channel). The show, featuring special effects experts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, spent 15 seasons investigating through scientific methods urban myths, scenes from television and movies, and particularly interesting news stories they came across. Along with their “Build Team” – Kari Byron, Tory Belleci and Grant Imahara (and, prior to that, Scottie Chapman and Jessie Combs), who were let go from the show in 2015 – the Mythbusters investigated 282 episodes of information, coming to the conclusions of “Confirmed,” “Busted” or “Plausible” for 2,950 experiments.

As with most things when special effects, robotics and artistic people take hold of it, there were some things that stood out on the show. In the final episode when asked what they would be remembered for, Hyneman said bluntly, “Blowing shit up,” and that they did. But they presented a show that used excellent scientific methods, creativity, was fun and educational and kept your interest. With the Mythbusters crew gone – hell, even “folklorist” Heather Joseph-Witham, with her historical background information on the myths being tested, is remembered fondly for her one season on the program – there was a gap to fill and, problematically, they decided to tarnish the name of this program to fill it.

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Airing on the Science Channel on Saturdays, Mythbusters: The Search is an attempt to make the original program a reality/competition show much like Survivor or The Amazing Race. Ten competitors gleaned from a batch of video applications compete in front of host Kyle Hill (the editor of Nerdist and a Mythbusters fan), RETESTING old myths that the Mythbusters tackled (giving them the excuse to run video of Savage, Hyneman and the old crew). At the end of each episode, one person is eliminated with no apparent scoring or reason for their departure other than a talk between Hill and one of the peripheral participants in the original Mythbusters (a Mythbusters favorite, the Alameda County Sheriff’s officer Sgt. J. D. Nelson of the Alameda County Bomb Range, was the latest to serve in that position).

Catching lightning is tough enough – as Discovery did with the original show and Mythbusters – and it is virtually impossible to do it twice. Mythbusters: The Search is a pale imitation of the original in that literally NONE of the people competing for the prize (and what is the prize? Are a few people being chosen? Is there going to be a woman (tough now that they’ve already sent one home and have two left) on the team? Is there going to be a show in the future? WHAT ARE THE RULES?) have even a sliver of the “it” factor that the original cast had. There isn’t that “TEAM” concept that made the original group so special and, thus, this product suffers.

The fact that there aren’t new “myths” being investigated is also relying on the past team to try to carry this worthless heap. After two episodes, the four myths tested were all previously done by the original Mythbusters (including “Painting with Explosives”) and there was no new information gleaned from redoing the experiments with the 10 pretenders. All that was done was…well, nothing was done, save for the elimination of two contestants that were about as important as the wallpaper.

While it is commonplace in Hollywood (and other entertainment locales) to recycle anything to make another buck, you’ve got to make it good if you want people to watch. There is nothing remotely redeeming about Mythbusters: The Search that makes it worth watching now or in the future. If you yearn for the days of the original gang, check out Byron, Bellaci and Imahara’s work on the Netflix series White Rabbit Project. If you go to the Science Channel for your Mythbusters dose, make sure it is a repeat of the original and not the dreck of Mythbusters: The Search.

The Sane Side Finally Stands Up in The Republican Party, But It’s Too Late to Save the Institution

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Ever since the stampede that began literally three years ago following Barack Obama’s re-election and inauguration to a second term as President of the United States – and if you don’t think the 2016 Presidential Race began there, you’re adorably naïve – it seems that, at least for one side of the two party system in the United States, the inmates have taken over the asylum (and just as a tangent, if any other country in the world said “we only have two parties to choose our leadership from,” the U. S. would be screaming voter repression from the highest peaks…in our own country? Not a peep.). The Republican Party – the party that once held such great thinkers as Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, other politicians such as Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, journalists Peggy Noonan, David Brooks and the late William F. Buckley – has usually been able to bring some sane minds to its leadership. Around the turn of the century, however, there was a change in the thinking, what became the Neo-conservative mindset, that splintered a once great party. Instead of being a party of intelligence like the people above, it began to erode from the inside, with its hoi polloi beginning to follow the baying of hounds such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and the en masse robotic diatribes that flow from Fox News, turning the GOP base into an ugly, misogynistic, xenophobic, scared-of-its-own-shadow (and any minority that may have the audacity to even begin to think its…equal…to them) mob.

The sane side let the mob rant and rave after Obama’s election in 2008 and his re-election in 2012, saving its energy for the 2016 election. They set about trying to say all the right things in their 2012 “autopsy” about what went wrong:  they needed to reach out to women and all minorities – Asians, Hispanics, blacks and gay voters – and needed to have a comprehensive approach to immigration reform. They needed to have fewer debates – presumably so their candidates didn’t shoot themselves in the foot as often as they did in the run-up to the 2012 election – and needed to decide their nominee earlier, changing their primary structure. But the sane side said their principles were still good, they just weren’t “resonating” with the electorate.

Then the sane side let the maniacs in the asylum take over.

It started in 2010, actually. Elected that year, Florida Senator Marco Rubio had made it clear that there was only one aspiration that he desired in his political career and it wasn’t to sit in the U. S. Senate for the rest of his career, it was to be the President of the United States. In 2012, another player came along with that same philosophy, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and both of these men were embraced by the “Tea Party” element (the “Tea Party” element is actually a bastardization of the group originally started by former Texas Representative Ron Paul, but that’s another story for another time). While they didn’t announce it, both of these men were running for the GOP nomination well before they even inked the paper letting the Republican Party know they were in the race for 2016.

The Republican National Committee, after their 2012 “autopsy” and all their plans and their sanity, saw the maniacs bring that all crashing down. They were OK with Rubio (not so much with Cruz) but, after the November 2014 midterm elections Dr. Ben Carson, a darling of the “Tea Party,” began to leak information that he “was interested” in running for the GOP nomination and actually entered the race in May 2015. Instead of getting a few “qualified” candidates, the floodgates opened; by the time the spigot closed, 17 people had announced their candidacy for the Republican nomination, an unruly amount that would present logistical difficulties on several fronts.

It was one of those 17 candidates that truly exposed the maniacal – or, perhaps at its unfortunate worst, the true heart – of the Republican Party. When he made his announcement in June that he would seek the GOP nomination, billionaire Donald Trump immediately stuck his foot in his mouth by insinuating that Mexicans were “rapists, drug dealers…and a few are good people, I’m sure.” He said he would deport all illegal immigrants – estimated to be approximately 12 million in the United States – and build “a wall” on the border between Mexico and the U. S. and “force Mexico to pay for it.”

In a normal world, under normal circumstances and with a normal party that hadn’t fanned the flames of xenophobia and racism after being thumped twice in a Presidential race, Trump’s comments would have brought a direct disavowal from the party’s leadership. Instead, the party’s leadership reached out and embraced Trump while at the same time trying to look aghast at what he was saying. The sane side of the party sat on the bench and tried to reason that their fellow Republicans would come to their senses and realize the rhetoric that the Orangutan Mutant was spewing wasn’t A) becoming of a member of their party, let alone the human race, and B) would eventually move towards a better choice.

As Trump’s comments became more outrageous, his support grew rather than fell. Disparage a decorated military veteran who was a POW in Vietnam? Sure! Ridicule a handicapped journalist? He’s on it! Want me to bash women? Let’s talk about their looks and menstrual cycle! It’s now gotten to the point that Trump has discussed killing journalists and that he could “shoot someone” in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York City and not lose any voter support. We’ve even reached the point where white supremacist organizations are sending Trump information over Twitter…AND HE RETWEETS IT without anyone blinking!

It’s finally gotten to be a bit much for the sane side of the Republican Party, but it is far too late as you’ve already lost your party to the lunatics. The conservative magazine National Review dedicated an entire issue last week to the question of Trump’s leadership of the Republican Party, firmly stating their opposition to his candidacy and his position as the potential GOP nominee for President. 22 conservative voices stepped up and penned essays explaining their reasoning for not supporting Trump, with a predictable response.

Trump, after lauding the magazine the week prior to the issue’s release, ripped the Review as a “failing rag” saying that Buckley (the founder of the Review) “would be ashamed of them.” The RNC, not surprisingly, sided with Trump in removing the Review from a future debate as moderator, citing that a “moderator can’t have a predisposition.” Other voices have also sounded off and it may actually have an effect.

In New Hampshire, the mood is supposedly turning against Trump despite what current polls say in the state’s upcoming primary. According to the New York Times, a sizeable number of GOP voters are anti-Trump and feel that the polls are being swayed by those that won’t be voting in the primaries. They call themselves the “68 Percent” – “the significant majority of Republican voters here who are immune to Mr. Trump’s charms and entreaties, according to a battery of voter interviews on Thursday at campaign events for his rivals,” according to the Times.

The problem is that the sane side hasn’t stood up to this point yet, to put an end to the maniacal side’s reign of terror. They haven’t been able to thwart the drive from those that feel that Donald Dickhead is the one who should be the face of the United States, the one that we should send to discuss important worldwide topics as climate change, nuclear proliferation (let’s not get into the factor that he doesn’t even understand what the “nuclear triad” is), worldwide famine or pestilence, potable drinking water for lacking areas, reasonable solutions for refugee situations (either through war or natural disasters) and other critical matters. Then there’s the home issues, such as domestic spending, military spending, Medicare/Medicaid, improving employment options and living arrangements, drug and alcohol treatment and a litany of other areas. If Trump thinks he can come in and wave a magic wand, “hire the right people” or just “it’s gonna be huge” everything away, he’s going to be greatly surprised.

Then there’s the problem with the GOP itself. For a party that ran an “autopsy” on itself in 2012, they don’t seem to have learned anything. It seems that the party’s leadership is willing to make the same mistake with the Hispanic vote, thinking that a miraculous outpouring of disaffected white voters will somehow appear out of the woodwork to somehow counteract the damage that Trump has done. Then there’s the factor that the spokesperson for your party’s leading candidate (Trump, naturally) wants to call President Obama a “half-breed” and defends it because she is one, too…not exactly the way to embrace minorities.

Finally, let’s get to the GOP…it really doesn’t seem that they are “for” anything, rather it seems that they are advocates for “taking” things. The Republican Party wants to take away the woman’s right to choose, take away gender equality and gay rights, take away “welfare” and food stamps. They’ll defend “family values” as long as they agree with them (right, Governor Huckabee?), shrink the government (unless it infringes on the military), put Jesus back in the school system (but no other religions) and create jobs (despite not introducing a jobs bill in the past six years) by cutting taxes on everyone who already has more money than they absolutely will ever need.

Perhaps the sane side should have spoken sooner. But perhaps the sane side was lulled to sleep, thinking that they had taken care of the potential problems for 2016 and just needed to keep the wolves at bay with a little red meat. Now, those wolves – the maniacs that they let grow to a size too large to keep in the kennel – are recalcitrant to the sane side’s arguments and discussions. Along the way, they may have destroyed what was once known as the Republican Party…the remainder of 2016 will decide that question.

How to Fix the Presidential Debates

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Since the conclusion of the last GOP Presidential debate that was held on the cable network CNBC – a truly dismal effort that left nobody satisfied with the outcome – there has been bellowing from pretty much everyone. Yes, the CNBC debate was a clusterfuck from the start – with three moderators and two guest questioners, it was never clear who was in charge – but once they became coalesced around an issue, the Republican debate participants struck back with veiled threats against the “mainstream media” (important point here:  if you’re going to govern a country as vast as the United States, you’re going to need that “mainstream media” at some point to get things done). It left the entire night as a giant stain on the 2016 Presidential campaign process.

The candidates complained about a multitude of things, including the length of the debate, the number of questions received, the quality of the questions and so forth. The moderators, in their defense, were faced with participants who, when presented with a viable question – such as Dr. Ben Carson’s involvement with the snake oil provider Mannatech, Senator Marco Rubio’s attendance in the Senate, how billionaire Donald Trump plans on paying for his myriad of xenophobic programs or why Senator Ted Cruz was against the recent compromise that passed a federal budget out of Congress and to President Barack Obama for the next two years – either didn’t answer the question, answered another question that they wanted to answer, waited for a partisan GOP audience to air their opinion through booing or attacked the moderators and the media. When you have this type of Mexican standoff (which Trump is now looking to wall off at Ciudad Juarez), there’s not much that is going to occur in said debate.

Now the candidates have decided to set up their own rules for how debates will be conducted. There is supposedly a letter that a majority of the 14 remaining candidates in the GOP race have gotten behind (bypassing the logical arranger for such events, their own Republican National Committee) that is being sent out, but it isn’t to be taken seriously. The letter supposedly would allow the candidates to vet the moderators, review the questions of the debate before it is conducted and such bullshit as whether there will be a gong, bell or buzzer to indicate their time is up when answering a question.

It was announced on Thursday night that next week’s debate on November 10 (which wasn’t expected to fall under this supposed “letter” being drafted) and being aired on Fox Business Channel will already have a smaller “main event” field. Through their criteria, Fox Business has chopped the “main event” debate stage down to eight, separating New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee off to the “kiddie table” debate beforehand. That “kiddie table” debate has also been chopped, with former New York Governor George Pataki and current South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham being eliminated from the debates altogether. Those that are being dropped down or out completely are not polling at the prescribed levels by Fox Business and, as such, have met the axe as to the debates and probably will soon as a viable candidate in the GOP race.

As a result of some of these changes, get ready for more whining out of the GOP candidates. If the GOP candidates – and also their Democratic brethren – want a chance to take on a serious debate, replete with issues to discuss, then it would be necessary to follow these rules.

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Both Parties Must Have a Debate On Foreign Ground – The GOP is the only party who has stepped outside of their traditional “home turf” of Fox News (or Fox Business), where they could be semi-comfortable in that they would receive a decent hearing (even these GOP candidates, however, complained about the Fox News debate). The CNN GOP debate was considered to be quite good as the longest debate yet, providing for more discussion of the issues but not enjoyed by Trump or Carson, who lack the background to describe how their policies would work other than “they’ll be great.” By this point, you already know about the CNBC snafu. The Democratic Party hasn’t left its cozy home with CNN and their next “debate” – a candidates’ forum in South Carolina on Friday night that will feature former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, current Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb and Lawrence Lessig have ended their campaigns since the first Democratic debate a couple of weeks ago) – will be hosted and aired by MSNBC and commentator Rachel Maddow.

Each party has their partisans; I would be more interested in how they speak to a hostile audience and, just maybe, both sides could have a chance at swinging those in the middle ground to some of their viewpoints (this would also help as far as governance, but that’s another story for another time).

The Arbiter Determines All – While one or two moderators is OK, one should be the rule. There should be only three questioners involved in the game and the participants in the debate have NO RIGHT to choose who they want to fire questions (why would I want to hear you and a “friendly” questioner lob softballs all night?). Finally, there will be one voice who makes all determinations on the floor of the debate hall – The Arbiter (usually a moderator would do this, but they are too encumbered by their own networks to draw in ratings and worried about any potential future dealings with the candidates to have the balls to do anything).

The Arbiter will be an unknown person, presumably with knowledge about debate procedure, the subjects that would be presented during the debate, the histories of the participants involved in the debate and should have as little involvement with one political side or the other or be in media as a current broadcaster (if it has to be, then The Arbiter should be from the opposing party or media outlet – couldn’t you imagine someone from the Wall Street Journal serving as The Arbiter for an MSNBC debate and someone from the New York Times handling the Fox debates?). The Arbiter will be in charge of officiating the event and providing the punishments (we’ll get to that in just a second) that will be meted out for violations of the debate protocol. At the end of the debate, The Arbiter slinks back into the dark, never known by those who were in attendance.

The Arbiter will have several weapons at his/her disposal:

Question Refusal – The Arbiter will have the right, after a question is posed, to determine if the question is worthy of being answered. Such questions as whether some other candidate has the “moral authority” to do something or something that prods two candidates to spat at each other over insignificant bullshit would be the main thing that The Arbiter is looking for. If a questioner poses such a question, the first infraction is a warning with a second infraction resulting in a 10-minute penalty (removal from the debate). A third violation will result in the questioner’s removal from the remainder of the debate.

Microphone Control – The Arbiter would have control over the candidates’ microphones for the purpose of keeping them on track with questions. If a candidate is posed a question and said candidate either starts off on a tangent or doesn’t address the question directly, The Arbiter has the power to cut the candidate’s microphone. The Arbiter will pause for five seconds before reactivating the candidate’s microphone and, if at any time during the candidate’s response he goes off topic again, The Arbiter will end the question by shutting off the microphone for the remainder of the question.

The Arbiter will also be in control of how long the candidate speaks; once the candidate has reached the maximum allotted time (60 seconds in the previous debates), The Arbiter will cut off the candidate’s microphone permanently unless asked a follow-up question.

If the candidate cannot keep on track with his replies to the questions being posed, The Arbiter will have the right to remove the candidate from the debate or, if the candidate refuses to move, will have his microphone cut off for the remainder of the debate and his/her constant interruptions will begin to annoy everyone.

Question Count – The Arbiter will be responsible for keeping a running count (can be aided on this by electronic timing of each candidate’s responses) or time bank on how many questions each candidate has received and/or how much time each candidate has been speaking. If The Arbiter notes a predominance of questions to a few candidates, then he will inform the moderator and the moderator must change tactics and ask other candidates questions until The Arbiter feels it is balanced out.

Have a Manageable Debate Field – This has been the major problem with the GOP debates is the number of people on the stage. When you have 10 candidates looking to make their mark in a two hour debate, the most a person is going to be able to speak is probably around seven or eight minutes (once you deduct commercials, opening and closing statements and audience applause/outrage/outbursts). In the GOP field, there is probably no more than six viable candidates (I’ll let you choose your six); the Democrats have already limited their field from six to three, so they are on course for the primaries.

The whittling of the field is useful because, if you’re drawing 1% of the vote six months to a year after you announced your candidacy, the likelihood of you earning the party’s nomination next summer is highly unlikely. It’s simply a numbers game in that you aren’t going to get the attention as someone at the back of the pack that the frontrunners are going to get from being the, well, leaders. It IS a Catch-22, but that’s the way many things are in life. Unless the front six are mysteriously overcome with a debilitating illness that renders them incapable of running for office (and Christie isn’t above trying to inflict said illness on the frontrunners), you’re going back to your previous job or hosting duties on Fox News.

Implementing these rules – and simply letting the respective committees, the RNC and the Democratic National Committee – handle the nuts and bolts of debate preparations is the logical way to go. You’re running for the most important office in the United States; being concerned that the debate hall has a temperature more than 67 degrees shouldn’t be on your mind. Policy thoughts, debate tactics and proving yourself to U. S. citizens should be your goal. As President Obama also stated earlier this week, if you aren’t able to handle the queries of journalists from the news networks, you’re going to have trouble handling Putin.

Will these rules be adopted? No way in hell…but it would make for a more streamlined debate with plenty of policy discussion. And who wouldn’t want to see The Arbiter enforce his rules on both bags of bozo biscuits running for President?