Where in the world is Westworld?

Obviously, major Westworld spoilers are discussed below…

I don’t believe any detail or plot point shown on Westworld is thoughtless or throw-away. Everything means something. It’s all designed to give you a clue as to place and time and what’s really happening, not just what appears to be happening.

For example, the scenes from early on where Delores is talking to who we now know is Arnold, not Bernard. The most significant clue that something was not as it seemed was that it wasn’t happening in the same glass-walled super-sleek surroundings as all the other human-host interactions. This was a little concrete room with a visible staircase in the back. That turned out to be a pretty significant clue since it was from a time in which those running the park were just below the surface. So close you could sit down in a confessional booth and, Maxwell Smart-style, enter the park’s “backstage” via a little elevator.

Another example is the naked hosts. In the later timeline (yeah, I think we’re watching multiple timelines), they’re all naked and Ford rules the roost. He actually berates an employee for covering one up as if it’s modest. But Arnold always leaves them clothed. We see that with Delores. The one time Ford interacts with her, she’s naked, but each time Arnold does, she’s clothed. In the ninth episode when Bernard has recruited poor Clementine to keep a gun trained on Ford, she’s covered. That had to be Bernard/Arnold since she was put down there as naked as the rest of them. In that way, you’re shown how Ford regards them as less than human while Arnold thinks of them as, minimally, nearly so.

Finally, we see in episode 9 when the MIB and Teddy are tied up by Wyatt’s henchmen that they’re cutting up and ripping into the dead hosts. They look very lifelike and human inside. But later, after William has flipped out and killed all the ex-Confederates, you see metal joints where knees should be. Showing those details in the same episode is, in my opinion, the clearest signal yet that the MIB and William are the same person (or, minimally, their stories are decades apart).

So anyway, time and again we’re led to believe that Westworld is very far away. Employees stay for months at a time and go home on leave for equally lengthy periods. Communication requires going to a special room where others are calling home at the same time. We’re told it’s hard to get a line out to the rest of the world. It’s so hard to get data out of the park, one needs to rig up weird satellite transmission schemes and hide them in hosts who then need to find a tall peak to transmit from. Even in this futuristic world, we’re to believe and think that Westworld is very much an island of a thing. Removed and remote.

But it’s in the future, right? And the one thing we know is, as time progresses, the world gets virtually smaller. It takes less time to get places and being removed from civilization gets harder and harder. Cell signals are in more and more places, GPS is everywhere, satellites are all overhead looking down at nearly every square inch of the planet. How can Westworld feel so far away in the distant future? Where on Earth could be so far away?

When Elsie and the Lesser Hemsworth are looking for the stray host (who was trying to transmit data), she notes that every blade of grass is designed and placed. It all looks like the American Southwest, but it’s absolutely not. It’s designed and built and fake, just like a real theme park. In a way, the park is like a host. It appears to be what it purports to be. Looks right and sounds right, but it’s all artificial. It’s a massive version of Disneyland’s Frontierland. So there’s no reason to think it’s where it looks to be. The show all but tells you it’s not.

And what’s supposed to happen when the hosts inevitably revolt or take over? If they’re simply on a very large plot of land in the Southwest, what’s to keep the army or Delos security or whatever from coming in and putting them down? What’s the point of telling the story as if the hosts can gain sentience and perhaps “freedom” if they’re essentially on very large Disneyland? Penned in like peacocks at the LA Arboretum?

It appears as though every time they need to add on to the backstage of Westworld, they dig down. The very early parts (like the ruined backstage installation they show at the end of the ninth episode) are directly under the surface, but by the time we’re in the MIB timeline, they’re like 80 levels down or more. Each successive version of the park is buried another layer down. Think of the cold storage room where they keep old hosts. It looks like a bombed out shopping mall and is level 83. Clearly, this was at one point a place guests would be, but not anymore. And the older parts of the backstage we see are apparently just left as they are when they’re done using them. The area Delores found under the church, the disused offices Bernard accessed when trying to find the GPS data from the old computer system. All that just left as-is. Why would they do that? Why not repurpose? And why go down?

Finally, I think there’s a clue right in the name of the show. Westworld.

I think Westworld is on Mars. The color of the landscape on the red planet would match the Southwest’s rusty mesas. Digging down under the park might make sense if the park itself has been terraformed under a big dome. It would make a robot uprising more tenable from a story perspective if it was happening off-planet. Harder to put them down. More plausible to think they could exist on their own. Even if there are other habitable areas on Mars, the difficulty getting from one to another on a planet without a breathable atmosphere makes the island feeling of the park more sensible.

This clicks for me because I recall reading an interview with the showrunners (which, of course, I cannot find now) in which they say they’ll explore host physiology more in the second season. Like, specifically, how they don’t actually need air to live.

So yeah, that’s my theory. Westworld is a literal word. A red one. It’s on Mars. But I’m probably wrong.

The Good Dinosaur

It would be unfair to simply write off Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” as “The Lion King” with sauropods but, by the third or fourth scene that are direct recalls from Simba’s adventures, you realize that once you’ve seen one story about an anthropomorphized young male quadruped on a journey of discovery and growth, you’ve kinda seen them all. Where “The Good Dinosaur” fails to live up to “The Lion King” is the generally smaller scale of the story, perhaps made to appear even smaller from being told against such huge, sweeping, and grand backdrops.

Simba’s tale was epic and nearly Shakespearean in scale while Arlo’s is much more personal. Rather than return from the apparent grave to fight his deceitful uncle in a battle to reclaim his rightful place on Pride Rock, Arlo just needs to return. To his corn farm. So he can make a muddy footprint on a wall. It’s not without wit, to be sure, and the vistas are some of the most beautiful CG landscapes ever seen on screen (the water effects, in particular, are remarkable — especially when compared to the pathetic splashes seen in “The Incredibles”). There was a moist eye here and there in the theater by the end, but “The Good Dinosaur” fails to spark any real threat for these seemingly indestructible dinos. Even when they fight the way dinosaurs really did (with their gnashing teeth and ripping claws), there’s a notable lack of wounding or blood (but not scars go figure). So much for the Circle of Life, I guess.

This is the first Pixar movie in which the main protagonists are children and the adult characters play minor or supporting roles. They exist only to threaten or teach or protect or look worried when it comes to Arlo and his pet human, Spot. They don’t have real stories of their own. The villains, in particular, while starting out as creepy psychopaths end up being flat and rather easily dealt with.

“The Good Dinosaur” is not a bad movie (not like “Cars 2”—ugh). It’s biggest issue is it’s a Pixar movie so the stakes are that much higher. My family watched “Inside Out” the day after seeing “The Good Dinosaur” and that only made it look more tepid in comparison. In all the ways “Inside Out” was original and clever and funny, “The Good Dinosaur” was ultimately flat and derivative and predictable. But with stunningly beautiful scenery.

Originally published on Medium.

The Martian

“The Martian” is unlike any movie I can recall seeing in recent memory. There are no bad guys. Everybody (in the world) is trying to do the same thing together. It’s a celebration of only the best things about us: scientific achievement, human ingenuity, dogged determination, and teamwork on a massive scale all in the service of a single, noble goal. While there is zero pessimism in this film, it never gets maudlin or sentimental. Nor does it seem to follow any of the rules found in The Big Book of How Hollywood Movies Are Made™. It also has to be the most magnificent piece of propaganda ever produced in the service of NASA and science in general.

If it’s ever said when this story takes place, I didn’t hear it. The iPhones all look like ours and the clothing styles are about the same, but as the movie begins we find ourselves at the beginning of the third of five manned missions to Mars using spacecraft and other tech that feels like it’s about 20 years in the future and had to have cost trillions to build and launch and assemble on another world. The implication of this is “The Martian’s” most unbelievable premise. That the divided and gloomy United States in which we live would find a way to get behind such an endeavor and allow it to happen. Even though it feels ever so slightly futuristic, it doesn’t feel like any magical technological leaps have been assumed by the storytellers. There’s no warp drive or phasers or sentient computers. Just an extrapolation of things already possible and even familiar applied on a massive scale. 

What I loved most about this movie is that it’s basically a two-and-a-half hour showcase for cleverness. It’s like a glass of icy cold water in the desert of denial and outright hostility to science we’ve been crawling through in recent years. It’s a celebration of figuring shit out and not letting hard problems win and having faith in the things we know and can do. It’s about a world reaching for great discoveries for the sake of the discovery. And it’s about the simultaneous fragility and power of a little flicker of life where it doesn’t belong.

I left “The Martian” feeling something recent news and those who make it and even those who tell it have taken from me: optimism. Even inspiration. It’s a reminder of all the great things we’ve accomplished and how close we are to doing even greater things. I hope everyone sees it, especially young people. This is the future I want to live in.

Cont blocked

iOS 9 introduced the option of blocking web ads and tracking scripts in Safari and a lot of the internet lost its shit. Moral introspection ensued as blocking plug-ins shot to the top of the App Store charts.

I work in digital marketing so I do get that Apple’s move here threatens to severely knock my universe out of balance, but I also acknowledge that the world of online advertising has become actively hostile to those for whom the ads are intended. Bloated pages suck down mobile user’s metered bandwidth and waste their time loading, not to mention the “ads” that automatically redirect site visitors to app stores or other destinations and those that block page content or so crowd it out that it’s hard to find, let alone read. Publishers have allowed advertisers to absolutely ruin the web experience in too many cases in exchange for the few shekels they get in return. The question isn’t why has Apple allowed this to happen, the question is what took so long?

Apple, of course, makes next to nothing from advertising (iAds aside which are of negligible import to anyone). Their business model is based on hardware revenue and those sales are founded on exceptional consumer experience and today’s online advertising model does nothing but erode that. It’s in Apple’s interest to allow its consumers this kind of control. Simple as that.

Of course, publishers need money to publish. The rush towards ad blocking doesn’t spell the end to an ad-based model, it spells the end of the crazy bullshit model that’s evolved organically and unchecked. We as consumers either have to pay sites to read them or we have to let them show us ads (or maybe a little of both). Expecting the web to be delivered free of any charge is totally unrealistic and ultimately unethical. 

The top-selling iOS blocker, Crystal, is now allowing what they call “acceptable ads” from marketers who pay for the privilege safe passage through their filter. They’re teaming with Eyeo, the company behind the browser plug-in AdBlock Plus, and using their database of more than 700 advertisers who meet Eyeo’s criteria. I put it on my phone the day iOS 9 dropped and my recollection is it was free at that time, but it’s currently 99¢. So Crystal is trying to profit from both ends of the pipeline while Eyeo only does so from the advertisers. Since Crystal didn’t say anything about this possibility when it launched, a lot of people are pissed. 

In theory, I think this is the right path for those of us who know that there must be some exchange of value in order to maintain a thriving content model on the web. If the ad industry won’t or can’t abide by acceptable, self-imposed guidelines, then I suppose it’s not unexpected that others like Eyeo would do it for them and that consumers would pick which model they like best. As I said, I don’t think this spells the end of the “free web.” I think it spells the end of the version we have now. Or, at least, the beginning of the end. It’ll be rough sailing for some smaller sites and I expect a lot of them will fade away. But the status quo is not acceptable (and it’s only getting worse). 

A not insignificant shelter in the storm of consumer’s ad-blocking fury on iOS is the niggling detail that content blockers only work in Safari. They don’t apply to web views within apps. That means if you click a link in Facebook or any other app that opens that URL without switching over to Safari (using something called WebKit, the default behavior of most apps on iOS), then the content blocker isn’t engaged. In keeping an eye on my own behavior, I see that the vast majority of my web visits happen outside Safari. Probably north of 80%. Until such time that Apple extends ad blocking functionality to these WebKit sessions, the real impact won’t be felt. But if/when that does happen, shit’s gonna get real.

All spoilers must die

Two ideas. 

The first is easy. Why is it not a thing on Facebook (or Twitter, I guess) to tell the site not to show you content about a TV show or movie if you haven’t already seen it? I watch Game of Thrones (though sometimes I think of it as more an abusive relationship than anything else). Last night, HBO aired the typically epic penultimate episode of the season. I did not watch it because reasons. That’s OK, though, because HBO Go. I’ll get to it tonight (probably). So why, when I land on Facebook this morning and am confronted by the first of about 63,000 GoT recaps and hot takes couldn’t I have flagged it as spoilery and ask Facebook to hide all similar content for 24 hours? Next morning, Facebook could ask me if I’d like to see GoT content again and I could either say no, still haven’t seen it, or sure. In which case, Facebook could offer me the top three posts on the subject. This seems ridiculously easy. It would make my Facebooking experience so much better. 

Take this one step further. The new Captain America movie is in production and there have been a similar 63,000 blog posts about leaked production shots, etc., that all give away some elements of the story that people like me would like to avoid. So why can’t I tell Facebook to hide Cap spoilers? They know which stories I’m talking about. For starters, any one that has the word “SPOILER” in the headline. Or other keywords like “rumored” or “spotted” or “don’t read this if you don’t want to know.” Sure, I tend not to read these things, but I also don’t want to have to see them cluttering up the joint. Plus, some sites are really bad at shielding spoilers and I end up seeing them through no fault of my own (WARNING: SPOILER). 

Take this two or three steps further, and what I’m talking about is intelligent muting. For instance, I don’t want to see any crazy-ass right-wing conspiracy stories about Obama some of my less politically enlightened friends might have liked or commented on but I am OK seeing stories about those stories from other sites making fun of them. Or maybe I’m over any further mention of Caitlyn Jenner’s intro on Vanity Fair. A simple “I’ve seen enough stories about this” item is what I’m talking about. More than the option of not seeing any more items from a specific site. What I want is not to see similar items from that site and others like it. Seems like Facebook could absolutely pull this off.

The other thing is Twitter specific. I like to watch live TV with Twitter streaming along side. Specifically, baseball but also things like the Oscars or whatever. Sometimes, I’m intentionally delayed because I’m DVRing but usually I’m off by about 5 or 6 seconds because I watch baseball via MLB.tv and it takes a few moments to digitize the video and compress it and send it to satellites in space and then pull it back down FROM SPACE and then stream and uncompress it and all that and then “live” is only kinda live. It’s enough that I sometimes stop looking at Twitter because I don’t want the action I’m looking at to be spoiled.

So how come I can’t DVR Twitter? Tell my client app to offset the tweets by a specified amount of time. Of course, anything I tweet will be going out in real time (asking Twitter to tunnel through spacetime and drop my tweet back when whatever I’m commenting on took place is, I admit, a steep ask), but what I see will be better synced to what’s happening in front of me.

Turns out, I’m not the first guy to think of this:

That’s from more than three years ago. And still nobody’s done this!? How hard can it be?

Anyway, those are my ideas helping us to live in a spoiler-free world.