Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lost Speculations and Observations, February Edition

The biggest, most global, farthest-reaching conflict on Lost continues to be Ben Linus vs. Charles Widmore, but as I commented last month, don't be fooled into thinking this is a conflict of good versus evil, of right versus wrong, of selflessness versus malice. It's an interpersonal conflict, plain and simple. So much has been invested into this conflict, in fact, that it would be a copout to make either Widmore or Ben the "good guy" and the other the "bad guy". A mystery that eventually resolves into black and white is a lot less interesting than one that retains gray even after the big reveal. It's a lot like Harry Potter; for Snape to have been either a good guy or a bad guy would have been irresponsible storytelling. And I think that Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse are even better storytellers than JK Rowling.

"The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham" finally gave us a little more backstory regarding Ben and Widmore, and it was much of what I and others theorized anyway. At some point in the past, Ben and Widmore got into some dispute, likely over the leadership of the Others. I can see this happening immediately post-Purge: Richard convinces Ben that Dharma is bad for the Island, so Richard and his people (including Widmore) orchestrate the Purge with the help of Ben, and possibly a few other Dharma people. Naturally, having done Richard's people a great service, Ben assumes that he should now lead them. Widmore disagrees, loses the battle, and is booted from the Island.

Brandon, one of the guys I sometimes watch with, and I came up with a good interpretation of this. Both Ben and Widmore claim that they're out for the interest of others, when all they really want is the Island for themselves. Who's actually out for the Island then? Richard Alpert, probably. As the Panchen Lama, he knows that sometimes there just needs to be a new Dalai Lama. Changing out the leadership is in fact the best thing for the Island, even though it might spawn the ill will of the likes of Widmore and Ben. Ben was, at one time, allied with Richard; once Richard sees Ben again (which he will, now that Ben's back on the Island), what will the former allies think of each other?

Does that make Richard a good guy? If you take the position of the Island, yes. But I still maintain that "good" and "bad" are completely relative on Lost, which the Others made painfully clear back in seasons 2 and 3. And what of Alpert's immortality? I think it's creative time travel. Remember what Widmore said to Locke when they spoke in Tunisia: he was amazed it had only been four days for Locke, but more than fifty years for Widmore. "And you look exactly the same." What if Alpert does the same sort of thing; flashing through time, not constantly living on the Island, but appearing where and when the Island takes him?

I mentioned last month that Widmore and Ben had essentially the same motive and goals, but different means of achieving them. That distinction has blurred a bit. There's no better example of that blur than how both talked to Locke. In fact, we heard essentially the exact same speech from both of them: "I know what I did may have looked evil, but I did it for the Island's sake, so you could be the new leader." The chess match analogy has been beaten to death in Lost, but it's the best metaphor for what's happening here. Locke is only a piece--albeit maybe an important one--in the game Ben and Widmore are playing. If there really is a war coming, like Widmore suggests, it's not a war that holds the fate of the world at stake. It's one that holds nothing at stake except the fate of the Island, and whose hands it falls into. It's a voluntary war of Ben and Widmore's making--and both are courting John to be their general in the war, or their king in the chess match.

Of course, plenty has been happening completely unrelated to Ben and Widmore, which is what makes Lost such a great show. The smoke monster has had a nice couple of episodes, during which we finally see the gruesome fate of Montand's arm. We've been promised that every time we see Smokey, we learn more about it. In "This Place is Death", we see its lair--presumably the Temple. The hieroglyph motif suggests it's from the same ancient era of construction as the door in Ben's house and the Frozen Donkey Wheel. It's doubtful that Dharma knew anything more about it than we do, because they designed the sonic fence to contain it. Perhaps that knowledge is one of the perks of leading the Others, because Ben sure seems to know a lot about it.

Exactly what the smoke monster is, and its relation to the Island, is very much the provenance of Season 6. But we've already gotten a few clues. Apparently, the Wheel's hieroglyphs have to do with resurrection. Certainly the characters who are associated with the Wheel have some manner of resurrection associated with them too--Christian Shepherd, and now John Locke. In addition, the monster was known at least by some as Cerberus, the mythical guardian of the underworld. That name is not accidental. I think we'll eventually come to find out--though not for a very long time--that Cerberus, the Wheel, and the Temple are all related to the underworld and the journey from death to resurrection. Remember what book Ben was reading the moment Ajira 316 crashed on the Island? Ulysses, by James Joyce. Ulysses is of course the Roman name for Odysseus, a man whose years of travel took him to the underworld among other places.

Does that mean Locke is resurrected? Undoubtedly he is in a manner of speaking, but I have huge reservations about calling him "alive". Recall the terminology applied to Yemi and Christian: "undead". Both people were dead beyond a shadow of a doubt, brought to the Island, and have been known to walk around again. That's the same boat Locke is finding himself in now. While dead is dead on Lost, dead might also be undead, if the Island finds it necessary.

I fully expect that Desmond will have to return to the Island to bring Penny back to life. Desmond and Penny are the Odysseus and, well, Penelope analogs in this story. It seems likely that Ben's "errand" was killing Penny like he promised Widmore he'd do. Desmond is probably not taking too kindly to this. Hawking's prophecy that the Island isn't done with Desmond is going to come into play when Desmond realizes the only way to get Penny back--if only as an "undead"--is to go to the Island.

Speaking of Ben and Penny, remember the reason that Ben vowed to kill Penny? It's because Widmore's men killed Ben's "daughter". Alex was of course not actually Ben's daughter. But Ben sure got indignant when Kate suggested that her not-son Aaron was her own. Maybe that explains Ben's lack of compassion for Kate's assumed child, because Ben's own assumed child got such a horrendous death.

It's far too early to begin speculating about our new castaways Caesar and Illana, except that they know each other. Also, they probably know far more about what's going on than they're telling, and in true Lost fashion, they probably have mysterious connections to everyone else we know. That's certainly true for Sayid, who was handcuffed and led aboard Ajira 316 by Illana.

I could move on and talk about event windows, or Daniel and Charlotte, or Matthew Abaddon's untimely demise, but instead I'll mention the only gripe I have with Season 5 so far. I don't care about the Oceanic Six. Sun had huge potential when she made her alliance with Widmore, but one work from Ben about Jin, and that all went down the drain. Sayid has been mildly interesting, because let's face it: you can't say no to a gun-toting Iraqi assassin. Hurley has been borderline at best. I've never really been that interested in Jack, I'm even less interested in Kate, and I couldn't be less interested in Aaron. He's a plot device, not a character, and given that he's being fought over by the two least interesting real characters, that whole plotline is a snooze.

Finally, two questions for the audience. First, we know of at least three characters on the show named Charlie or Charles: Charles Widmore, Charlie Pace, and now Desmond's son Charlie. Are there any other pairs or groups of characters who have the same name?

Second, what would be a good title for the last episode of the series? I saw that as a poll on a website, and all the choices it suggested sort of sucked. I'm a fan of "See You in Another Life", but I'd like to hear some more opinions too.

Currently listening: "I Am the Walrus", the Beatles

Friday, February 20, 2009

The DTV Transition

I was a little wary of the government telling private television companies how they were allowed to broadcast their signals, but I got over that. Mostly I got over that when I got a HDTV, and I saw just how good the picture quality was. Then, I was a little upset that everyone had gotten worked up over this transition, just to have it pushed back by four months. Honestly, if you'd made it to February 2009 without knowing that the transition was impending, it probably didn't matter to you anyway. Seriously, I'm not sure how you could have missed it unless you didn't own a television at all.

I've mostly gotten over that, too. Except that the delay means I have to keep hearing about it for the next four months now. Here's the kicker: CBS interrupts my HD feed, changing back to a crappy analog signal, to bring me the message that I'm going to need to support digital television in four months. If the broadcast is smart enough to give me less-than-HD for three minutes, surely it's smart enough to know that I already have HD in the first place?

Currently listening: First Suite for Military Band in E-Flat, Holst

Monday, February 02, 2009

Information Security and xkcd

I've been saying for years that information security is one of the most over-emphasized and overblown "issues" around today. It's as if the second someone realized "hey, maybe some dishonest person out there might try and steal my information", without any provocation, an entire industry was born out of paranoia.

In playing devil's advocate, even I'm not prepared to say "just because it's out there doesn't mean someone will want to steal it." I think if it's out there, someone eventually will try and steal it. But what I certainly am prepared to say is "just because it's out there doesn't mean it's worth stealing." Apparently today's xkcd agrees with me (read the comic, then look at the alt-text).

The truth is that very few of our secrets are worth stealing. Financial information is probably the one exception for the individual; corporations and governments do of course have secrets that might be worth stealing. A personal email address, though? If you're going to take the time to guess my gmail password, then by all means read my "Word of the Day" emails and Facebook notifications.

The good folks at Google realize this and therefore do not make its users change their passwords if they don't want to. It's a very laissez-faire approach to information security: let the individual apply exactly as much security to his information as he thinks is necessary. It's one that colleges would to well to emulate.

Georgia Tech's policy involves changing your password once every few months, with a mandated arcane combination of different "character classes" (ie, upper-case letters, lower-case letters, numbers, and symbols). But that's where the restrictions end. If I wanted to make my password "abc123!", I certainly could. It's essentially a middle-of-the-road approach, comparable to most corporate systems. And honestly, my password getting hacked could lead to some untoward things going on, including my unwitting withdrawal from school. The one issue I have with the system is that it presumes my password is not good enough the first time around, and I have to keep trying to improve it.

The Georgia Tech School of Mathematics (where I'm currently employed) makes the Institute policy look lax by comparison. In addition to the aforementioned restrictions, the Math password cannot start or end with certain characters, it cannot repeat the same character too many times, and it cannot "resemble a dictionary word" too closely. After a few rounds of my usual passwords getting rejected, I resorted to video game characters, of course augmented with different character classes.

I don't know what dictionary this system is drawing from, but if "Akatosh" really resembles a dictionary word, my vocabulary obviously isn't as strong as I'd like to think it is.

And what would guessing or hacking this password get for you? Emails about Friday bagel breakfasts with Math grad students and access to a handful of computers that I didn't even know existed until I started working for the department.

Currently listening: "A Day in the Life", Mae (covering the Beatles)