Tag Archives: Pedantic Moment

That’s Not How That Works

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There is a very real effect out there known as the CSI Effect. It’s what happens to lay people when it comes to their expectations of forensic science due to what they’ve seen on any of the numerous CSI TV series. For the purposes of artistic and dramatic license Hollywood has been exaggerating what forensic science can do for decades. And I just saw another example.

In 1948, 20th Century Fox released Call Northside 777, a film noir classic based on a true story. It stars James Stewart as the cynical newspaper reporter J.P. McNeal, who has been assigned to do a story on an ad offering $5000 (that’s more than $50,000 in today’s money) to anyone who can provide evidence that will free an innocent man from prison.

OK, stop right here and know that there are big spoilers ahead.

The innocent man is Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) and it’s his mother (Kasia Orzazewski) who has worked as a janitor for eleven years to raise the money. Wiecek was convicted and sentenced to 99 years for killing a cop in 1932, the height of the Prohibition Era. He was essentially convicted by the testimony of one eyewitness.

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James Stewart and Lee J. Cobb

McNeal thinks the story is a waste of time, but his editor (Lee J. Cobb) presses him to dig deeper. The initial story “Mac” wrote was getting good response, so the digging continued. Without me going through everything, the cynical reporter comes to believe Wiecek to be innocent. Despite the evidence uncovered by Mac being compelling, the newspaper’s lawyer speaks the hard truth that it isn’t the kind of evidence that will convince the coroner’s inquest to overturn the verdict.

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“Sorry, boys. But the evidence isn’t good enough.”

McNeal needs to get the witness to recant her testimony or find new evidence. Or drop the story.

The witness refuses, even though it’s learned that she didn’t recognize Wiecek as the killer at first. It seemed the police worked with her a little bit, because it’s also learned that she and the accused had been together with the police the day before she finally picked him out of a line up. However, the court transcripts showed testimony that she hadn’t seen the accused the day before she identified him.

If Mac could only prove the accused and the witness had seen each other the day before, that would discredit her testimony and taint her identification of the accused. He just needed to find the evidence.

With time running out before the newspaper’s lawyer was to apologize to the coroner’s inquest and drop the case, MacNeal found an old photograph showing Wiecek and the witness together being escorted into police headquarters. The indications were that the photo was taken the day before the line up, but could Mac prove the timing?

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“Enlarge that newsie!”

Up to this point, the film was pretty good. Not the best film noir I’ve seen, but I was enjoying it. And then it happened. This pedant has been bugged by this dramatic device for years. Lots of old cop shows have done it, I can remember a specific episode of Columbo that did it, and Blade Runner (1982) does its variation of blowing up a photograph to get details that just aren’t there. It’s just not possible.

With Blade Runner, I’m a little more forgiving, because it’s set in the future (2019!) and there’s technology far advanced to what we have now. (Next year is going to be interesting. Replicants, flying cars, cool computer devices that can turn corners in photographs.) But, in 1943, when this picture is set? No way!

Here’s what happens. Mac has part of that photograph enlarged first to 100x, then to 140x, and finally “as big as possible.” The part he’s interested in shows a newsie way off in the background, across the street, holding a stack of newspapers. What the intrepid reporter is attempting to do is zero in on where the date would be on the newspaper the boy is holding.

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100x

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140x

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Oh, please!

And there it is! The date! Proving the photograph was taken the day before the eyewitness identified Wiecek in that line up. Proving that the witness was mistaken or lying about not seeing the accused since the crime until that line up. Proving that she may have been influenced by the police to identify Wiecek in that line up.

Wiecek was set free.

(Uh, it’s a good thing no one suggested the newsboy could have been holding a stack of newspapers from the day before the photograph was taken. Cough! Cough!)

So, for me, the movie ended with an, “Oh, that’s impossible!”

By the way, I said the film was based on a true story. It is, but, according to Wikipedia:

“In actuality, innocence was determined not as claimed in the film but when it was found out that the prosecution had suppressed the fact that the main witness had initially declared that she could not identify the two men involved in the police shooting.”

Not quite as sexy, I guess.

Packing Peanuts!

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Images used under Fair Use.

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A Pedant Watches An Episode Of Star Trek: TNG

I’m a little bit of a pedant. Ask some of my friends and they’ll say I’m a lot of a pedant. Ask my wife and she’ll go all dead in the eyes and quietly groan.

It’s something I’ve been since I was a child and I have been doing my best to keep it under control. Well, the other night I was re-watching some Star Trek: The Next Generation (the finest of all the Star Treks) and an episode from season four, Clues, had me getting a bit or a lot pedantic, depends on if you ask me or my friends. Please, just don’t ask my wife.

Before I go any further, I will warn you that there are spoilers ahead. I’m going to pretty much describe the entire show, so if you haven’t seen it… Well, I warned you.

The episode Clues starts off as most Star Trek: TNG episodes do with the Enterprise gliding along through space. Captain Picard (the greatest of all the Star Trek captains) is informed that a fairly boring, previously uncharted star has been detected by the ship’s sensors. What brings that fairly boring star to the Enterprise’s attention is the M-Class (Earth-like in Star Trek speak) planet orbiting it. That piques Picard’s interest and they alter course to investigate.

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The entire crew, except Commander Data (seated at bottom), rendered unconscious.

When the Enterprise begins to approach that fairly boring star, but isn’t quite in visual range of the planet, a wormhole suddenly appears and swallows the ship. Everyone on board is knocked out except Commander Data, who is an android and therefor immune to the effects of the wormhole. The bridge crew revives and Data explains that an extremely unstable wormhole had sent the Enterprise some distance from where they were and everyone, except him, was knocked out in the process. Knocked out for a mere 30 seconds.

The decision is made to not go back to investigate the M-Class planet, but instead to send a probe to gather information. The information from the probe shows that the sensors were wrong and the planet wasn’t M-Class, after all. It seems odd, but Data gives a plausible explanation and  no one thinks anymore of it.

Until…

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24 hours of growth in 30 seconds?

The ship’s chief medical officer, Dr. Crusher, brings a space moss growing experiment she had set up, just before the wormhole encounter, to Captain Picard and she asks him if they were only out for 30 seconds, why does her experiment show 24 hours of growth? This is the first clue that something is amiss. I won’t go into all the clues, but they begin to add up and it becomes obvious that Data isn’t being truthful about the wormhole and the 30 seconds. When questioned Data repeatedly responds that he cannot answer the questions, but he does indicate the crew might be in danger if he were to reveal what he appears to be hiding.

The decision is made to return to the scene of the crime. It may be dangerous, but the mystery must be solved if they are to ever trust Data again. When they arrive they find the M-Class planet the sensors had originally spotted. They are also confronted by a mass of green mist that sends out a little puff that hits up against the ship’s defensive shields and dissipates. However, a tiny amount had gotten through, undetected, and enters the body of a sleeping Counselor Troi. The mist takes possession of her body and she goes to Data’s quarters.

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A possessed Counselor Troi entering the Enterprise bridge.

We know she is possessed by some alien life form due to her demeanor and her voice. The alien tells Data that the plan didn’t work and that the ship had returned. The android pleads with the alien do nothing and he promises to attempt to fix the situation. The alien compiles as Data is called to the bridge for a final showdown with Captain Picard. Realizing the jig is up, Data informs the crew that he was under Picard’s orders not to tell what had really happened during the wormhole incident.

He explains that the alien possessing Troi is part of a species of xenophobes who are determined to stay isolated. They have the ability to affect the minds of other intelligent species. The aliens knock out any intruding species and then moves them to another part of space, making it appear as though a wormhole was responsible. Usually the hapless travelers figure themselves lucky and move on, but Data screwed that up. He remained conscious and revived the crew, so they became aware of the aliens.

Instead of destroying the Enterprise, as was the aliens’ first choice, Picard talked them into arranging it so that it appears to the crew the whole scenario plays out the same way as with other interlopers. But, since Data will still know, Picard would order Data to never reveal what really happened at the wormhole. The aliens agree and they do their magic, which takes 24 hours.

The problem is too many clues were left behind and humans just can’t resist a mystery. So, they came back. Picard convinces the aliens to give his crew a second chance. He told them to consider the first attempt a rehearsal “to shake out the flaws.” This time they would make certain to leave no clues behind. The aliens agree.

The crew once again regains consciousness as they did after the original wormhole encounter. The first encounter and clue-finding aftermath have been completely erased from their memories, the clues have been removed, and the ship’s clocks have all been set to show a mere 30 seconds of unconsciousness had been experienced by all. Again, they decide not to go back. Again, they send a probe, but this time they also set up a warning beacon to advise other ships to stay away. And, again, Data remains the only crew member to know the truth and, since he is an android, he will keep the secret forever.

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“I know something they don’t know.”

The episode ends.

Pretty good, but the pedant in me surfaced. The first go-round took 24 hours to set up. Then there was the time of finding clues and returning to the planet, which for simplicity I’ll say took 24 hours. And the final attempt to remove all clues and do the wormhole trick again, I’ll say took yet another 24 hours. That’s 72 hours that have gone by in what the crew and the ship’s clocks think was 30 seconds.

Well, that’ll work fine until the Enterprise meets up with another ship, puts into space dock, or sends a report to Star Fleet. At some point, they will notice they are three days behind and will likely trace it back to the wormhole incident and back they’ll go. This time the aliens will say, “That’s it! Three strikes, you’re out!” And destroy the ship.

What is a pedant to do?

Worry not. I was able to figure out a way around the 72 hours. If the first encounter happened on a Tuesday, the aliens would have to make it appear to have happened on a Friday. There would have to be memories implanted so the crew thinks they did stuff during those three days. They would, also, have to make it look as though three days of work had been done. And there would have to be three days of log entries by the captain and the crew. As long as someone thought of these tasks, the crew and the aliens would have been able to work them out.

There’s still one thing, though.

When the alien possessed Counselor Troi she was in bed and was wearing a nightgown, but when she shows up at Data’s quarters she is in her uniform. Why would the alien care enough to have her change clothes?

I might never be able to work that one out.

Packing Peanuts!

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