Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

Tom Petty’s death on Monday was a confusing affair. Early reports of the singer’s demise were published, then corrected, then revised – for an entire day. Petty was reported dead; then he was on life support; then he wasn’t on life support, but dead; then he was back on life support. Internet wags suggested Petty had become Schrödinger's cat, existing in a quantum state of being both alive and dead.

Forty-eight hours later, Petty had settled into one state. He was dead, there was not doubt whatever about that.

Driving through the canyons today with the radio on, I listened to NPR’s long obituary. The report began by saying that Petty, 66, had been discovered in full cardiac arrest at his Malibu home. I’m near there, I thought. Wonder if the address is listed …

After playing some iconic Petty songs (“Breakdown,” “Free Fallin’” and “American Girl”), along with portions of a “Fresh Air” interview with him from several years back, the report ended, “He passed away at his Santa Monica home.”

Wait, what? Malibu isn’t Santa Monica or vice versa, as residents of these two, nearby-but-unquestionably-separate coastal cities will tell you (assuming you can get them to roll down a window of their air-conditioned BMW.)

Reading the Billboard obit didn't shed any light. The music trade paper's web site tells me that Petty died "at his Los Angeles home.” For those keeping track, LA isn’t Malibu or, even, Santa Monica. Besides, LA has always had more than its fair share of unexpected celebrity deaths. LA should sit on its hands.

Tom Petty, wherever you are, rest in peace.

While a duplicitous, “synthetic” crew member is nothing new in the “Alien” franchise, this idea is at the heart of “Alien: Covenant.”

More than that, it’s the AI’s hunt for existential meaning that captures our imagination in director Ridley Scott’s latest movie. (Don't worry, there’s also plenty of the expected kind of hunting, too, as various Xenomorphs chase down screaming, doomed characters. “This new ‘Alien’ prequel is mostly a gore fest ... ,” wrote The Wall Street Journal’s reviewer.)

(Caution, possible spoilers ahead.)

David (deliciously played by Michael Fassbender) returns from the previous installment, 2012’s “Prometheus,” to ask: What is my relationship to creation, now that I've met my creator and found him wanting?

This is a big, grand idea -- but again, not entirely new for the franchise.

In the very first movie, 1979’s “Aliens,” that film's synthetic, Ash -- whom we think is a human crew member until just before his messy, fiery end -- says this about the creature on board the Nostromo: “Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”

While Ash appreciates the organism, David dedicates himself to creating one. (He also meticulously sketches their various forms -- one of the movie’s nods to Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo.) By so doing, David seeks to actualize himself and his creation.

More broadly, by giving birth (albeit via unwilling human hosts) to a new lifeform -- one more perfect than himself -- David mirrors the actions of his own creator, whom we briefly meet at the start of “Alien: Covenant.”

It’s pretty clear that Scott is more interested in David’s search for meaning and personal definition than all the expected face-huggers, chest-busters, and bloody deaths in “Alien: Covenant.”

In fact, Scott has been toying with these themes for a long time. In his second “Alien” movie, 1986’s “Aliens,” there’s this memorable line when one crew member calls Bishop (played by Lance Henriksen) a synthetic. “I prefer the term ‘Artificial Person’ myself,” Bishop says.

In “Alien: Covenant,” the difference between David’s recognizable humanity is made more explicit when he encounters his “brother,” a synthetic named Walter (also played by Fassbender), who explains that his generation was designed to be less human-like. “You made them uncomfortable,” Walter explains to David in his flat American accent. By comparison, David feels … alive. He strives, he explores, he invents. He’s like us.

“Alien: Covenant” puts a synthetic at the center of the action and the argument. Why? Because this conversation is already well underway. In 2017, the culture is both fascinated by and anxious about the blurring lines between real people and seemingly real chat bots and robots.

The “Alien” monsters have become a trope; they fail to surprise or challenge. Next time, I hope Scott finds a way to dispense with them entirely, to focus on his real interest: artificial intelligence, and how these creations will struggle, just like we do, with being alive.

My treatment for a new reality TV show, featuring three powerful men looking to reboot their careers:

"Right of Way" will star pugnacious ladies man and (former?) Fox host Bill O'Reilly and easily irritated (former?) White House spokesman Sean Spicer. The Odd-Couple pair will be driven around the U.S.A. by former NSC member and (former?) White House chief strategist Steve Bannon -- known by his CB handle, "WhiskeySoaked"-- in 19-foot, 15-year-old RV.

There ought to be an Uber-like app for trip-packing. Like, some nearby stranger shows up at your house to pack your suitcase, based on the number of days you'll be away and your destination.

In no particular order, here's why I hate packing for trips:

    Every suitcase in the house is broken -- a discovery made the night before;

      I'll forget something vital, such as an article of formal clothing (shoes), or the wrapped present, or my memory-aid medication (ironic, no?);

        While I'll forget something essential, I'll bring something that I don't need, such as an 8" kitchen knife (true story);

          Finding clothing that's both clean and that fits my seemingly randomized waist size is an existential challenge; and

            I hate packing work to bring along on weekend, family-focused trips, but I always do -- and then, of course, I never even look at the contents of my work bag until I'm back home again, unpacking it.

Walking for two hours along the Las Vegas Strip one night with my 20-something son, I got to experience Sin City through the eyes of a newcomer. George quickly registered the stark contrasts: the glittery wealth and 24-hour energy of the towering casinos, the hopelessness of the destitute that one sees everywhere, every night, on the strip. Some 30,000 individuals experience homelessness each year in Southern Nevada, according to The Nevada Homeless Alliance. “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream,” as Hunter Thompson aptly subtitled his famous novel about Las Vegas.

At dinner a few nights later in Los Angeles, while George eloquently described his sadness about the panhandlers, I had a sudden epiphany.

“What if...” I interrupted my son, “the casinos turned some of them into slot machines!”

Before anyone could speak, I fleshed out the idea.

“See, the casinos send out a few of their employees to the Strip, dressed as panhandlers. They take dollars, just like regular panhandlers, but every once and awhile -- based on a randomized schedule -- they pay out a few hundred dollars and say, “Thanks for playing! See you at fill-in-the-blank casino.”

“You’re making fun of the poor, Dad,” George said flatly.

“No, no, you’re missing the point,” I countered. “This will be good for panhandlers. Not knowing which are real and which are slot machines, people will increase their contributions to all people asking for a handout, hoping they’ll get lucky.”

Practical considerations

With more thought, and after several discussions with other people, I’ve came up with a number of practical objections to my fanciful idea. In no particular order, here they are:

  • Bad branding.
  • Casinos might not want their brands associated with the out-of-luck, or draw additional attention to the plight of the poor, even if such a program proved beneficial. The involvement of for-profit businesses (casinos) in this program might run afoul of existing regulations, such as rules against “deceptive advertising.” (Thanks to Bill Kirwin, former Research VP at Gartner, for suggesting this objection. Years ago, Kirwin looked into using ATMs to occasionally “payout” after a customer made an ATM deposit -- an ingenious tactic to drive traffic to ATMs. “I looked into it, and federal regulations prevent banks from doing that,” he told me.)

  • No ROI.
  • As a marketing program, would “slot machine panhandlers” actually generate enough extra traffic into a casino to be worth the effort? (It turns out that margins in Vegas are exceedingly thin.) One reviewer suggested a randomized trial in which you give the vouchers to fake panhandlers and real panhandlers, to see if panhandlers earn more money and if the payouts drive any traffic to the casinos.

  • It’s inefficient.
  • Arguably, direct payments would be a much more efficient way to help people in need. (An interesting variation, suggested by more than one reviewer, was to give money to actual panhandlers, basically enlisting them to be our employees, and thereby paying them for this work.)

  • Security.
  • If it came to be known that some “panhandlers” were fake, carrying hundreds or even thousands of dollars, might this encourage muggers to assault all panhandlers, hoping they’d get lucky? (A potential solution: Let it be known that the faux panhandlers are closely monitored by security guards. Not only would this reduce the potential mugging of our casino employees, it would presumably reduce the risk of assault on all panhandlers. Muggers, just like players, wouldn't know the difference between real and fake.)

  • Increase panhandling.
  • If this program increased handouts, as hoped, might it encourage more people to sit, night after night, on the Strip seeking a handout? (I don’t think this is a legitimate worry, since waiting all day or night for a few extra dollars isn’t a great way to make a living, even if the volume of handouts increased somewhat. Again, a randomized trial could measure unanticipated negative externalities like this.)


    Homelessness and poverty are complicated problems, and my proposal isn’t meant to poke fun or make a game of it. However, could innovative, market-based ideas (including gaming) have a role in the solution? What do you think?

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