Big-tech harvests big data about you and me


Lots of words are zooming around the Internet and beyond -- including, of course, the words I'm writing now. But what happens when they're harvested by others and used for good, for bad or just for weird things? On Wednesday (Feb, 24), PBS' "The Human Face of Big Data" ponders thats; here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By Mike Hughes

Floating around the
atmosphere, it seems, are great globs of information about most of
us.

This is harvested by
strangers – businesses and governments and more – a new PBS film
says. It's used for good or bad or in-between. Consider the:

-- Bad. “A young
programmer at a bank wrote an algorithm (that included) if you had
anything in yout social history that you listened to rap music,”
said Rick Smolan, the “Human Face of Big Data” writer-producer.
“If you did, his algorithm would lower your ability to get a loan.”

-- Good. “We
accept the fact that drugs only work in about 40 percent of the
people who take them,” said Linda Avey, who runs a high-tech
company. Now the odds can be improved with genetic information.
“We'll be able to target medications to the people they actually
work in.”

-- Or merely
strange, as one example points out in the “Big Data” film.

An irate customer
confronted a store manager. Why was Target suddenly sending coupons
for baby things to his house? Was it implying that his 17-year-old
daughter was pregnant?

The confused manager
apologized ... and called a few days later to apologize anew. Never
mind, the guy said sheepishly ... his daughter had just told him
she's pregnant.

Corporate computers,
it seems, can sense such things even with small changes in buying
habits. Someone who shifts to an unscented product, for instance, may
be pregnant. So coupons are sent.

That's part of the
information harvest that comes from social-media, Internet searches,
shopping habits and more. “If you live in a major city, you're
expected to use as much data in a single day as your 15th-century
ancestors encountered in their entire lifetime,” said Sandy
Smolan,who directed “Big Data.”

But who owns that
data? Rick Smolan (Sandy's brother) points to the example of Hugh
Campos, a scientist who has a pacemaker. A fitness buff, he decided
to study the information it generates, to see what it says about his
sleep, exercise and more; he asked the pacemaker company for a data
dump.

“There is this
long pause on the phone,” Rick Smolan said, “and the woman says,
'Well, I'm sorry sir, but that's our proprietary data.'

“He said, 'No, no,
no. This is my heart; I created the data. I want a copy of it.' So
he's suing them.”

In the right hands,
Avey said, information is a huge plus. She went from drug-company
work to starting tech firms (23andMe and Curious, Inc.) aimed at
helping people use their own information. “There are things that
you can do ... if you have a higher risk for things like Type II
diabetes.”

And in the wrong?
Susan Karlin, a tech journalist, recalls interviewing Jonathan Nolan
about “Person of Interest,” his CBS series that included an
all-knowing computer. Two years later, Edward Snowden revealed how
much the government already knows. “Everythingthat he said sound
paranoid in the story, but turned out to be very prophetic.”

Still, all of that
data can also be helpful. Just by checking Internet searches, the
film says, the Centers for Disease Control can get a two-week jump on
regional flu outbreaks.

That's not limited
to high-tech countries, the film says. In Kenya, mobile phones help
spot malaria outbreaks. In Haiti, they located people trapped by an
earthquake. In Tunisia, they sparked a revolution.

And in the U.S.?
Uses can range from major health issues to Boston potholes.

Our GPS devices,
Rick Smolan said, send a signal if they're bumped. “If 40 people
bounce in the same place, it tells the city there must be a pothole
there, so someone goes and fixes it.”

-- “The Human Face
of Big Data,” 10 p.m. Wednesday, PBS (check local listings)

-- Also a book
(2012, Against All Odds Productions) by Rick Smolan and Jennifer
Ewitt

 

His world has room for blacklisting and black magic


At first glance, there's no connections between "Trumbo" -- a surprisngly vibrant tale of the 1950s -- and "The Magicians," filled with modern teen angst. Both, however, are from writer/producer John McNamara, who's gone easily from true-drama to fictional fantasy. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Even the best
college faculties, it seems, can't prepare you for everything that's
ahead.

John McNamara didn't
meet a single wizard or magician or shaman. He did, however, meet
some blacklisted writers; that helped prepare him for part of his big
year, as writer and producer of:

-- “Trumbo.” HIs
script received a Writers Guild nomination; Bryan Cranston drew Oscar
and Golden Globe nominations for best actor.

-- Two TV series.
“Aquarius,” centering on Charles Manson, returns to NBC this
summer; “The Magicians” -- about a secret college that deals with
magic – is at a pivotal point in its first Syfy season.

That last one is new
turf for McNamara, who's had no wizard mentors. “I'm not a huge
fantasy fan,” he said. “I like it, but I'm not ... a true,
die-hard fan.”

Fortunately, he's
joined by Sera Gamble, who is. They're adapting three novels, filled
with what Gamble calls “emotionally sophisticated, complicated
stories about twenty-somethings.”

But “Trumbo”?
That's the one college prepared him for.

McNamara, 53, was a
lawyer's kid in Grand Rapids, Mich. “I grew up in a community that
was very safe and secure,” he said. Then came the University of
Michigan and New York University. “Kids are shot from a bubble ....
To me, it was like going to Oz.”

One of the NYU
writing teachers was Ian McLellan Hunter, who won an Academy Award
for “Roman Holiday” (1953) ... a movie he didn't write. Hunter
put his name on it, as a favor to blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.
Later, he was briefly blacklisted himself.

McNamara would also
meet the blacklisted Waldo Salt and Ring Lardner Jr. and the briefly
blacklisted Arthur Laurents. These are men who – when blacklisting
finally ended – would write “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), “MASH”
(1970) and “The Way We Were” (1973) respectively.

Clearly, there was a
movie here, centering on the vibrantly unstoppable Trumbo. “That
sat on my shelf for 20 years,” McNamara said.

He went on to
produce TV series, starting with the critically praised “Profit,”
in 1996. He's done two Tim Daly shows (“Eyes” and “The
Fugitive”), two female-cop shows (“In Plain Sight” and the
American version of “Prime Suspect”) and more.

Then David Duchovny
took an interest in his “Aquarius” script and Cranston wanted to
do “Trumbo.” The latter was produced by Michael London ... who
had been pushing a “Magicians” series. “(Novelist) Lev Grossman
and I were sort of licking our wounds from the experience of not
getting the show made,” London said. “And John said, 'I have a
friend who worships these books more than life itself.'”

That was Gamble –
already working on “Aquarius” and a fan of the Grossman novels.
“It was worth it,” she said, “for John and Michael and I to
basically spend our own money, buy an option and sit in John's garage
for hours and hours and hours and write it. It's the best feeling in
the world for a writer.”

At the core of
“Magicians” is a young recluse, just realizing his magical
powers. “Quentin is a gold mine of neuroses and fears and
aspirations,” Gamble said.

Then there's his
friend Julia. Rejected by the college, she turns to rogue magic. In
the novels, her story isn't really told until the second book, via
flashbacks; in the series, it's entwined from the start.

“I think everybody
wishes that they could acquire something magical in their life,
whether it's real or not,” said Stella Maeve, who plays her.

Except, of course,
that things rarely work that way. “Magic isn't going to fix
anything,” said Olivia Taylor Dudley, who plays Alice. “Just like
in life, there's no quick fix.”

Instead, the current
episode finds naked students – including Quentin and Alice --
forced to admit truths. “Magicians” -- like “Trumbo” and
“Aquarius” ends up being about the shaky human condition.

-- “The
Magicians,” 9 p.m. Mondays, rerunning at midnight, Syfy

-- The Feb. 22
episode also reruns at 10 p.m. Wednesday and at 4:30 and 6:30 a.m.
Friday

Emerging from El Sombrero -- the world's biggest creature?


The subject of dinosaurs seems to elicit an awe that doesn't wear out. You can sense that in kids ... or in Diego Pol, 41, paleontologist in chart of a mega-find ... or in David Attenborough, 89, who hosts a film Wednesday on PBS' "Nature." Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

This wasn't where
you'd expect global history to be made.

It was in Patagonia,
the most sparsely populated region of Argentina ... in the province
of Chubut ... near the town of El Sombrero. There, a worker found
“what we believe to be the largest dinosaur that ever lived,”
said Fred Kaufman, producer of PBS' “Nature,” which features it
Wednesday.

What he found was
just part of a bone, sticking out of the rock. The ranch people then
called the museum in Trelew, a Chubut city of 100,000.

“We usually keep
our expectations low when we get these phone calls,” said Diego
Pol, the chief paleontologist. “We get phone calls quite
frequently.”

A few months later,
he and a team went there and began to dig – and dig some more.

“We started to
uncover a really, really large bone,” Pol said. “It was a femur,
the thigh bone. So it was after three days working there we realized
that this was probably the largest dinosaur bone ever found. That was
a very special moment; you have a fantastic fossil in front of you.”

That bone alone was
almost eight feet long, five times the size of a human femur. The
creature, a plant-eater, is estimated at about 121 feet long,
weighting about 77 tons.

“It weighed the
equivalent of 15 elephants,” Kaufman said. “If you've ever lifted
an elephant, you know just how heavy that could be.”

And there was more,
Pol said. “We kept finding more and more bones .... We realized we
didn't have one dinosaur, but we had six and later seven dinosaurs
that died there.”

News of the finding
caused a stir in England. “It opens horizons for children,” said
Charlotte Scott of the BBC. “If you've been brought up in the city
and all you've seen is high-rise buildings, suddenly there's a whole
world up there that involved monsters and dinosaurs and great
beasts.” Indeed, in modern times this creature would be capable of
peering through a seventh-story window.

The BBC filmed the
project. Soon, Sir David Attenborough, 89, was meeting Pol ... and
seeing a replica of the skeleton ... and (via special effect) seeing
an animated approximation of the creature.

For Attenborough –
whose big brother Richard, ironically, played the guy who brought
dinosaurs back to life in “Jurassic Park” -- this was easy duty.
“Every child knows perfectly well how exciting it is to think about
dinosaurs,” he said. “I certainly thought that when I was a boy,
and I still feel that.”

He did his first
nature TV show 61 years ago – which was 20 years before Pol was
born.

“When I was 5, 6,
7, I was certainly interested in dinosaurs,” Pol said. “But not
only dinosaurs, also fossil mammals like the giant sloths and giant
armadillos.”

His high school was
affiliated with Buenos Aires University and had paleontologists come
to the classrooms. At the college, he did his undergrad thesis on an
ancestor to modern crocodiles. In 1993, he began going on digs each
summer, usually to Patagonia, Argenina's southern-most region; in
'97, he had a first when he found a complete skeleton of the pre-croc
species he'd been studying.

Two years later, Pol
began working and studying in New York at the American Museum of
Natural History (the same place that now holds a cast of the new
creature's skeleton). He received a doctorate at Columbia and
returned to Argentina, a mother lode for dinosaurs.

The Argentinosaurus
– a member of the titanosaur group – had been considered the
biggest creature ever. The first bone was discovered by an Argentine
rancher in 1987 and wasn't identified as a dinosaur until '93. With
few bones available, it's been variously estimated at 72 to 98 feet.

But now comes this
discovery, bigger and more complete. When a scientific paper is
published, it will be given its official name.

How about
“Sirdavidsaurus''? Attenborough offered a different suggestion:
“No, Diegosaurus.”

-- “Nature,” 8
p.m. Wednesdays, PBS (check local listings)

-- “Raising the
Dinosaur Giant” is Feb. 17

 

This rock epic had Jagger, Scorsese ... and LOTS of time


"Vinyl" is the sort of series we expect from HBO -- big, ambitious, sometimes vulgar and always intelligent. Its two-hour opener arrives on Valentine's Day, then repeats almost daily. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

These days, Mick
Jagger and Martin Scorsese don't have to rush anything.

Scorsese got his
first movie raves (for “Mean Streets”) 42 years ago; Jagger had
his first hit single (“Time is On My Side”) 51 years ago. They
have fame and fortune; they can let ideas percolate.

One idea – a film
about the music business – lingered for almost 20 years; now it's
“Vinyl,” on HBO.

“I had an idea
years ago that I took to Marty,” said Jagger, 72. Then “we
developed it and developed it. We wrote scripts; it was a very
sprawling idea.”

That was in 1996,
said writer Terence Winter. He joined the project in 2008, just in
time to see it fade. When “the economy collapsed,” Winter said,
“it was clear that nobody was going to make a three-hour,
40-year-spanning epic period piece in the music business.”

In the interim, new
possibilities had emerged, Jagger said. “TV started to become
interesting.”

Scorsese and Winter
already had such a project with HBO's“Boardwalk Empire.” Now they
had to adapt the music idea for a series. “We needed to take what
was a 40-year story and park it in one particular era,” Winter
said. “Together, we decided that 1973 was the most interesting time
period.”

That was when new
sounds – disco, punk, early hip-hop – were emerging and old ones
were fading. Amid drugs and porn, New York also seemed to fade. Three
old hotels collapsed, Winter said ... including an eight-story
building that housed the Mercer Arts Center, a home for theater and
punk rock.

The actual collapse
came in a late afternoon, killing four people, but “Vinyl” gives
it more spectacular time and impact. Then again, this is told by a
fictional music mogul who's not dependable.

“We are starting
with an extremely unreliable narrator who (says) this is his story,
clouded by lost brain cells,” Winter said. That provides “a
creative license to push the bounds of reality.”

But keeping “Vinyl”
fairly close to the truth are:

-- Scorsese, 73, an
expert on music -- “it's constant; it's very much a part of my
life,” he said -- and on New York history.

-- Jagger, who knows
about 1970s music moguls. “We got really (cheated) in the '60s,”
he said. “So I ... got really involved in record companies and how
they worked and who was good, who was bad.”

The series mixes new
songs with ones from the era, but Jagger said he mostly resisted
writing any. An exception was one song by a fictional punk band, the
Nasty Bits; James Jagger, 30, the fourth of his seven children, plays
the lead singer.

Bobby Cannavale has
the raging role of the mogul, desperate to avoid selling his
company. “Every single day for six months, it was exhausting and it
was intense,” he said.

Olivia Wilde plays
his wife, once an Andy Warhol actress and now a suburban mom. “She's
sober,” Wilde said. “She has a family, but she may have left her
identity behind. She's searching for that.”

Then there are his
staffers. A key one is played by Ray Romano, who said he didn't
expect to find himself in a series filled with HBO depth and detail.
“There would be so many scenes where I would look at it and go,
'How am I on this show?”

-- “Vinyl,” 9
p.m. Sundays, HBO, with two-hour opener Feb. 14, rerunning at 11:30
p.m. and 2 a.m.

-- Opener also
reruns at 8 p.m. Monday, 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, 9 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m.
Friday, 11 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 20) and noon and 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb.
21

 

On Valentine's Day, love battles zombies and such


It's easy to assume that all of TV's romance movies are the same. (Many of them do use variations of the same plot.) But the two that debut on Valentine's Day are near the top of their field. Hallmark's "Anything For Love" has a clever plot; UP's "Love Finds You in Valentine" is handsomely filmed. They're on a night (Feb. 14) that isn't always lovey-dovey. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

When Valentine's Day
arrives, TV people know just what we want.

How about marauding
zombies, chewing our brains and our hopes? Or an ambitious epic of
drugs, decay and (sometimes) punk music? Or ...

OK, many of the top
shows on Feb. 14 (led by AMC's “Walking Dead” and HBO's “Vinyl”)
seem almost anti-Valentine. So does “My Bloody Valentine,” on
IFC. But you'll find romance on:

-- “The Bachelor
at 20: A Celebration of Love,” from 8-10 p.m. on ABC. The romance
record is actually pretty shaky on “The Bachelor” (19 seasons,
two marriages) and “Bachelorette” (11 seasons, two marriages, a
current engagement). So this will also focus on the wedding of Tanner
Tolbert and Jade Roper, who met on the “Bachelor in Paradise”
spin-off.

-- Movies. There's a
sweetness to Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore in “50 First Dates”
(2004), at 8 p.m. on Comedy Central. But the real classics are
“Frozen” (2013, 7 p.m. on Disney) and “Casablanca” (1942, 8
p.m. ET on Turner Classic Movies).

-- And made-for-TV
movies.

Hallmark is big on
these, with marathons from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday,
Feb. 13-14. That peaks at 9 p.m. Sunday, with the debut of “Anything
For Love,” a cleverly plotted film that has two people starting a
romance, unaware that friends have lied for them on an Internet
dating site.

And now there's sort
of a mini-Hallmark that does similar films.

UP (formerly the
Gospel Music Channel) has been adapting “Love Finds You” novels.
“Love Finds You in Valentine” (7 and 9 p.m. ET Sunday) imagines
that Kennedy, a young law-school grad, has just inherited a ranch in
Valentine, Nevada. There, she meets:

-- The foreman, once
a tough city kid who was adopted by a ranching family. After “never
feeling like ... he's part of something ... he found his passion, his
life, his salvation,” said Diogo Morgado, who plays him – and
understands being an outsider. A native of Portugal, Morgado has
ranged from playing Jesus in the “Bible” mini-series to being an
ominous figure in the “Messengers” series.

-- His adoptive
mother, played by Lindsay Wagner, who grew up in California, but
found parts to relate to. “My father's family is from Kansas and
(it) kind of reminded me of some old family stories.”

-- And Kennedy's
crusty grandfather. He's played by Ed Asner, who has crusty down to
an art form.

Asner has seven
Emmys – five of them for playing Lou Grant in both a comedy and a
drama – and 17 nominations. At 86, he's briefly considered quittig.
“I was thinking about it this Christmas,” he said. “But the new
year looks very promising. So I'll forget about retiring.”

Now he has almost a
dozen small roles in the works or recently finished. In a way, he
follows the example of Morris Asner, a native Lithuanian who went
from being a pony-and-cart junk man to a successful scrap-iron dealer
in Kansas City.

“My father learned
from the firemen down the street,” Asner said. “They retired and
a year later, they were dead. So he vowed never to retire and he died
(at 82), still tending his business.”

Now Asner is tending
to his, as people find love in Valentine on Valentine's Day.