SciFi Weekend Preview

Since the last full post, we have had two additional episodes of Doctor Who. If Steven Moffat tried to throw out too many big ideas, Chris Chibnall throws out a whole lot of small ideas in The Tsuranga Conundrum. Then history got personal in Demons of the Punjab. In both, Chibnall tried to avoid having any real monsters.

Star Trek returned with a new Short Trek, Calypso, written by Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon.

I have had to postpone the full post on these topics, and more, for later in the week.

Trump Threatens Press

If the White House Press Corps had any balls, they’d all stop showing up for the orchestrated press briefings in response to a threat like this and resort to real reporting to cover Trump in the disrespectful manner he deserves.

Trump Threatens to Retaliate Against Reporters Who Don’t Show ‘Respect’

President Trump said on Friday that he might revoke the credentials of additional White House reporters if they did not “treat the White House with respect,” lobbing another threat at the news media two days after his administration effectively blacklisted the CNN correspondent Jim Acosta.

Asked how long Mr. Acosta’s pass would be suspended, Mr. Trump replied: “As far as I’m concerned, I haven’t made that decision. But it could be others also.”

The president made his comments while speaking with reporters on the South Lawn before boarding Marine One.

“When you’re in the White House, this is a very sacred place for me, a very special place,” Mr. Trump said as he left Washington for a brief jaunt to Paris. “You have to treat the White House with respect. You have to treat the presidency with respect.”

The removal of Mr. Acosta’s credential, after a tense news conference on Wednesday when the CNN correspondent aggressively questioned Mr. Trump, has raised alarms among press freedom groups that say the president is encroaching on journalists’ basic right to cover the government…

Democrats Slap Donald Trump On the Wrist In the Midterms

The midterms were a mixed success for the Democrats in 2018. Most notably the Democrats took control of the House, but unfortunately this probably means Nancy Peolsi returns as Speaker. They also regained about three hundred of the near one thousand seats in state legislatures they lost over the past decade, have a majority of state attorney generals in the nation, and won some key governorship battles, especially in the midwest. On the other hand, despite a Republican president as terrible as Donald Trump, their midterm gains in the House were historically not terribly impressive for the party out of power, and they did poorly in the high profile battles in the Senate. (I’m waiting to hear Rachel Maddow explain why the Russians meddled in the Senate races but not the House races this year.)

This was far more a slap on the wrist than a shallacking for Donald Trump.

The Senate map was undoubtedly very unfavorable for Democrats, but it will be so virtually every year as long as Democrats are unable to come up with a message to win in the smaller states beyond the east coast. The system of giving two Senators to each state regardless of size makes the Senate extraordinarily unrepresentative. Still, don’t be tempted to repeat the memes showing up since the election regarding winning the popular vote. They are misleading as the entire nation did not vote for Senate, and this can be tilted by which states do vote. This was especially true in 2018 as California had two Democrats running for Senate due to a system where the two leaders in the primary get on the November ballot regardless of party. This leads to a tremendous number of Democratic votes if the mythical Senate popular vote is counted, but only one Democratic Senator.

Democrats are always far quicker to list off the problems which make it more difficult to win than to change their strategy. They showed once again that moving to the right in the hopes of attracting Republican votes does not work. Nor did recruiting veterans help them do any better than expected. I would prefer to see Democrats be more consistent in supporting a reduction in  the role of government in the private lives of individuals–an attitude which might make defense of reproductive rights part of a consistent philosophy that might be accepted in the more libertarian minded portions of the country. Taking a rational anti-war line, as opposed to acting as if they are apologizing for appearing weak on national security, might also help in those areas which are hurt by perpetual warfare–and rejected Hillary Clinton in 2016.

This does note mean that the Democrats don’t have many valid complaints, including regarding voter suppression and gerrymandering. Some of the election results will help, including increasing their strength in several state governments before the next redistricting. While the high profile races in Florida did not turn out as hoped (how badly did campaigning with Hillary Clinton hurt Andrew Gillum?), but there was a victory in passing a ballot initiative to restore voting rights to convicted felons who have served their time.

While Democrats continued to struggle in Florida and Ohio, their hopes for Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin being more blue in 2018 look favorable after Tuesday’s results, including the defeat of Scott Walker in Wisconsin. Besides possibly giving the Democrats their electoral votes again in 2020, there might be an increased number of representatives as the heavily gerrymandered system of drawing Congressional districts will be replaced by an independent redistricting commission in Michigan.

Other ballot proposals passing in Michigan will make it easier to vote and legalized marijuana for recreational use. Newly elected Governor Gretchen Whitmer is looking at legislation or issuing executive orders to free prisoners convicted for marijuana related charges which will no longer be crimes after the ballot proposal passed. I did hold my nose and vote for Whitmer, despite her reliance on dark money and financing by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Action such as this will make me happier that I did so. A judge has already put some new marijuana cases on hold.

Medicaid expansion passed in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah, and is also expected in Kansas due to the victory for a Democratic governor. While there is no chance of it becoming law imminently, there are also more Democratic supporters of Medicare for All in the House.

There were victories for various groups. The media has covered extensively how there are more women and people of color in the House. In addition, seven more scientists were elected to the House–all Democrats as the Republican war on science continues.

It remains to be seen how some issues will play out now that the midterms are over. Are we still supposed to be terrified by the caravan? Donald Trump quickly took advantage of having control of the Senate by firing Jeff Sessions.  I never would have guessed that I would see this as a bad thing when Sessions first became Attorney General. On the one hand, Sessions might have been the worst Attorney General in history. On the other hand, Sessions was absolutely right in his dispute with Trump in recusing himself from Mueller’s investigation, and his firing could be a sign that Trump plans to take action against Mueller. I suspect that Mueller has prepared for this by being ready to turn over evidence of financial crimes committed by Trump and his cronies to state prosecutors. Congressional Democrats will also be able to take over the investigation if needed. Hopefully they concentrate on Trump’s financial crimes and obstruction of justice, as opposed to the dubious conspiracy theories popular among many Democrats blaming Russia for Hillary Clinton’s loss.

SciFi Weekend: Doctor Who, Arachnids In The UK; Penny Dreadful Returning; Marvel Television Crossover Hinted; Arrowverse Crossover and News on The Flash

Arachnids in the UK provided both a horror story before Halloween and political satire just over a week before the midterm elections in the United States. These two components were not entirely successful, but there was a third aspect of this episode of Doctor Who which was a success, redeeming the episode.

The main story line was fairly weak (as many episodes of Doctor Who tend to be), and its fairly minimal importance was seen in the way it was wrapped up quickly. Rather than being a true monster, the spiders were simply normal spiders who grew to be too big and lacked an ecosystem to exist in. The solution played into the anti-gun sentiments seen earlier this season, but is it really more humane to let them suffocate as opposed to shooting them quickly? I could see earlier seasons solving the problem more humanely by transporting the spiders to a new planet where they could live in peace. While the episode did provide a quick solution for the spiders in the hotel, it also seemed to forget that there were additional spiders around the apartments seen earlier in the episode.

Chris Noth added the political aspect for the episode and, like the spiders, fell short of being the outright villain of the episode. He played an American businessman who aspires to be president, builds luxury hotels around the world, loves to fire people (including Yaz’s mother), sees guns as the solution, uses words such as “fire and fury,” and hates that a woman (the Doctor) is the one in charge. He also hates Donald Trump, whom he is clearly modeled upon, and plans to run against him. I had expected to see Jack Robertson die a horrible death, being eaten by the spiders. Instead this only happened to his poor bodyguard. The episode ended with Jack Robertson seeing himself as the hero, and ready to go on to attempt to become the next president. This would have been the true horror of the story if not for the fact that we already have Donald Trump as president. This does leave open the possibility of Robertson becoming a recurring character, possibly with Chris Noth returning to play the next president sometime in the future.

As political satire, this was fairly weak considering it adds nothing to the vast work satirizing Trump, other than copying some of his obvious characteristics. I suspect that Chris Chibnall did not want to get overly specific so that the episode will still hold up over time. While many future viewers might forget many of the specifics of the Trump years, I doubt anyone will forget the basic outline of Trump as shown in the episode.

The episode works best if seen as the conclusion of a trilogy to establish the Doctor and her new companions, beginning with The Woman Who Fell To Earth and The Ghost Monument. These show the Doctor meeting her future companions, getting to the TARDIS, and ultimately getting home after a series of adventures–with Rosa showing only one of these as a side story to this trilogy. After this series of adventures, the TARDIS made it back to Sheffield.

The revival of Doctor Who has been stronger by showing the families of many of the companions, allowing the companions to be more complete people as opposed to simply people traveling with the Doctor. The episode concentrated on showing Yaz’s family, but also went back to Graham’s loss of Grace and building a relationship with Ryan.

Until they returned to Sheffield, the three were with the Doctor by accident, and the goal was to return them home safely. Now they had a choice, and the Doctor even warned them of the dangers of traveling with her. This especially makes sense considering the fates of many of her recent companions. I imagine that it is easier to write a companion out by having a tragic outcome than showing that someone would just decide that they no longer wish to travel on the TARDIS.

The episode also suggests further expansion of the Doctor’s backstory. Steven Moffat had set up the possibility of a Timelord changing gender, but now we are hearing suggestions that the Doctor has also been a woman, had a family, and had a life we do not know about. Peter Capaldi, speaking of the Master, has said, “I think she was a man back then. I’m fairly sure that I was, too. It was a long time ago, though.” This episode was more explicit. The Doctor said she used to have sisters, and that she herself was once a sister in an aqua hospital, which was a training camp for space assassins. As we know very little of the Doctor’s life before becoming a Timelord, there is no contradiction with the Doctor having had sisters. However, for the Doctor to have once been a woman, this would mean that William Hartnell was not the first Doctor. Older episodes did sometimes hint at previous regenerations before Hartnell, but for this to have been possible it would have been necessary for the Doctor to have been granted additional regenerations in the past. We did see this was possible with Matt Smith.

In other Doctor Who news, it appears that instead of a Christmas special there will be a special on New Year’s Day this year. This does help as they appear to have run out of ideas for a Christmas tie-in for the series. I imagine that for some viewers in the UK, this might not matter much, unless people really care about the tradition. Watching in the United States, I would prefer a special on Christmas Day, and lacking a connection with the holiday would be fine. There is very little new American television around the holidays, and I’ve gotten in the habit of downloading Christmas specials from the UK that day. However, New Year’s Day is taken up by football here.  At least the streaming channels will fill in for the lack of Doctor Who on Christmas Day if my wife and I wind up staying home and watching television.

The Hollywood Reporter has a story on a new version of Penny Dreadful, with new cast and new location:

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels opens in 1938 Los Angeles for a story that Showtime describes as “a time and place deeply infused with Mexican-American folklore and social tension.” Rooted in the conflict between characters connected to the deity Santa Muerte and others allied with the devil, City of Angels will explore a mix of the supernatural and the combustible reality of that period, creating new occult myths and moral dilemmas within a historical backdrop. The series will feature all new characters and storylines.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels will have a social consciousness and historical awareness that we chose not to explore in the Penny Dreadful London storylines,” Logan said Thursday in a statement. “We will now be grappling with specific historical and real-world political, religious, social and racial issues. In 1938, Los Angeles was facing some hard questions about its future and its soul. Our characters must do the same. There are no easy answers. There are only powerful questions and arresting moral challenges. As always in the world of Penny Dreadful, there are no heroes or villains in this world, only protagonists and antagonists; complicated and conflicted characters living on the fulcrum of moral choice.”

There have been hints about a cross-over between Marvel’s Runaways and Cloak & Dagger. Comicbook.com reports:

“It can reference the rest of the world, but it’s true to teenagers — they’re not interested in what Tony Stark is doing this week or what Matt Murdock is doing this week but they might be interested in a couple of kids who live down in New Orleans and what’s going on there.”

That’s fitting because both Tyrone Johnson and Tandy Bowen have been members of the Runaways team at some point along in the Marvel comics mythos. Now that the characters are played by Aubrey Joseph and Olivia Holt, respectively, that’s a scenario that’s entirely plausible in live-action.

In fact, Cloak & Dagger showrunner and executive producer Joe Pokaski has previously said the powers that be have had conversations on how to make crossovers happen.

Chicago, as opposed to Vancouver, will provide the background for Gotham City on the Arrowverse Elseworlds crossover episodes this season. We will be seeing Ruby Rose as Batwoman, and seeing a Black Suit Superman, but it has been confirmed that Batman will not appear.

CBR.com reports that Flash’s most iconic villains might be returning for the 100th episode:

DC World writer Paul Edwards attended an autograph signing at MCM Comic Con London. While there, he talked with actor Tony Todd, who previously provided the voice for Flash villain Zoom. During a conversation about Todd’s acting, the former Candyman star explained that he had just finished filming episode 100 of Flash. When asked if he would be reprising his role as Zoom, Todd replied, “They are all returning, all the speedster villains, and they all want a piece of Barry.”

…Executive producer Todd Helbing teased a big twist for the series at this year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego, so this might be what he was referring to. The eighth episode of Flash Season 5, which will premiere on Dec. 4, will be the series’ 100th episode. Tom Cavanagh, who plays various versions of Harrison Wells on the show, will direct.

You might have noticed that Joe West has not been doing much on The Flash this season, generally sitting in scenes. TVLine has the reason for this:

I’m hearing that Martin suffered a back injury over the hiatus. In fact, a studio rep confirms for TVLine that the actor will be taking a medical leave from the CW hit, adding: “We wish him a full and speedy recovery and look forward to his return as Detective Joe West.” (It’s unclear at this time exactly when and for how long Joe’s absence will be felt on screen, but sources tell me it will be addressed at some point.)

Fortunately it should be easy to have a reduced role for Joe, and write him out for a while, without causing serious problems for the stories.

The Growing Lists Of False Statements And Acts Of Corruption From The Trump Administration

Keeping up with the false statements, repugnant statements, and acts of corruption from Donald Trump in nearly two years of his presidency has become an impossible task for a small blog. While I could successfully cover at least the major lies from the Bush administration, there are far too many from Trump to keep up with–which might be part of his strategy. Instead we must rely on professional journalists who can devote far more of their time to such projects.

Trump has kept the fact checkers very busy. The fact checkers at The Washington Post report that Trump “has made 6,420 false or misleading claims over 649 days.” The rate of false statements has escalated as Trump has been out campaigning for fellow Republicans:

The flood of presidential misinformation has picked up dramatically as the president has barnstormed across the country, holding rallies with his supporters. Each of those rallies usually yields 35 to 45 suspect claims. But the president often has tacked on interviews with local media (in which he repeats the same false statements) and gaggles with the White House press corps before and after his trips…

Put another way: September was the second-biggest month of the Trump presidency, with 599 false and misleading claims. But that paled next to October, with almost double: 1,104 claims, not counting Oct. 31…

The president’s proclivity to twist data and fabricate stories is on full display at his rallies. He has his greatest hits: 120 times he had falsely said he passed the biggest tax cut in history, 80 times he has asserted that the U.S. economy today is the best in history and 74 times he has falsely said his border wall is already being built. (Congress has allocated only $1.6 billion for fencing, but Trump also frequently mentioned additional funding that has not yet been appropriated.)

I’m not aware of any similar counts of repugnant statements from Trump but this number must also be growing. He has always taken advantage of racism and xenophobia, and the refugee caravan has played into this. Yesterday CNN reportedTrump shocks with racist new ad days before midterms:

Trump has repeatedly warned that the caravan is laden with criminals or also includes Middle Eastern terrorists. He has offered no evidence for such claims, however, and even admitted last week there is no proof to support them.

The President has also often used racially suggestive rhetoric in his tweets and launched his presidential campaign in 2015 with a tirade against Mexicans. But he accuses the media, which points out his frequent falsehoods and flaming rhetoric, of being to blame for national divides.

Controversy over the new ad is certain to explode across the final days of the election in which polls suggest Democrats could take back the House of Representatives but Republicans could keep or even expand their Senate majority.

The new campaign web video was the culmination of a day on which the President staked out ever more extreme positions.

He took advantage of his role as commander-in-chief to promise to triple the number of troops to 15,000 that he has pledged to send to the southern border to repel the caravan — which is still hundreds of miles away.

He also made a dubious claim of presidential power to reinforce his vow to change the Constitution on his own to end birthright citizenship that is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

If the Democrats do take back the House as expected, this will give Democrats the ability to investigate the vast amount of corruption by Trump, his family, and top members of his administration.  David Leonhardt and Ian Prasad Philbrick have posted what they bill as Trump’s Corruption: The Definitive List in The New York Times. They began:

They don’t even try very hard to hide it.

President Trump, his family and more than a few of his appointees are using his presidency to enrich themselves. They are spending taxpayer dollars for their own benefit. They are accepting sweetheart deals from foreigners. And they are harnessing the power of the federal government on behalf of their businesses.

There’s a word for this: corruption.

Given how widespread Trumpian corruption has become, we thought it was time to make a list. It’s meant to be a definitive list of self-dealing by the president, his family, his staff or his friends — since he began running for president. To qualify, an incident needs to seem highly credible, even if it remains unresolved, and needs to involve making money.

Compiling the list made us understand why some historians believe Trump’s administration is the most corrupt since at least Warren Harding’s, of 1920s Teapot Dome fame. Trump administration officials and people close to them are brashly using power to amass perks and cash. They are betting that they can get away with it. So far, Congress has let them.

A Welcome Reduction In Hysteria As We Are Hearing Less About Foreign Hacking Of The 2018 Election (For Now)

The New York Times today asks, Where Are The Russians? In other words, they have bought the sensationalized and highly exaggerated media accounts of Russia’s impact on the 2016 election, and are now surprised that they cannot find evidence that Russia is trying to hack the 2018 election.

Aaron Maté has a more reality-based view at The Nation in writing,With Just Days to the Midterms, Russiagate Is MIA–And that’s a good thing. He wrote, that despite all the “histrionics,” Russia has been found to have done little of consequence:

Russia’s alleged midterm sabotage to date has been disclosed in a newly unsealed criminal complaint against an employee of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Russian troll farm previously indicted for using fake accounts to spread divisive content on social media. The defendant, Elena Khusyaynova, is not even directly accused of online manipulation. Instead, she is singled out for being the chief accountant for “Project Lakhta,” an IRA initiative that targeted audiences in Russia and around the world, including the United States. The only actions directly ascribed to Khusyaynova concern her “meticulous record-keeping and management” of IRA funds.

As with the initial indictment of 13 IRA employees in February, prosecutors accuse IRA trolls of using social media “to sow discord in the U.S. political system and to undermine faith in our democratic institutions,” including in the upcoming midterms. But reading the fine print, it is difficult to see how that purported aim can be taken seriously. In the first six months of 2018, Khusyaynova submitted expenditures of $60,000 for advertisements on Facebook and $6,000 on Instagram. The only advertising-related activity that gets detailed in the complaint is an alleged IRA employee’s offering to give organizers of an anti-Trump protest $80 for a Facebook ad. (It’s unclear if the proposal was accepted). The IRA’s alleged social-media accounts impersonated both liberal and conservative personas. The complaint shows six images that were posted by Russian trolls to Facebook; the most impactful of the bunch appears to be a thinly disguised anti-Muslim ad that attracted 104 comments.

Some of this content is overtly racist and bigoted; other posts are banal. All are so juvenile or inconsequential that it is difficult to see how they could have vastly greater influence than the millions of other pieces of political clickbait littering the Internet. The IRA’s social-media imprint seems to have as much impact now as it did during the 2016 election. Back then, the IRA spent a reported on $100,000 on Facebook ads, with most of those ads having nothing to do with the election, and more than half of that total spent after the election.

According to Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch, posts generated by suspected Russian accounts between 2015 and 2017 represented “a tiny fraction of the overall [News Feed] content on Facebook.… about four-thousandths of one percent (0.004%) of content in News Feed, or approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content.” The widely cited figure that “material generated by the Kremlin had reached a hundred and twenty-six million American Facebook users,” (The New Yorker) is in fact a creative take on Facebook’s own speculation. “Our best estimate,” Stretch testified to Congress in October 2017, “is that approximately 126 million people may have been served one of these [IRA] stories at some time during the two year period.” So the 126 million figure is an “estimate” of how many people “may have been served” one piece of IRA content—most unrelated to the 2016 election—in their Facebook feeds over two years. Over on Twitter, a new analysis by the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab finds that “Russia’s troll operation primarily targeted Russian speakers,” posting “significantly more in Russian than in English.”

Maté went on to further debunk many of the Russiagate claims, seeing them as no more than “fodder for ongoing efforts intent on convincing Americans that unsophisticated social-media trolling could somehow divide and weaken their society.” He showed problems with claims that Russia penetrated state voting systems and the many problems with media coverage of Russiagate, as I, and others, have also done many times in the the past.

Matt Taibbi also discussed the problems with coverage of Russia in an interview with Recode, pointing out, “You see a lot of stories where there are four unnamed intelligence sources all saying something that is totally unverifiable.” He discussed additional problems with some stories:

So recently we had a story that … I’ll give you two. Okay? There was one from pretty early on where the New York Times said, “Trump campaign officials had repeat contacts with Russian intelligence.” All right? And again, it was four current and former officials, none of them named. Now, I knew and anybody who lived in Russia knew that you constantly have contact with intelligence officials there often, whether you know it or not. And the story didn’t specify whether the contract was knowing or unknowing, like what the nature of it was, but the headline was incredibly damning, right?

I was very concerned about the vagueness of it, the inability to verify it. And then, sure enough, James Comey came out months later and said, “Well, that story isn’t true.” All right? And so if I’m the reporters, I’m really pissed about that, right? Like, “you burned me on this.”

Right.

Then later, more recently, we had a story that said, “Oh, all of our informants in Moscow have gone dark.” Now, I get that the sources in that story had to be high level.

Sure.

Of course they were, but how do you confirm that story? Think about it as a journalist. If you get a call, it doesn’t matter to me if the source is the head of the CIA.

It’s not like you can go find those intelligence sources and confirm with them.

Right? I mean, can you look at the string of cables that have suddenly ceased? You can’t, right? I even called the paper and asked about that. I said, “What’s the deal with this?”

Taibbi noted a time when The New York Times fell into a similar trap in reporting unverified intelligence claims: FROM THE EDITORS; The Times and Iraq.

While talk of Russia rigging our elections has calmed down going into the midterms, this might also be a temporary break, with politicians on both sides likely to be searching for people to blame for losses after the results are in. However, if there really should be a threat of election rigging, it is notable that, despite all the hysteria since 2016, The New York Times is right on one thing. Very little has been done to change how our elections are held and to deal with the risks in our electronic voting systems. If politicians (along with journalists who called 2016 incorrectly) really took the risk of election hacking seriously, as opposed to a convenient excuse for why Hillary Clinton could not beat Donald Trump, we might expect a strong movement towards paper ballots and more secure voting systems.