Friday, October 31, 2003

In Praise of "Cold Case"

I’ve become a regular viewer of CBS’ new crime drama, Cold Case [Sunday night, 8 p.m.]. Like many of the new shows, it combines the elements of forensic science that we see in CSI and CSI:Miami and an attractive protagonist, but its real hook is philosophical, even spiritual. By the conclusion of each episode there is ultimate justice, and something more.

The presentation is the same each week. The opening scene shows the circumstances of a decades-old murder or missing-persons case. We know we are watching the past because the scene is shot in monochrome. We know the approximate period because of the background music and the characters’ garb and manner of speech. The mystery is unsolved, or, in some variations, “solved” incorrectly.

In 2003 new evidence comes to light. Frequently it’s in the form of a witness, who, wracked by guilt, finally comes forward. Last Sunday it was a tape recording of the fatal gunshots; the tape was dropped on the detective’s desk by someone who turned out to be present at the crime scene.

The problem is turned over to the new kid on the block, Detective Lilly Rush, played by Kathryn Morris, because none of the grizzled veterans wants to get his hands dirty or waste his time on these stale cases. [Side remark re the audience’s willingness to suspend belief: if any detective made a regular habit of solving twenty-year-old murders, he or she would be hugely famous, but Detective Rush is still the junior person on the totem pole, much as Columbo never made it past Lieutenant despite nailing a celebrity week after week in very high-profile murders.]

Modern criminal science, e.g., DNA analysis, fingerprint matching, and digital enhancement of video or audiotape, is applied to the new and old evidence from the case files, and …….the case is re-opened! So far we are only ten minutes into the drama, and now the fun begins.

The police track down witnesses, suspects, and victims (even the dead have more tales to tell because of modern forensics). We see what became of people many years later and how they were affected by the original crime. Special effects and make-up are light-years ahead of TV shows that were made in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, and an actor can believably play the same character separated in time by thirty years.

Kathryn Morris is Meg Ryan without the perkiness [side remark #2: a Google search of “Meg Ryan” and “perky” results in over 4,000 hits, although Ms. Ryan is the opposite of perky in her new movie ]. Her winsome appearance belies her intense pursuit of the truth. During the interviews Detective Rush intrudes on witnesses’ personal space and lobs insinuating remarks indiscriminately, striking guilty and innocent alike. Presumably it’s too early in the life of the series both to play driven avenger and have a romantic backstory, so empathy with the protagonist will have to wait. The story cycles between witness interviews and the crime lab, and voila, the case is solved.

The presentation of the last scene, like the first, has become a series convention. As the perpetrator is led off to jail, time slows, and all who were affected by the crime re-appear. The past and present selves of the guilty, the innocent, and the bereaved are simultaneously present, looking on. And, finally, we see the long-dead victim nod in acknowledgment to Detective Rush, who gazes intently back.

The surrealistic coda is not absolutely essential to the story, but it distinguishes Cold Case from other series in the crime genre and lends it its spiritual dimension. On one level, perhaps the simplest, it seems to say that justice cannot be denied because actions have eternal consequences. On another level, by juxtaposing old and young versions of the characters, it communicates the idea that there is an essence (dare I say soul? but this is not an overtly “religious” show) in each person, not affected by the passage of time. Although I have come to expect it, the closing minutes cause me to look at everything that came before in a different light, just as did the final communion in the 1984 movie "Places in the Heart".

The conventions in this unique show I currently find appealing. When the newness wears off they may well become repetitive and boring, but until then I’ll be watching.
copyright by Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Ferry Building

While Southern California burns, we guiltily experienced a warm clear day in San Francisco. Our worries, thoughts, and prayers are with our friends and family members in Los Angeles and San Diego.

Saturday, October 25, 2003

The Weather is not the "Answer"

Sometimes a public event's low turnout is blamed on bad weather. Early reports over the radio indicate that demonstrators against our Iraq policy number a "couple thousand", much less than sponsors had anticipated. Well it can't be the weather.

This morning I went for a walk along the levee, about a mile from my home. In the background is the Hayward-San Mateo Bridge, which spans the bay about 20 miles south of San Francisco.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Yamaha DGX-500 Keyboard

The Yamaha DGX-500 electronic keyboard is an amazing bargain at $600. It contains the full set of 88 piano keys and can replicate over 100 instruments. It has a built-in metronome, a small LCD screen, impressive volume, and features which I am only beginning to discover. When I sit on the bench--included, needs assembly--and plunk out a tune, the keys have the width and responsiveness of the upright pianos that I knew in my youth. (Confession: I am NOT a pianist but did study the violin for eight years so I can at least read the treble clef.)

Prompting the purchase was the commencement of piano lessons by my son. I had been mulling over the prospect of spending $1,500 to $2,000 for a good upright; I hated to spend the money if he wasn't going to stay with the lessons, and even a small piano can be awkward to move in and out of the house. So the Yamaha was the perfect solution: cheap, high-quality, and lightweight. I bought it, but not without a pang of regret for the makers of traditional pianos and the craftsmen whose hard-won skills are no longer in great demand. There but for the grace of God go I.

Yesterday and today the fog rolled in, enveloping Alcatraz before marching east.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Bioethics: The Real Story of Our Age

I am reading an extraordinary document, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, issued by the President’s Council on Bioethics, and commend it to everyone. The writing is colloquial, yet literate, technical but not condescending. Its authors display a breadth far beyond mere science.

We have reached a point where medical issues confront us every day, insistently. Biotechnological developments and our efforts to formulate a corresponding ethos might be the real story of our age, despite the current concerns about Iraq, the economy and the stock market. Witness the stories that have bobbed to the surface in the past few days: family members disagree over whether to continue feeding a Florida woman who may never recover from her vegetative state; a risky, very expensive operation has separated conjoined twins; genes from another species may have been implanted in a human embryo; use of the “abortion pill” (RU-486) may have caused a teenaged girl’s death; a popular radio show host has been using painkilling drugs that may have contributed to his on-air performance.

Earlier I have noted the sports/designer steroid scandal in my posts below. Why are we so disquieted? A flavor of Beyond Therapy’s approach is shown below:

The central question becomes: which biomedical interventions for the sake of superior performance are consistent with (even favorable to) our full flourishing as human beings, including our flourishing as active, self-aware, self-directed agents? And, conversely, when is the alienation of biological process from active experience dehumanizing, compromising the lived humanity of our efforts and thus making our superior performance in some way false—not simply our own, not fully human?

Better nutrition seems an obvious good, a way of improving our bodily functioning that serves human flourishing without compromising the “personal” nature or individual agency of what we do with our healthy, well-nourished bodies. But moving outward from there, the puzzle gets more complicated. Where in the progression of possible biological interventions do we lose in our humanity or identity more than we gain in our “performance”? Is there a way to distinguish coffee and caffeine pills to keep us awake from Modafinil to enable us to avoid sleep entirely for several days, from amphetamines to keep us more alert and focused, from human growth hormone, steroids, and EPO to improve strength and endurance, from genetic modifications that make such biological interventions more direct and more lasting? All of them alter our bodily workings; all of them to varying degrees separate self-directed experience from underlying biology.

Beyond Therapy is divided into subtopics of Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, Better Children, Superior Performance, and Ageless Bodies. Each section discusses the current and possible future state of the applicable technology, but most of the report is spent on the philosophical implications of the technology. The 300+ pages seem daunting but are very readable. If you have time, read the whole thing.

Saturday, October 18, 2003

Baseball Dodged A Bullet

It pains me to say this, but it's a good thing that the Giants failed to make the World Series this year. Sure, Barry Bonds in Yankee Stadium and the spectacular venues of Pacific Bell, now SBC, Park, would have been ratings grabbers, but the Series would have been dogged by the steroid scandal, which is only in its early stages. Barry's travails would have given Kobe Bryant an inkling of what Kobe will be facing if he plays this year.

Still, it doesn't hurt to daydream.......

Sunday, October 12, 2003

A Glorious Day in San Francisco

The Blue Angels pirouetting over Alcatraz, then skipping over the Bay waters to the Golden Gate. The white speedboats and sailboats trailing exuberantly below. I raise my eyes from the papers on my desk and look out the window. Thank you, Lord, for allowing me to live in this time and this place.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Nicene Creed

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.