Deniable Plausibility: The trite ritual of season-ending ‘cliffhangers’

As the decades advance, television networks produce fewer episodes of tv shows each year, while simultaneously trying to solve the perplexing mystery of declining viewership. This was in part implemented with the notion of a TV ‘season’ which starts in autumn and ends in the spring. This presents a problem for the networks. If by some miracle clueless network mooks stumble upon a show that viewers like, and by an even greater miracle they don’t decide to cancel it, they have the problem of how to maintain the viewer’s interest through the bar-b-ques, beers, softball games, parades and sun-tanning of summer.

The tranditional answer to this problem is the season ‘cliffhanger’. By means of last-episode melodrama, perhaps the viewer will spend the summer wondering how things turned out, and eagerly tune back in in the fall. In 1980, when the producers of Dallas had the charismatic scoundrel JR Ewing shot in the final episode of the season in March, it really did capture the imagination of many folks, and the Big Reveal episode in November of that year was the most watched episode in TV history at that point.

But that was 32 years ago, and since then the imaginary crimson harvest of network stars, who may or may not have died in season-enders, has turned the increasingly violent and implausible ‘cliffhangers’ into a predictable and forgettable ritual. Wowing people depends on novelty, but lazy network writers prefer to cut and paste from old teleplays–or is it network executives who are reluctant to depart from ‘proven’ formulae?

And so it was this year, as the few police procedurals I enjoy suffered the inevitable machine gun strafing, hostage taking, terrorist bombing, and general mayhem of the sort that insults rather than enthralls the viewer. The producers of NCIS even went so far as to have their beloved Man From U.N.C.L.E spy turned Coroner collapse, on a picturesque ocean beach, of an apparent heart attack. Have they no shame–picking on poor old Ducky?

So, re-runs until fall, favorite shows cancelled to be replaced by dreck, and we will ultimately learn which actors successfully re-negotiated their contracts and woke up in their hospital beds during the first episode, and which unceremoniously travelled to Hamlet’s Undiscovered Country, never to be referred to again. Ah for the days of my youth when JR Ewing, whom we so loved to hate, was shot, and we actually cared enough to speculate about who did it during the hot summer of 1980.

Always know your elevator number

Murray Rothbard, and other scholars, have pointed out that one of the widely held misconceptions in our society is that things are inevitably getting better with the passage of time; the notion of an ‘inexorable march of progress’. In fact, a study of history reveals that improvement is frequently followed by decline. This came to mind a while back when I was riding an elevator that stopped moving between floors, and I opened the little door and picked up the red phone:

(rings many times) “Acme Elevator Service, this is Rachel, how may I help you?”

“Well, this elevator has stopped and the doors didn’t open, and I think somebody ought to … ah … get it going again.”

“I’m sorry for your inconvenience, sir. Can you tell me the number of your elevator?”

“I thought these things must have some sort of caller ID or something…”

“I’m sorry, sir, but I have 5,000 elevators from all around the country, so I need to know which elevator you are on.”

“Hmmm, I see something here that says ‘Elevator 3’, is that it?”

“No, sir, it would be a 5 digit number.”

“Can you tell me where the number would be shown, in the elevator?”

“No, I’m sorry, sir, but it really depends on the manufacturer and model.”

(After looking around a bit): “Well, I don’t see any number like that here. I can tell you I am in Minneapolis, on the Fizbin Companies elevator…”

(Impatiently): “Ok, sir, if you can hold a minute, I will try and find it.” (click, and on hold)

I never learned if she found my elevator. While I was on hold, the elevator started moving again, and I hung up the phone and quickly exited the elevator.

Things they don’t teach you in school

Background: I am currently a Junior in the Mechanical Engineering program at the U of M – Twin Cities. This past January I accepted an 8 month, full-time internship with St. Jude Medical.  I am part of the R&D (Research and Development) group in the Cardiovascular Division.

For a variety of reasons I spend a large portion of my time at work in the machine shop. It is my understanding that I am not at all required to but it allows me to be involved in every part of the R&D process. The machinist, Ed, enjoys teaching and has sort of taken me under his wing. Ed is almost always swamped with projects meaning that if you need something built it could take days or weeks.

One day, Ed and I were working in the shop when our mutual boss, Ralph, came in with a pretty urgent project which he hoped Ed would expedite. Now some people come into the shop, throw down CAD drawings and quickly leave expecting Ed to drop everything for their project, but Ralph knew better. After casually chatting with Ed for a while, Ralph handed Ed some CAD drawings and said, “Alright Ed, here is an opportunity [he paused for dramatic effect] to excel. This project goes all the way to the top (it didn’t at all). Before today Dan Starks (St. Jude CEO) said ‘Ed who?’ but not after this project. 20 years from now employees will still be talking about you!” Ralph said this with a smile and Ed knew it was BS but he appreciated the effort and quickly finished the parts for Ralph.

Weeks later I was at my desk when Ralph approached me. With a smirk on his face he said, “Alright Anthony, I have an opportunity for you to excel…”

Apparently there was an urgent project that no one wanted to do, so Ralph needed me to do it ASAP. It turned out to be a great project; very interesting and enjoyable but now when I am approached by an unusually friendly superior, I expect to receive an important, urgent, or undesirable assignment.

My handmade engine

After two weeks and many hours of carefully building, troubleshooting, and fine tuning I got my Engine running off of compressed air. I didn’t really expect it to run at all, let alone so fast and smooth so I am quite thrilled.

My banner photo

My banner photo was taken by a camera on a balloon that went as high as 100,000 feet. My son Anthony, and classmates, launched several high altitude balloons with sensors and cameras as part of a research project (Minnesota Space Grant) for engineering students at the University of Minnesota. In the manner of Icarus, the balloons would rise until the atmospheric pressure became so low that they would pop. The balloon’s payload contained a GPS transmitter, and a carload of students and advisors would follow the balloon and locate its payload once it fell to earth.