Vince Shuta: Engineer, Writer and Raconteur
Oh that's not good
I was about to post this story on the Choking Hazard Podcast in the comment section, but it is so dear to my heart that I figured I would post it on my own web page first, just as proof of originality and ownership. This was posted May 1, 2020, but happened some 25 years earlier.
Pittston, PA. Summer of 1995.
I was working as a contract design engineer at Techneglas. The plant made TV screens—twenty two million screens a year. Almost every TV in the store had a screen made in Pittston.
The plant was massive. Over a third of a mile long, it included three massive furnaces several stories high to melt raw and recycled materials into glass. These only lasted seven years because the bricks were part of the glass formula. Eventually the molten glass would wear through the walls, and before that happened, the furnace needed to be torn down and rebuild. And while you're doing that, you might as well rebuild everything.
In the summer of '95 I was working night shift on the “B” shop rebuild. We were in the tear down mode, and I was point out some equipment to a coworker that had to be removed by morning. In mid sentence I stopped what I was saying, and said “Oh that's not good.”
About thirty or so feet in front of us was a control room. As near as I could tell, the Death Star had just exploded in it.
Blue sparks poured from every crevice around the door. All the lighting in “B” and “A” shops went out and were replaced by emergency lights. Smoke followed the sparks.
We ran as fast as we could, and I got to the door first. I remember thinking I was too young to see what I was about to see. I expected carnage...death. But I took deep breath and ripped open the door.
What greeted me was a scene out of a Roadrunner cartoon.
Two electricians were standing in front of a smoking electrical disconnect. Their shirts were smoking. They were both standing with their jaws dropped. Not moving at all.
I grabbed the closest one by the arm and pulled him out of the smoke. My coworker grabbed the other one. I immediately asked, “What the F*** did you do?”
In retrospect, this was not a particularly sensitive first question. “Are you all right?” would have been better. But their arms were all in the right place, and I was young.
The second electrician explained. The first electrician—the one I had pulled out—had just had an argument with the shop steward, as he was the union rep and they had come to some disagreement.
He was so annoyed at whatever was going on, he opened a three phase, 480 volt electrical disconnect, and proceeded to disconnect one of the legs.
He said the words, “You know I never checked to see if that was...” and before he could say “live” the wire touched the case.
You could see where it touched the case, because the steel was melted.
If that wasn't enough of a hint, there were three black triangles burned into the wall, that looked just like the blaster marks from the first battle in the original star wars.
The lugs in the disconnect had all snapped off from the violence of the electromagnetic cataclysm that had happened in that box.
When we found and woke up the plant night shift electrician (who was totally unmoved by the whole thing, except for the fact that we had disturbed his nap) we ended up walking around the plant for I forget how long finding blown breakers. Eventually we had to go to the main transformers, where the 1000 amp lightning arresters were tripped.
The power outage (or power cut , if that is the British way of putting it) shut down three production lines as well as all the power in the area where the rebuild was happening.
But before that, after about 10 minutes after the explosion, the electrician who had forgotten to take the electrical power tester out of his top pocket before unleashing a potentially deadly blast of electricity, finally said something.
“OK...I can see now.”
Why I Hope "Star Wars" Doesn't Go Gray
The first three Star Wars movies—Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi—forever set our expectations as to what a Star Wars movie should be. There's a feel and a flavor to the original three movies that we look for whenever we hear John Williams' score kick in. It's a futuristic movie with throwback sensibilities.
Yes the heroes are rescuing the princess, but the princess is a bad-ass and part of the team, not an object to be retrieved. It's got classic sword fights but the swords aren't made of steel. It's got WWI dogfights but they're in space.
These movies have samurai and wizards and pirates and side kicks and romance and bravery and humor and everything you'd expect from a classic movie.
So why do people hate the prequels?
They've got a bad-ass queen instead of a princess, same futuristic swords, same dogfights. Same samurai, wizards, side kicks and romance.
Wait...no pirates...were there pirates? I don't remember.
I could probably quote the first three movies to you verbatim. We used to have them playing over and over again in the engineering lab in college.*
I can't even quote you the plot for Attack of the Clones. I don't think I've seen it since it was in the theater.
Why is that?
It's not that the prequels were bad movies in and of themselves. The over arching plot of government manipulating wars to control people is as important as it was interesting. The settings were fantastic, and truth be told, I think the acting was more than adequate. George Lucas makes everyone in a Star Wars movie jump through hoops with the writing, and I think the actors took a lot of flack for what they had to say rather than how they said it.
Yes you can violently disagree with me on any of these points. But even if I give into your opinion, I don't think any of these things were movie breakers. But I think I do know what did break them.
Star Wars was a tale of redemption. It was a tale of good and evil. It was about pure evil becoming good, and pure good fighting the fall to evil.
That resonates with people. We're all either trying not to fall or trying to come back. If you're in a bad place and you feel you can't be forgiven, well *spoiler alert* here' s Dark freakin' Vader turning back to the light. You're not even trapped in black suit.
If you've ever been on the brink of losing it, while you really want to stay good, you've got Luke. Anyone not had that “Looking at the glove” moment when you realize you have to get your cool back before you go too far? Or is that just me?
Then there's Han. A self-serving criminal who will shoot first and not worry about the questions until he meets a strong willed woman with a cause. Through her he sees a new path and takes it.
So what do we have in the prequels?
In the prequels we have all that Obi-Wan regretted in the originals. The good guys are largely lacking in compassion, and largely self serving. The ones who aren't are swept along with events. The heroes are heroic, but they can't win. The bad guys are playing both sides of the chess game, and the end is a foregone conclusion.
The prequels are brilliant really. They can also match our real life experiences if we choose to look at things from a certain point of view.
But is it a fun point of view?
Do you want to see the movie where good triumphs over evil or where good falls to darkness?
That's why I think on a visceral level people hate the prequels. **
So what does this mean for the new movies?
Well, that kind of depends where they go with them.
The Force Awakens was just Star Wars with a slightly darker flavor to it. Are old heroes aren't doing that well, and that takes away a bit from the stories of the new heroes. Eventually your brain relegates Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie to smaller parts, but this isn't what you'd hoped for them.
But it does still seem to be good vs bad, with either destruction or redemption hanging in the balance for a lot of characters. Finn is the new Solo, trying to overcome a shady past and earn trust. Rey is the new Luke, gifted with powers she can use for good or evil.
For some, “The Force Awakens” might not be the Star Wars movie they wanted, but ultimately, unlike the prequels, it felt like a Star Wars movie.
In less than a year, we'll get to see “The Last Jedi,” and it seems like they may be embracing a concept from the vast body of work now considered to be “non-cannon.” And that is the concept of the Gray Jedi.
The Gray Jedi uses both the light and dark sides of the force. The Gray Jedi is good or evil depending on what said Jedi thinks will get the best outcome. It's Star Wars mixed with Nietzsche. It's the “Will to power” brought to the “Journal of the Whills” as Star wars was originally titled.
In a world where the only people who are considered evil are those who would claim that an action could be called good or evil, the Gray Jedi will be popular. Today we equate judging actions with judging people, which paints any sort of morality as devoid of compassion.
That topic is a pretty deep dive, and I'm not going to take the plunge here.
My point is, what will happen to the new Star Wars movies if they go there?
My theory is, they're going to lose the “Star Wars” feel. The simplicity will be gone. The good guys vs bad guys let-me-focus-on-how-good-the-popcorn-tastes feeling will be gone. The “I am your father” twist in Empire was powerful because we were so used to a straight road that a sudden massive complication threw us off completely.
It's not going to feel like Star Wars. And then no matter how good it is,some people aren't going to like it.
It's going to feel like an episode of “Babylon 5” or “Star Trek Voyager.” Those are great shows, but if you feel like watching Star Wars, don't watch Babylon 5. It's like if you're primed for pizza and then the plans change to fish and chips. Fish and chips are great, but not if you're in the mood for pizza.
If they go this route, if they don't keep to the original Star Wars vibe, these are not going to be movies you watch over and over again, memorizing every line. They might be fine movies in their own right. But they're in danger of falling into the same trap as the prequels.
The good news is, you have a say in what is considered cannon in any media you consume. The reader is as much a creator as the righter; the person in the theater controls what is acceptable and what isn't.
If in your mind, Han and Leia lived happily ever after, and “The Force Awakes” is a bunch of crap, then it didn't happen. It's just a story told using those characters that someone put on film.
Read a Star Wars book that doesn't feel right? Heck most of those aren't even official cannon anymore. Just drop it off at Goodwill and forget about it.
The consumer has the final say as to what stories it includes in the cannon we create in our imaginations. You can even like a story without thinking it fits. Splinter of the Mind's Eye by Alan Dean Foster is one of my favorite books of all time, but it doesn't fit on several levels.***
One way or another, “Star Wars” is going to go on—probably long after we're all long dead now that Disney has it.
I'm just saying it would be nice if when they make movies with “Star Wars” in the title it would be great if they were Star Wars movies.
If not, I guess we'll take what we can get.
*Along with The Smokey and The Bandit moves, The Cannonball Run movies, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the Hunt For Red October. We had a VCR hooked to an orange and black monitor from a Commodore 64 and an old boom box. That plus a lot of coffee, pizza, Pepsi products and some Jolt Cola for the longer nights and Gavascon for what we did to our stomachs made for good times.
**That and the ending was too short and made no sense whatsoever. If they had done something with the Emperor pulling the life from Padme' to save Darth Vader, that would have been great. As it was, it wasn't.
***The sexual tension between Luke & Leia is so wrong once you know they're brother and sister, but this book predates that revelation.
On the The Grand Tour and The Stig with the Fake Mustache
Enough time has passed now that I've been able to watch The Grand Tour as a show, not as an emotionally charged event of epic proportions. It's not longer has to carry whatever expectations I was laying on it's back, and can take an honest look at it.
What I've discovered, is that Jeremy Clarkson was right when he said it's “Top Gear in Witness Protection.” The three blokes from England are really doing the same shtick wearing a fake mustache so that the BBC won't sue them.
And it's this mustache—and other bits of disguise—that have garnered most of the criticism of the first series.
For instance, Celebrity Brain Crash is a poke at the fact that the BBC won't let them do the celebrity interview segment. Or more likely, they realized that segment killed the momentum of the show in the old Top Gear and said “how can we memorialize the segment.” It's taken a lot of heat in reviews, but I think it's because it's such a tone shift from the rest of the show.
No, James May is not stupid enough to have to ask “Does that mean he's not coming on?” every time the guest meets an obviously fake and horrible end. And of course the stars obviously aren't really killed off. So the segment pulls you out of the normal mode of the show. It's no longer some guys throwing the bull, and you're hanging out with them. It's as if you're in your garage with your friends, drinking some beer, leaning on the Plymouth Fury you're restoring, and three of your buddies spontaneously stared doing pantomime. No matter how good it is, the question that comes to mind is “Why?”
I'm not saying they should lose the skit, because honestly watching James May calmly cleaning Daniel Ricciardo off the tent window just doesn't get old. But I think it's this Top Gear yet not Top Gear flavor that's making people not like it. It's familiar, yet totally not. Once people get used to it, it might take less criticism.
But one segment that definitely is suffering from a chaffing mustache is the segment with “The American.” When I first watch the series, I knew this wasn't working but I hadn't nailed down exactly why.
If you go back and watch Top Gear, they so much herald the stick as an inhumanly perfect driver, that you might not notice they treat him as a tool instead of a person. He's something weird that you just happen to be able to stick in a car and get good lap times. If you want to say he has webbed buttocks, his legs are hydraulic and he sleeps upside down like a bat, no problem. He doesn't care. He doesn't hear it. Richard Hammond once said that speech to the Stig sounds like “a quacking noise.”
According to Wikipidia—which is on the internet so it must be true—the character was forged from an inability of finding a driver that could speak well on camera. They created the Stig so that the driver wouldn't have to speak.
So now fast forward to the Grand Tour. “The American” is none other than Mike Skinner, a successful race car driver with his own radio show on SiriusXM. He can speak perfectly well on camera. You might not believe that watching the Grand Tour, but it's true.
You would think the Grand Tour would be pleased with having a driver who really could be a fourth commentator, but they've the track tests amazingly the same as before. Clarkson does the commentary, while Skinner quips off redneck jokes to fill in for whatever the Stig had on the radio. The pacing is exactly the same.
For as close as it is to the original, it's the most broken part of the show. And here's why:
“The American” is not an anonymous, imaginary, inhuman character. It's a real person the audience expects to have depth. So the segments feel like they've stolen that depth from him, primarily as a shot at America. And the fact that Mike is somehow complicit in this is even more depressing.
Now I can hear Clarkson answering,”No, no! That's really all he's got. You're expecting an American to have deep, majestic thoughts like he's from Britain and they just don't have it in them.”
Even if that were true—which it isn't—Clarkson and May have said that they agonize over every word in the show. "TV is writing' they say. So one way or another this mess with “the American” is intentional.
And it's got to stop.
What I'd like to see is a take on the American that's less jingoistic, less “A Stig That Talks,” and very much less “Top Gear.”
Have Jeremy be quite for a change and let Mike do the talking on the lap. Let him give real opinions of the card instead of being forced to call everything communist.
Present him as a real person who has a chance to be a part of the friendship of the original three.
You know what, this is just hitting me now like a slap to the face. This is why “The American” doesn't work—at least for Americans.
The fantasy of watch Top Gear or the Grand Tour, is that we're hanging out with the presenters. We're leaning the hood of that Ferrari while they talk about it. Any they're happy that we're with them. The fantasy is we're buddies.
Now we see how an American would be treated. Not as a buddy, but as comic relief.
I get the distinct impression that I, the viewer, would be as quickly dismissed as a no-nothing redneck as Mike Skinner. And knowing that I know a lot less about cars and driving than Mike reinforces that point.
It takes me out of that fantasy, and sends me back to my easy chair, just watching a show that's sometimes about cars. And it makes me think, “I'll bet those other guys wouldn't treat me like this.”
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