Friday, September 5, 2008

5 Fall Shows That Could Be Improved With A Little Scifi

Try as hard as you like - and we've tried, trust us - but a fan cannot live by scifi alone. That's the only explanation we have for the fact that we're all secretly also addicted to non-SF shows like Gossip Girl, Psych and Grey's Anatomy. But even while we watch these shows, there's a little voice in the back of our head that asks, wouldn't it be better if they all had lasers and space ships? So we decided to figure out which fall shows most need some science fiction, and how we'd do it.

90210: It may be one of the buzz new shows of the season, but let's face it: the revamp of Beverly Hills 90210 is never going to replace Gossip Girl (or, if you're me, The OC) in our hearts. After all, who cares about anyone other than the few returning original cast members? We say, use that to your advantage, and reveal that Shannon Doherty, Jennie Garth and Jason Priestly are the only humans left in Beverly Hills, and that the secret story arc of the first season is their slow discovery that every other character in the show is actually a Terminator. It may sound crazy now, but give it a moment to sink in, and then realize that you've laid the groundwork for that Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles crossover where we discover that David Silver was really an undercover Derek Reece all along.

Prison Break: Sure, Lincoln and Michael have already spent three seasons escaping from prisons and getting more and more involved with a labyrinthine conspiracy that threatens to make The X-Files understandable in comparison. But here're seven words that will change everything: Now they're in a prison... in space. Imagine the acting quality of Prison Break mixed with the special effect quality of, say, Moonraker, and the results can be summed up in two words: Ratings bonanza. Who could resist tuning in to see how our heroes could tattoo the schematics of an entire space station on their bodies?

House: We admit it; we're already in love with Hugh Laurie's snarky doctor and his parade of patients with ever more ridiculous and unlikely ailments. We're happy that they're pretty much shunted Cameron and Chase off to the side (If only because we remember Chase's stint on Australian soap opera Neighbours), and we're anxiously waiting to see the emotional fall-out of last season's finale that, yes, may have brought tears to our eyes. But that doesn't mean that sci-fi wouldn't make it better. This is what we're suggesting: Dr. Gregory House, Cyborg Physician. It's perfect! It make his tantrums more dangerous - watch out for that arm-loaded concussion cannon! - and makes his his constant struggle with his own humanity that much more literal. And if you think that Laurie's American accent is good acting, just wait until you've seen his robotic movements.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent: If you've been wondering how Vincent D'Onofrio's Bobby Goren can solve all those cases with just a squint of his eyes and uncanny intuition, we've got the best answer possible - He's an alien. And so is the show's new detective this season, as played by Jeff Goldblum because, well, come on; it's Jeff Goldblum. While the introduction of extra-terrestrials may upset some fans of the long-running cop franchise, we're betting that when everyone else sees the emotional turmoil brought on by the revelation - as well as Goren's sweet new UFO ride - new viewers will be jumping on board quicker than you can say "Alien Nation."

This Old House: Admit it; you've been a fan of PBS' long-running home improvement show since Steve Thomas was a host, and you're wondering what science fiction could do to give Norm Abrams a new coat of paint. Well, we're suggesting that producers keep the name and start over from scratch. I mean, it's one thing to spend weeks watching people put up drywall and talk about plumbing, but what if the title of the show was taken literally, and Norm, Kevin O'Connor, Tom Silva and the rest of the crew travelled back in time to view the original construction of the houses in question? Just imagine the excitement of watching fine Bostonians dealing with squalid conditions in the late 1800s while trying to see what kind of lumber was used, and then get upset that PBS' budget doesn't stretch to the research, experimentation and materials necessary to create a time machine

Mythbuster busts his own tale of show's cowardly cave-in to RFID heavyweights

Adam Savage's widely circulated YouTube video account of a pack of credit card industry giants pummeling Discovery Channel into deep-sixing a Mythbusters investigation aimed at RFID is now taking more of a beating than Buster the dummy absorbs on a typical episode of the show.

And the knockout blow of that beating is coming from Savage himself.

In the video taken at a July hacker conference, Savage says:

Here's what happened -- I'm not sure how much of this story I'm allowed to tell -- but I'll tell you what I know. We were going to do RFID -- on several levels: how reliable, how hackable, how trackable, etc. -- and one of our researchers called up Texas Instruments and they arranged a conference call ... with one of the technicians at Texas Instruments. ... Texas Instruments comes on along with chief legal counsel for American Express, VISA, Discover (Card), and everybody else. They absolutely made it really clear to Discovery that they were not going to air this episode talking about how hackable this stuff was. Discovery backed way down, being a large corporation that depends upon the revenue of the advertisers. Now that (topic is) on Discovery's radar and they won't let us go near it. I'm sorry, it's just one of those things.

Savage's incendiary accusation went relatively unnoticed at the time, but caught fire on the Internet over the Labor Day weekend fanned by prominent placement on forums such as Slashdot and Digg.

Now it's beginning to appear as though Savage was considerably less knowledgeable about what transpired than he let on, although how much of his backtracking is backside-covering will be left open to speculation (in which I'll indulge shortly).

Here's a statement today from Savage:

"There's been a lot of talk about this RFID thing, and I have to admit that I got some of my facts wrong, as I wasn't on that story, and as I said on the video, I wasn't actually in on the call," he said in the statement CNET reported was provided by the Discovery Channel. "Texas Instruments' account of their call with Grant and our producer is factually correct. If I went into the detail of exactly why this story didn't get filmed, it's so bizarre and convoluted that no one would believe me, but suffice to say ... the decision not to continue on with the RFID story was made by our production company, Beyond Productions, and had nothing to do with Discovery, or their ad sales department."

Discovery Channel has failed to respond to repeated e-mail and phone inquiries. (Update 10:51 p.m.: Discovery Channel just got around to sending me the same statement ... Do I sound happy?)

The Texas Instruments account Savage refers to in his statement was also offered in response to my Tuesday inquiry by that company's public relations department ... and portions of it can be read below. But first there are apparently other details that Savage got wrong, namely the players involved in the allegedly nefarious phone call.

Jon Drummond, a PR guy at Discover Financial Services, tells me: "The statement that Discover participated in the call that was mentioned in the video is incorrect. Discover legal counsel did not participate in any such call. We would appreciate it if you could correct the record in your article, especially since your blog is bound to increase views of that footage."

An American Express spokesperson reacted similarly: "We looked into it and we did not participate in the meeting described by Mr. Savage."

According to Texas Instruments, the Smart Card Alliance did participate in that call, and I asked its executive director, Randy Vanderhoof, whether his group or a member of it put pressure on Discovery Channel. He says in an e-mail reply (necessitated by my commitment to a meeting):

"The Smart Card Alliance was enthusiastic and the industry was ready to support the program. We want people to feel comfortable with the security of RF-enabled contactless payments and having an independent body like Mythbusters test it was a great opportunity. The technical phone call that we had to scope out the project with payments industry members from the Smart Card Alliance answered questions and discussed contactless payment security at the card and at the system level."

And here's what Texas Instruments sent in response to my questions to them on Tuesday:

"In June 2007, MythBusters was interested in pursuing some great myth busting ideas for RFID. While in pursuit, they contacted Texas Instruments' RFID Systems, who is a pioneer of RFID and contactless technology, for technical help and understanding of RFID in the contactless payments space. Some of the information that was needed to pursue the program required further support from the contactless payment companies as they construct their own proprietary systems for security to protect their customers. To move the process along, Texas Instruments coordinated a conversation with Smart Card Alliance (SCA) who invited MasterCard and Visa, on contactless payments to help MythBusters get the right information. Of the handful of people on the call, there were mostly product managers and only one contactless payment company's legal counsel member. Technical questions were asked and answered and we were to wait for MythBusters to let us know when the segment would air. A few weeks later, Texas Instruments was told by MythBusters that the storyline had changed and they were pursuing a different angle which did not require our help."

So what really happened? You can take the corporate spokespeople at their words ... no, really, you can, since Savage has all but said he suffered some sort of brain cramp.

However, having spent 30 years in the news business, I'm not quite so sure that the funnyman Mythbuster simply woke up on the wrong side of the bed the day he spilled his guts to a roomful of geeks while a video camera rolled. Wouldn't surprise me in the least if the truth actually lies somewhere between Savage's moment of unguarded/ill-informed candor and subsequent change of tune.

It's exactly the kind of mystery that Mythbusters might ... uh, never mind.

Album leak welcomed by Metallica

James Hetfield of Metallica
Metallica played the recent Reading and Leeds festivals

The drummer of rock band Metallica has welcomed an internet leak of their new album, ahead of its release next week.

Speaking on San Francisco radio station Live 105, Lars Ulrich said: "If this thing leaks all over the world today or tomorrow, happy days."

"It's 2008 and it's part of how it is these days," the musician added.

Death Magnetic, officially released around the world on 12 September, was posted on the internet after reportedly being sold in a French shop.

Legal action

The band, who were honoured at the Kerrang! awards in London last month, made one of the album's tracks, Cyanide, available for download recently.

They have also announced details of an intimate gig due to take place in London on 14 September.

Ulrich appeared on the US radio station to give a sneak preview of the album.

In 2003, Metallica decided to allow fans to download their music via the internet, three years after taking legal action to prevent digital access to their material.

The band chose to make their entire back catalogue available for download in 2006 - after finally relenting on a refusal to allow their music to be carried by iTunes.

They are due to play London's O2 Arena on 15 September, and will subsequently embark on an extensive North American tour, ending in January.