Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lost Speculations and Observations, March Edition

First off, Ben Linus isn't really dead, of course. "Whatever happened, happened." But a good question to ponder is this: if Desmond had been the one to shoot Ben at the end of "He's Our You", would Ben actually be dead, screwing up the entire timeline? I have to say yes; Desmond, after all, is special, and can affect the past.

While this scene was a complete shocker, it only elevated "He's Our You" from an average episode to a good one. "Namaste" was generally dull. So most of this post originates from "LaFleur", the best and most mythically-intense of the episodes this month.

In the first four seasons of Lost, the operative question was always "where?" Charlie’s question "guys, where are we?" summed up the central mystery to Lost for two-thirds of its run. "Who?" came up a lot too—it continues to—especially when a new character is introduced and all those pesky inter-character relationships are getting developed. But physical place and the relationships between different physical places motivated all the action, whether that meant getting from the outside world to the Island, getting between places on the Island, and eventually getting from the Island back to the outside world.

When we watched Ben turn the Frozen Donkey Wheel, we knew it was going to change the way the show worked, but only now that we’re more than halfway into season 5 do we actually appreciate how drastic that change was. Even the idea of what "moving the Island" means has changed: back in season 4, everyone assumed that meant "move in space" to a new "where". Just half a season later, that notion seems antiquated. Even the old question of "how do we get to and leave the Island?" has been so thoroughly de-mysticized that it seems trivial.

That’s because now the operative question on Lost is "when?" Several characters have already mirrored Charlie’s season 1 inquiry and asked "when are we?" The important mysteries on the show now revolve around when events took place, rather than where. Granted, time has always been important to the mythology. The distinguishing narrative device for the first four seasons was the flashback (and then flashforward), a clever method of telling stories from different timelines without having to contrive ways for all the characters to show up in those timelines.

But the Island has much more history than just what the Oceanic 815 survivors can hope to tell us. Therefore, the new mechanic of time travel is an even more clever way to reveal fragments of the Island’s history. And by all accounts, that history goes back longer than anyone could have imagined when we saw 815 go down. The biggest and most mysterious evidence we have of ancient habitation of the Island is a handful of Egyptian-seeming artifacts.

Egyptology has been sneaking its way into the Lost mythos with all the subtlety of a Sayid Jarrah torture routine. The first glimpse we got of it, ironically, probably had nothing to do with the truly ancient construction we see later. That was way back in the days of the Swan station, when some hieroglyphs showed up behind the countdown time cards in the Swan. Creepily, the translation of those glyphs is either "cause to die" or "underworld", suggesting that Dharma at least knew that bad things would happen if you didn’t press the button.

But whether or not Dharma knew how the Swan really worked, it seems increasingly unlikely that they knew how the rest of the Island worked. For a while, Dharma seemed veiled and downright mystical; now that we’ve gotten more insight into how they operated, I think they were mostly as in over their heads as everyone else who’s ended up in the Island. The few exceptions might be Dharma’s leadership, people like its founders, Gerald and Karen de Groot, and its financier, Alvar Hanso. But for most Dharmites, I doubt they actually understood how deeply significant the choice of hieroglyphs actually was.

The rest of the Egyptian influence has been revealed in relatively quick succession, at least for Lost. Toward the end of season 4, Ben summoned the smoke monster from behind a hieroglyph-marked door; at the end of season 4, Ben turned the hieroglyph-marked Frozen Donkey Wheel, and toward the beginning of season 5, poor Montand got to make a visit to the smoke monster’s lair (presumably the Temple), which was brimming with hieroglyphs too.

And then, "LaFleur" gave us a two-second glimpse of a massive statue, about the same proportions as our old friend the Four Toed Statue probably is. If it isn’t the same one we saw before, it almost certainly dates from the same era and serves a similar purpose. But the most mythologically intense moment of "LaFleur" was the frame or two where we could see what the statue was holding. It was an ankh, the Egyptian symbol of eternal life, the same symbol that Paul had on his necklace. Egyptian deities, in particular, were often depicted as carrying anhks in their hands by the loop.

Which deity did that statue represent? I can’t help but hope it was Horus, given the emphasis on Horace in that episode.

Some people seem to think that Richard is an Egyptian. Maybe he's an Egyptian deity himself. Maybe he's dead and in the same state of unlife that Christian and presumably Locke are in now. I still like the idea that he's doing creative time travel. I like the "Richard is Egyptian" theory, but it does raise some questions, particularly concerning all of the Others' flawless English and the fact that "Richard" is as English a name as you can get.

(To speculate idly on season 6, that will be the season of the questions "what", as in "what is the Island?", and "why?", as in "why are these people here?". In other words, we’re going to see the Island become important not as a point in space or a point in time, but as a unique rational agent, with an agenda and abilities all its own. A character, maybe, rather than a setting.)

Most Lost-geeky observation of the month: the indirect mention of the deGroots in "He's Our You". "Either we decide, or we call Ann Arbor and they decide for us", declares Horace in the debate on what to do with Sayid. Ann Arbor is home to the University of Michigan, which is where the deGroots did their doctoral work and dreamed up the Initiative. While this might just be an Easter egg for those of us "lucky" enough to remember that trivial detail from the Swan orientation, I can't help but hope we see Gerald and Karen in an coming episode.

Gripe of the month: where in the heck is Desmond? After he walked out of Eloise's "here's how you get to the Island" party early, declaring boldly that he was "done with the Island", we haven't seen any of him at all. Eloise's rebuttal that "the Island isn't done with him" is starting to look more and more like a fabrication.

Finally, I know that some people are so spoiler-averse that they don't even look at the titles of upcoming episodes. (Like knowing that episode 8 was called "LaFleur" would have given anything away at all?) The title of the last episode of this season is awesome in its simplicity. I won't give it here, out of deference to those spoilerphobes, but if you can stomach it, take the half a minute on the internet it'll take to find the title of 5.16 and 5.17.

Currently listening: "Sonne", Rammstein

Pretty Whistles Meet Prog Rock: The Hazards of Love

Review and Discussion: The Hazards of Love

Is it a good sign that the Decemberists' latest album takes such a long time to digest? I think yes, even though it's more than a little daunting at first. There are characters to follow, plot lines to keep track of, even literary devices that you never thought you'd see again after freshman English.

And in many ways, although it's far different in character from most of the Decemberists' earlier works, it's exactly the logical place for them to have gone next. For those fans that think the prog-metal vibe is new, I'd encourage a listen to the 2004 EP The Tain, based off the Celtic epic Tain bo Cuailnge. The good news is that you don't have to be able to pronounce that to enjoy retelling of the story, which essentially describes a bunch of Irishmen fighting over a cow.

Even those more recently converted to the Decemberists' fanbase might see strains of works they know. The band's most recent recording, The Crane Wife, has moments of Hazards-like character throughout, particularly in the three-in-one song cycle "The Island".

Where "The Island" was loosely, maybe only thematically, connected, Hazards has all the internal consistency you'd ever want or need from a rock album. And where The Tain was content to borrow a mythology, albeit an obscure one, Hazards jumps right in an makes up its own. The result is something that seems more like it ought to be on Broadway than a CD.

In other words, we've got ourselves a rock opera.

A rather heated debate seems to be focusing around whether you can enjoy this as individual songs, or whether you need to take it holistically and evaluate the entire album, and I'm coming down on the side of "entire album". The Decemberists encourage it too, it seems, with the exclusive use of gapless playback: for any given song, while the "during" might be the most important part, the "before" and the "after" are critical too. That's not to say you'll get nothing out of listening to one song at a time, for example if one comes up randomly in shuffle mode, but it's a lot mroe enjoyable to press play at the beginning of track 1 and not touch anything until the end an hour later.

There's good reason for that. Yes, plot and characters are part of it, but there are some impressively-crafted themes, foreshadowing, irony, and witticisms that you might miss given only a song or two. And you'll want to appreciate them.

All of this literary business is fine and good, but what about the music? Is the album worth listening to? Is it what we've come to expect from the Decemberists? Mostly yes. There's a much wider variety that you might have gotten on, say, Her Majesty. And at first, it may seem completely off the mark from what we might have expected, but with a closer examination, it's completely understandable. That's exactly the sort of direction that's nice for a band to head in once they've gotten to the point of five full length albums.

My comments on the album, in generally chronological order.

The album starts with an instrumental "Prelude"--think of it like something that would play as the opening credits roll and we see gorgeous, sweeping shots of the Queen's domain and the Annan Water. The real action starts with "The Hazards of Love 1", with the curious subtitle "The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone". Literally, that's saying "if you’re caught in a prickly plant, it doesn’t matter how nice a sound you make, it won’t disentangle you." More abstractly, "if you go about a problem the wrong way, it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you won’t solve it." That's actually a major theme of the album, though we hardly recognize it as that at the very beginning.

There's a male voice yelling something between "The Hazards of Love 1" and "A Bower Scene", but I can't figure out what it's saying or who it is. Could it be Margaret's "irascible blackguard of a father"?

One of the album's biggest successes is its use of voicing to distinguish the characters. Margaret's soprano, which we first hear in "Won't Want For Love", the Queen's alto (which we hear later on), and William's tenor are always in about the same range, and though I might have liked a baritone for one of the major male characters, it makes it very easy to distinguish whose point of view we're hearing without having to see the characters.

This successful character distinction isn't just in the voices--there's also some nice leitmotif in the background music. The few seconds of banjo in "The Queen's Approach" foreshadows her driving metal theme in "Repaid" and "The Queen's Rebuke".

"Won't Want For Love" is my favorite track on the album. Given my love of indie bands with soprano girl singers, this probably isn't too shocking.

"The Hazards of Love II" and "Isn't It A Lovely Night?" are both very nice songs, but they're too close together on the album. It makes sense in the narrative why they are where they are, but with every other pair of songs marking a stylistic shift, it seems odd to have the two most down-tempo, emotional songs next to each other.

Two songs that do follow each other are "Isn't It A Lovely Night?" and "The Wanting Comes In Waves", which feature an interesting major/minor inversion. "Waves" is not exactly a reprise of "Lovely Night"--there are a few true reprises later on--but it sounds sort of similar. Speaking of "The Wanting Comes in Waves", being sort of a music theorist, it bothers me that I can't figure out what the meter is in that song. There's a lot of weird rest and upbeat business, that's for sure.

"Repaid", the second half of "The Wanting Comes in Waves", sets up the backstory between William and the Queen, though it's not fully explained until "The Queen's Rebuke" later in the story. That's excellent storytelling, something that you'd see in a real musical or opera. And "Repaid" is an excellent cliffhanger to the intermission; the action picks up an indeterminate amount of time later without having to give the details of what happened in between. It sets up the second half of the album--call it "Act II"--well.

Apart from being a terrible person, the Rake--or more specifically his song--has the most clever foreshadowing and irony in the album. The Rake expects that we'd think he'd be "haunted" by his despicable actions. That's meant figuratively enough, until he actually is haunted by the ghosts of his dead children toward the end. And he "reckons his curse" is having those children, but eventually they'll literally curse him, not just offend him with their presence.

"The Wanting Comes in Waves" is formally called a reprise when it's repeated at the end of the album, but "The Abduction of Margaret" is a also reprise of "A Bower Scene", and "Margaret in Captivity" is a reprise of "The Hazards of Love 1". Both of these juxtapose willing vs. unwilling love. In "A Bower Scene", Margaret "withdraws to the taiga"; in "Abduction", she "falls prey to her abductor". "Margaret in Captivity" is a whole lot worse: "The Hazards of Love 1" described her quite amicable meeting with William, while "Captivity" describes her rape in the Rake's fortress.

"The Queen's Rebuke" is really cool, and I love the narrative/mythological role it plays, but I'm not crazy about the super-distorted guitar solo in the middle of it. One of the things that makes it so important is that it describes a limit to the Queen's power. She has a way around the Annan Water--allowing the Rake to fly over it--but even she can't make the water less "wild".

Where's the climax of this story? I tend to think it's "The Crossing", where I imagine the Rake (helped along by the Queen's fell forest magics) flying over the Annan Water and William arriving just too late to do anything about it. William knows that Margaret is somewhere across the water, but does he actually know she's in the Rake's fortress? I don't really think so; instead, I see Margaret escaping from the fortress and her and William reuniting.

I see the Annan Water as a symbol of both separation and of powerlessness versus fate and nature. Both songs that feature the Annan ("Annan Water" and "The Hazards of Love 4") switch to acoustic and mention lyrics like "rolling only where [the river] takes us". Neither creature of the forest--William or his mother--can best the Annan, though they both find their ways around it. (William's gets him in a bit more trouble.)

How does Margaret escape? With the help of the ghost children, of course. Some people have advanced the theory that the children aren't meant to represent Charlotte, Dawn, and Isaiah, but I don't but that for a second. The first child, a girl, specifically mentions getting fed flowers (ie, foxglove); the second, another girl, mentions drowning; and the third, a boy, mentions getting into a fight. Somehow, they distract the Rake for long enough to get Margaret out. Ghostly powers, or something.

Finally, reunited though they are, William and Margaret must face the music. William is at a lose-lose: he's promised both the Annan Water and his mother his life. And I think for that reason, William was completely fine with making his deal with the Annan. Better dead with his Margaret than alive but completely in his mother's grasp, right?

If "the prettiest whistles" are one of the themes of the story, what's the other? It's a lot more direct: "these hazards of love". For Margaret (toward William), it’s being put in the position of caring for a strange beast-creature, leading to her being outcasted then captured ("The Hazards of Love 1"). For the Queen (toward William), it’s jealousy ("Hazards 2", when she sees how much William loves Margaret). For the Rake (toward his bride), it’s children, who then haunt him ("Hazards 3"). And for William (toward Margaret), it’s the deals he has to make with his mother and the Annan Water, which lead to his death ("Hazards 4").

I don't think this album tops Wincing the Night Away, and I don't know if anything will ever top The Everglow. But I like it a whole lot. And it's one that I can see myself becoming fiercely protective of. There's people out there who don't like it, who give it bad reviews, who call the prog/metal flavor "out of place", who see a rock opera these days as "indulgent".

They're wrong. They're boorish. And they wouldn't know good storytelling if it hit them in the ear. The Hazards of Love is something we've seen a hundred times, but the Decemberists have made it relevant and excellent.

Currently listening: "Futures", Jimmy Eat World

Sunday, March 22, 2009

More Vignettes From Spring Break

The new Quaker Oats advertising campaign doesn't sit well with me. "Go Humans Go"? As opposed to what, all those oatmeal-eating crocodiles? Who's telling us humans to go? The hatted Quaker himself? If not human, what does that make him? Zombie? Alien? Robot? Something far more sinister?

I've just finished my first ever tax return, and it was a pain to put it mildly. Turns out, tax programs like TurboTax are wonderful... as long as you only made money in one state. If you, like I, made money in several different states, you get to fill out IL-1040-NR and GA-500 Schedule C.

Being a 20-year resident of the area, and being a strong advocate of local community, government, and affiliation, the Evermore CID is something I'm following closely. I like their efforts. Make US 78 not suck. Encourage businesses to come to the area. Allow pedestrians to walk through my part of the county. Improve traffic operations. But in an evening trip to Starbucks, I was perplexed beyond belief to see this:

Why is this bridge blue now? The March edition of the Evermore newsletter suggests it's to provide "a safer and more attractive environment for nighttime driving". There's a bridge there to be sure, but not a particularly unsafe of accident-prone one. My mom had the idea of changing the lights from their perplexing blue color to tiki torches, which I agree with, as long as we can also ritualistically summon the spirits of Commissioner Beaudreau.

I'm not exactly sure how I got subscribed to Rolling Stone. If it was a gift, thanks! I don't like the fact that the magazine has a political slant (regardless of the direction of that slant), but I did gain a lot more respect when I found that Rolling Stone named Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as the greatest album of all time.

This issue in particular features an intriguing little cover photo. If you've seen my Facebook page lately, you may have seen my comment on the situation. I might have to start watching Gossip Girl, if this picture is any indication of what happens on that show. (I've already been advised that it does not, so I shouldn't waste my time.)

Three days into March Madness, and my bracket has already taken a beating. In retrospect, picking Clemson to win a game and Wake Forest to win two was a terrible idea. After all, both teams lost to Georgia Tech this season, and we had one of the worst squads in Division I. I picked Pitt to win the tournament, which seemed a fine choice a week ago. While they've won their first two games, the Panthers looked far from championship caliber today. But at least CBS has broken the habit, somewhat, of showing us crappy games.

It used to be that whatever "region" you were in dictated the game you saw, regardless if it was a good game or not. Don't want to see UNC beating up on a 16 seed? Too bad: because you live in the southeast, and UNC is in the southeast, you're stuck with the Tar Heels. Now they're more likely to flip back and forth between games you might actually be interested in watching.

Now, the only way to make the tournament better is to have those Tar Heels lose.

Currently listening: "Beautiful World", Carolina Liar

Saturday, March 21, 2009

And All Of This Will Happen Again

Review and Discussion: Battlestar Galactica finale

Television's most underrated show finally came to an end this weekend. It's a show that's drawn many parallels to my favorite show, Lost: a complex mythology, shifting alliances, a huge cast of complicated characters. And apparently the two also share the knowledge that ending the series when it's time to end just makes the series better. Galactica--the show or the titular spaceship--probably couldn't have lasted much longer anyhow.

It's interesting that Galactica (the ship) lasted as long as it did, only with the help of Cylon technology. Galactica is a symbol for humanity's resilience and survival in the most desperate situations. As the war goes on, humanity begins to realize that first, they might not be so different from the Cylons after all, and second, that they need the help of the Cylons to survive. This is reflected in Galactica's growing more decrepit but relying on Cylon technology to survive.

Structurally, Ronald Moore and company have laid out a nice Shakespearean arc, with the two-hour-plus finale's climax really happening in the opera house meets Galactica's bridge scene only about an hour and fifteen minutes into the finale. It's fitting for the climactic moment of the series finale to take place in Galactica's bridge, the scene of so much of the show's development, conflict, and resolution; it's even more fitting for the hallucinatory opera house to represent the same control room.

This structural approach was well done, because it allowed a good hour of falling action and denouement, an integral part of the story that most modern storytellers brush under the rug as if it were optional. Thinking back on the rest of the series, what is the overall climax of the series? I'd say the destruction of the Cylon resurrection hub, as that moment proved a turning point in both the war and the motivation of many of the protagonists and antagonists.

The "antagonist" of Battlestar is a tricky thing to nail down. For the first three seasons, it was "the Cylons", the faceless, massive, brooding threat--and that was a compelling villain. From the end of the third season through the fourth, the antagonist redefined itself into "the rebel Cylons", then finally to "Cavil's forces". I think some of the impact of the overall conflict was lost with each successive reduction. As my friend Mike pointed out, it changed from a class struggle to some dude's daddy issues. It's not to say that Cavil isn't a terrible person, or a compelling villain, but next to the enigmatic, omnipotent might of "the Cylons", he lacks a little.

The more important event to the finale, though, is the climactic confrontation with Cavil in Galactica's control room, and it delivers. The symbolic arrangement of the Final Five on the ledge as Baltar and Six enter the room echoed what we'd been hinted at for the past season and a half in half-lucid dreams of the opera house. A major theme of the show is that the distinction between what's human and what's machine is only as sharp as you want it to be; alternatively, Cylon is in the eye of the beholder.

So it was fitting and necessary that the confrontation here featured juxtaposition of human and Cylon at least five times. Roslin and Athena, both women with motherly connections to and visions of the child Hera, mirror each other's movements as they follow Hera toward the control room. Baltar and Six, after seeing angelic visions of themselves, are the ones to bring Hera to safety. The conflict is over Hera, herself half-human and half-Cylon, and prophesied to be critical to both species' ultimate fate. Naturally, the conflict was fought between the human faction, led by William Adama, and the Cylon faction, led by Cavil. Finally, the Final Five were the ones to mediate the conflict, themselves Cylon but the closest Cylons to human.

Probably the most shocking twist came in the moment when the Final Five were re-assembling the resurrection technology, and the Final Five knew all there was to know about each other for a few minutes. I sort of assumed the worst things that would come out were Ellen's "exploits"; they did, but that was only the beginning. All of the intensity in that scene made me completely forget Tory airlocking Cally, so it was almost as much a surprise to me as it was to Tyrol. Tyrol flips out, as could be expected, and the deal was off.

My question: did Saul Tigh ever intend to make a deal? I think it's entirely possible that Saul knew that Tory's past deeds would rise to the surface, that Tyrol would not take too kindly to that, and that the resulting chaos would give the Final Five a way out of giving resurrection back to Cavil. When Leoben accused Tigh of tricking Cavil, of course we're supposed to assume Leoben is merely being paranoid: trust and forthrightness aren't exactly Leoben's strong suits.

Then, with maybe ten minutes to go, Tigh sneaks in a seed of doubt: "For what it's worth, if that had been Ellen instead of Cally, I'd have done the same thing."

We get a little clarification about one of the central mysteries from the very beginning of the show: what's going on in Baltar's head? Apparently, an agent of God, or the gods, or "it", or whatever quasi-spiritual muck is really in charge of this universe, saw fit to manifest as Six, just so Baltar would listen to it--and the same went for Six, in the form of a virtual Baltar. In the second-biggest twist of the finale, it seems like Baltar isn't crazy after all. And here's yet another example of the human-Cylon merge theme: the supernatural feels the need to speak to both, knowing the future of intelligent life lies in both.

A note on the spirituality: it's interesting to know for sure that some supernatural force exists in the universe of Battlestar Galactica. It can explain many things, like what the heck Starbuck was after her apparent death on Earth (apparently some angelic manifestation of her own, though this is never fully detailed). It's a lot better than just having some void of misplaced belief. But in the end, it's such a loose, amorphic theology that Pope Benedict would have a field day with it.

Ultimately, the finale dealt with the refuge that the human survivors have been reaching toward ever since the destruction of the colonies. They get there, so for all intents and purposes we have a "happy ending". It contained moments of sadness, like when Roslin died--but surely even Adama saw that coming. Roslin finally fulfilled her own mystical destiny of being the dying leader who lead her people to Earth, even if Adama sort of made that a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Why was it so important for humanity to preserve Hera and reach its new home on Earth? Baltar, through his angelic agent; Roslin, through her Pythian prophecy; and others all think so. It's a common thread in science fiction: Leto II, with his Golden Path, the contemporaries and descendants of Ender Wiggin, with their colonization, and even some real-life scientists have the idea that humanity cannot advance any further except for by diaspora followed by divergent evolution. Is that another plank in God's plan, to force a dispute between Cylons and humans so that the future of intelligent life can be furthered in a similar manner?

If the scene in Galactica's control room was a huge twist, and Baltar's Six actually being some manner of angel was merely the second biggest twist, what was the biggest? The instant we found out we'd been duped with the first Earth we saw. In one moment, the entire chronology of the series was turned on its head. It was the logical assumption for four entire seasons that we were watching our own post-apocalypse, maybe a few thousand years in the future. Turns out we were watching our own progenitors, who vowed to give us the best parts of their civilization without the worst.

Never mind the continuity errors: the fate of all the mechanical technology the colonists brought to Earth, the reason that it's called Earth again after our own history says it wasn't called that for several thousand years, the flourishing of the Gods of Kobol for one specific period in our history. It made for a finale that made you think on plenty of different levels, and a fitting end for the show.

So say we all.

Currently listening: "All Along the Watchtower", Jimi Hendrix

Friday, March 20, 2009

How to Make American Idol Not Suck

Obviously, this season's apparent lack of anyone nearly as attractive as Carrie Underwood is hurting. The fact that the show is in something like its eighth season isn't helping either. Sure, producers, you can try as many gimmicks like "new judge" and "judge veto" as you'd like, but it's not going to make the show any less sucky.

How to tackle that, then? Themed song nights, of course. "But they already do that!" Oh, yeah, sure. "Country". Really creative there. "Songs from the Billboard Top 100". That's clearly narrow enough to throw the contestants into unfamiliar territory. "The music of Neil Sedaka". Who the heck is that anyway?

No, we need to keep these, just step up the creativity a little bit. "Weird indie-pop" night, featuring music from Matt's iPod. I can see it now: "Who the heck is Sufjan Stevens?" "Oh, yeah, the Shins, didn't they have a song in Garden State?" Bonus points for a dude singing in Sherri DuPree's vocal register, or for anyone tackling the Decemberists' "Mariner's Revenge Song".

The week after that, we put on "Rap: the Highlights of the Gangsta Era." Each contestant has to perform a hit by Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, NWA, Notorious BIG, or their contemporaries. The song "Bitches Ain't Shit" off of Dr. Dre's seminal The Chronic is not only allowed but encouraged; however, it has to be the original, not the Ben Folds cover. And contestants are expected to have some of their songs "featuring" other contestants at some point.

Finally, maybe once the field has thinned itself a little, spring the real surprise: "Screaming Death Metal Showcase". Cradle of Filth or any of a number of bands I've never heard but would probably be painful to listen to. Automatic disqualification if you sing, rather than scream, for more than a few seconds.

Currently listening: The Hazards of Love, the Decemberists. Review and discussion to follow, as soon as I digest it all.

Why So Serious?

Something must be done about this season of The Office. We all remember the good old days of the Dundies, the Dunder-Mifflin Olympiad, and Dwight channeling Mussolini making a convention speech. The reason all of that worked is because it was just this side of frivolous; it was character-driven comedy, and it was intensely comedic; it never took itself too seriously.

Fast-forward to Season 5, and Diwali parties and Fun Runs have given way to what exactly? Pam's parents facing very real drama when they intend to split up? Michael having real feelings for a woman, almost to the point of you feeling sympathy for the man? Jim and Pam's relationship, which we rooted for through seasons of Roy, straining over the bounds of distance and separated interests? All of this may work for a character drama, but it's not the Office that we've come to know and love.

Most of the episodes in the first four seasons you could walk away from chuckling and waiting for next week's installment (or next minute's installment, if you were watching the "electronic" version). But most of the time now, you walk away with more of a cringe than a smile, and instead of amusement, it's more often a bittersweet far more bitter than sweet, or than funny for that matter.

One viewer posted an impassioned defense of the most recent episode, "New Boss", on Hulu. In true Web 2.0 style, I'm going to respond to parts of that review.

The show really used to have no plot - it was just about a bunch of people working together in an office for a boss that was a pain in the butt.

Is this a bad thing? In effect, you're accusing The Office of being a show about nothing. Recall another show-about-nothing, Seinfeld, which was probably the funniest, most successful, and best-loved comedy that television has ever seen. Asserting that The Office has to have a plot to be funny, or watchable, or successful, is a fallacy.

But, now, the show has embraced more serious and true to life story lines. For instance, the difficulties of beginning a family in a plunging economy[...]

Is this a good thing? I can only name a handful of shows (Freaks and Geeks is one of the few) that are successful because they accurately portray "true to life" stories. The rest are straight-up fantasy (Battlestar Galactica, Lost) or are predicated on such obvious exaggerations of whatever nuggets of reality may have existed that they may as well be straight fantasy (24, House). I have a life in the real world. I don't need television to mirror it too closely.

Another review had the following to say:
[...]it was a good plot-moving episode that finally creates a multi-episode story-arc that we can look forward to.

No. Not from The Office. If I want something that complicated, I'll again turn to something like 24. It's okay for a show, particularly a half-hour comedy, to have perfectly self-contained mini-plots in each episode. Look at Arrested Development or Curb Your Enthusiasm or even older The Office. That's not to say that what happened in one episode of those shows never affected what happened in another episode. Arrested Development in particular did very clever things with recurring storylines. But to create something as inherently dramatic as a "multi-episode story-arc" has no place in a comedy.

In the end, this discussion comes down to exactly what you want to see from The Office. If you envision it as a "dromedy", then you might not mind all the changes that Season 5 has brought. But if you see it as straight comedy, like I do, then all of this is more than a little odd. Some people insist that the show has had its dramatic moments all along, but I maintain that the evidence to support that argument just isn't there in the early seasons.

Currently listening: "Comfortably Numb", Pink Floyd

Friday, March 06, 2009

Reading Challenge: A Facebook Meme

Usually I hate memes, but then again usually they don't involve books either. This one is interesting. The BBC believes most people will have only read 6 of the 100 books here. My count is hovering mid-20s.

How do your reading habits stack up?

You can copy, edit and paste into a note of your own.

1 Pride and Prejudice: Nope, and I’m not sure it would be a book I’d enjoy so much. However, I’ve just become aware of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, which I think I’d enjoy very much.

2 The Lord of the Rings: Yes, all three, twice, and two copies of it. But I’ve only seen each movie a time or two, in contrast to many of my friends.

3 Jane Eyre: Nope.

4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling: At least twice each. I was actually in London the night the last book came out. Talk about some interesting people… and I like to think I got on British television twice.

5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee: Yes, 9th grade English, and I definitely enjoyed it. Atticus Finch is one of the most awesome characters from the 20th century: the prototypical Southern gentleman attorney, and a dead eye firing shotguns at rabid dogs.

6 The Bible: Not cover-to-cover, but enough to get the gist. I know at least as much about it as the average Catholic, so I’ll go with yes.

7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte: Ugh. Yes, AP Lit, and not by choice. Although Mr. Lockwood is wonderfully douche-y.

8 1984 - George Orwell: Yep, back in middle school. I really think I ought to read it again.

9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman: No, though I’d like to, to see what all the hype and controversy was about.

10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens: Nope.

11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott: Nah, another “not so much a Matt book”.

12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy: Nope.

13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller: No, though it’s on the list for this summer.

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare: Not even close, but the Tempest is my favorite play of all time.

15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier: Never heard of it.

16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien: Yes, three times, and I own two copies of it too.

17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulk: Never heard of it either.

18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger: Nope, though it might be on the list for this summer as well.

19 The Time Traveler’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger: Never heard of it either.

20 Middlemarch - George Eliot: No. My dad’s least favorite book of all time is Silas Marner, so I’ve avoided Mr. Eliot’s books, perhaps a bit prejudicially.

21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell: No, and I’m the rare Georgian who’s never seen the movie either. Honestly, I don’t know how into it I’d be.

22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald: Yep, 11th grade English. I enjoyed it, but that’s another one that probably merits a re-read.

23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens: Nah… I don’t like Dickens much at all.

24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy: No, like many readers, I’m scared of its length.

25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams: Of course! (and yes, I know where my towel is.)

26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh: Never heard of this one either.

27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Yes, voluntarily, as a summer project before AP Lit. One of the great works of all time. Not just Russian literature, or 19th century literature, but ever. It’s by no means en easy read; long and weighty. But if you have the patience for the length and curiosity for the moral issues, highly recommended.

28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck: Yeah, and I didn’t care for it at all.

29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll: I’ve… er… played the Kingdom Hearts level based on it?

30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame: Nope.

31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy: Nope again.

32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens: Again with the Dickens?

33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis: Pass the Chronic! Yeah, read them all, but it’s been a very long time.

34 Emma - Jane Austen: Nope.

35 Persuasion - Jane Austen: Nope again.

36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis: As part of the Chronic, yes.

37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini: No, though I’ve heard it’s very good.

38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres: Never heard of it.

39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden: Watched the movie?

40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne: At this point, the story is so collectively etched into the youth of America that it hardly matters that I’ve never sat down and read it.

41 Animal Farm - George Orwell: Yep, way back in 8th grade English. I think I was one of the only ones who really understood the allegory. Enjoyed it.

42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown: Read all of Dan Brown’s books, which admittedly are pretty much all the same book anyway. I found them entertaining.

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Nope.

44 A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving: Nope.

45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins: Nope.

46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery: Nope.

47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy: No.

48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood: No. This is a bad streak I’m on…

49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding: Yes, 10th grade English. I actually didn’t care for it so much. Too much symbolism crammed down your throat, and the ending is awful. Still, the influence on Lost (particularly seasons 1 and 4) is undeniable.

50 Atonement - Ian McEwan: Nope.

51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel: Nope.

52 Dune - Frank Herbert: Yeah, and I was disappointed. For the sci-fi classic it’s supposed to be, I thought I’d really enjoy it, but I found it confusing, and I didn’t care about half the characters. Interestingly, the prequel series, written within the last 5 or so years, are a lot less deep but a lot more fun to read.

53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons: Nope, never heard of it.

54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen: Only if there are zombies in this one too.

55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth: Never heard of it.

56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Or it.

57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens: Dickens.

58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley: No, though I might want to.

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon: That was the one about the autistic kid who decides what sort of day it’s going to be by the colors of cars he sees, right? Read it and liked it.

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Nope.

61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck: Yeah, 11th grade English. Talk about a sad book.

62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov: Nope.

63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt: Never heard of it.

64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold: Or it.

65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas: Wonderful book. I only read it recently, and I was surprised never to have encountered it before that. Highly recommended.

66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac: Nah, I don’t think I’d have patience for his beatnik “dharma” business.

67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy: Nope. A friend of mine told me it was really bad.

68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding: Nope.

69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie: Nope.

70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville: A cursory study of it in 11th grade English. Watched the movie, read excerpts. I think it's one of those books that probably has a downright excellent story buried in there if you have the patience for 19th-century dark-romantic wordiness.

71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens: More Dickens?

72 Dracula - Bram Stoker: No, actually.

73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett: Nope.

74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson: Never heard of this one.

75 Ulysses - James Joyce: I'm scared to death of Joyce, mostly because of things like 4000-word sentences. Tell me that anyone can comprehend that--including Joyce himself--and you'd be lying.

76 The Inferno - Dante: Yes, plus a high-level view of the Purgatorio and the Paradiso, in AP Lit. I liked it a lot, because there's so many levels you can read and understand the story on. Also, it gives an interesting glimpse into Middle Ages Catholicism, an important reference point for my religion.

77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome: Never heard of it.

78 Germinal - Emile Zola: Or it.

79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thakeray: Ugh, no, I don't think I'd enjoy it at all.

80 Possession - AS Byatt: Nope.

81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens: Saw the... Muppets movie?

82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell: Nope.

83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker: Saw the play?

84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro: Never heard of it.

85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert: Nope.

86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry: Nope.

87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White: Yes, a long time ago.

88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom: Nope, but I read Tuesdays with Morrie, and it was really sad.

89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Actually no; those are probably worth reading.

90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton: Nope.

91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad: Ooh, yes. Interesting book. Way better as a springboard to discuss good and evil and morality than as a narrative. And yet, "The horror! The horror!" is one of the classic lines of modern literature.

92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery: Saw the... Lost episode called that?

93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks: Nope.

94 Watership Down - Richard Adams: Somehow, I managed to escape this one back in 9th grade English. Seems like an awfully divisive book, with more people leaning toward the side of "it sucked."

95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole: Nope.

96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute: Nope.

97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas: No, though given how much I liked The Count of Monte Cristo, I might give it a shot.

98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare: Once in AP Lit, and again in English at Tech. AP Lit was a lot more fun, because we got to do a read-through of it. I read the part of Laertes, which was great, until our teacher declined to allow me and the guy reading Hamlet to have an actual swordfight.

99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl: Probably yes, as a kid.

100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo: Nah, and I've never seen the musical either.

My total is 25, give or take, depending on if you count "part of it" as a yes or no. I think that's pretty respectable.

Now, five books I'm surprised were not on this list.

The Crucible - Arthur Miller: If The Tempest is my favorite play, The Crucible is a close second. Actually, I think it's odd that there wasn't anything by Arthur Miller, or Tennessee Williams, or any of their contemporaries. It would be like compiling a similar list of musical compositions, and leaving out Gershwin, Copland, and Bernstein. The middle of the 20th century was very good to American artistic development, and it deserves some representation here.

Candide - Voltaire: Possibly the best-known satire in literary history, and its humor is still relevant centuries later.

Ender’s Game - Orson Scott Card: Certainly a better sci-fi tale than Dune, with more compelling characterization, a more straightforward plot, and actually some compelling philosophical questions raised.

Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand: The immortal "Who Is John Galt?" and its answer--both literal and symbolic--is one of the most enduring and provoking inquiries of modern literature. Whether or not you agree with Objectivism, or any of Rand's ideas at all, Atlas Shrugged provides an intellectual counterpoint to some of the political philosophies active in the 20th century, and actually manages to be a compelling narrative at the same time.

The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne: I actually didn't so much like The Scarlet Letter, but its connection to American culture--both nascent America in the 17th century and developing America in the 19th--is undeniable.

Currently listening: Water Music, GF Handel

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Peclet Number, and Why Some People Shouldn't Get Degrees

Here's a scenario posed on a recent Safety quiz, with a few minor modifications. You're south of a town with an enormous chemical plant on its outskirts. You're not entirely sure what they make there, except that the end product is pretty nasty, and the intermediates they use to get to the end product are even nastier. You hear a loud boom, look to the north, and see a plume emerging from the plant. The wind is blowing strongly to the south (ie, toward you), and there's no distinguishing terrain near you in any direction. Which way do you run?

The answer relies on a dispersive model of fluid flow that compares diffusive to convective mass transfer. That's not nearly as complicated as it sounds. In fact, you've experienced both of them in your own kitchen. Imagine you're baking cookies, and within a few minutes, the delicious scent of cooking sugar and butter fills your kitchen. If you open the door to the oven, the smell gets stronger, as a puff of vapor is released. Obviously the smell comes from the oven, but in the absence of anything else acting on them, the particles that you smell would rather spread out (diffuse) than remain concentrated.

Now imagine you're sitting in a room upstairs far away from the kitchen. Eventually, if the cookies stay in the oven long enough (but hopefully not so long that they burn!) you'll smell them even upstairs, because a few scent-carrying particles reach you. There's a much faster way you might smell them, though. What if the oven is near an air vent, and so are you? It would be like the Seinfeld episode "The Calzone", where Steinbrenner knows George has his lunch just because of the smell coming out of the vent. In this case, the particles aren't merely diffusing, they're convecting, or being carried along by the air currents in your heating or cooling system.

Do diffusion and convection ever happen in the same system? Sure. At the same time you're smelling the cookies through the vent, someone downstairs can smell them too, and probably more strongly than you can.

Or, say you have some water in a bathtub. If you put some green food coloring in that water, you'd see it diffuse through the tub until all the water was about the same intensity green. But before you let it diffuse all the way, say you opened the drain. You'd observe water flow toward the drain--convection--as well as diffusion. Depending on how fast the water was draining, you might see a well-defined line of food coloring with a bit of fuzziness toward the edge, suggesting strong convection. Or, you might see a blur of green throughout with only slight movement toward the drain, suggesting strong diffusion.

Us engineering types use a number called the Peclet number to describe systems like this. It's merely a ratio of convective motion to diffusive motion. That's the key to answering the chemical plume problem. If you assume strong wind toward the south (ie, fast wind speed), the convective motion of the toxic cloud becomes much more important than the diffusive motion. That means the toxic particles in the cloud are going to be carried in one direction rather than spreading out in all directions. Unfortunately, that direction happens to be toward you, to the south. So which direction do you go?

You could try and go south, essentially trying to outrun the plume, but that might be a bad idea unless you can go really, really fast. "Strong" wind probably means something in the range of 20-30 miles an hour; if you don't have a car, there's no way you can hope to go this fast. The best choice is east or west--if you assume that all motion is in the convective direction, the effects of dispersion in any other directions is relatively small, so you minimize your chances of coming into contact with any of these particles.

Would you even think of standing still or running north? Both of these practically guarantee you're going to meet the plume head-on. And yet, some of my classmates, in their fourth year of education to be chemical engineers, thought that might be a prudent course of action.

Currently listening: Symphony No. 9, "From the New World", Antonin Dvorak

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Snippets from a Visit to Texas

Having just returned from the first of three grad school recruiting weekends I'll be going to this spring, I have the following to share:

To the crazy guy on Marta, no matter how many times you say "hey, light bulb!", the light bulb is not going to answer you. Nothing against you or anything--the light bulb just isn't a very talkative fellow. Also, you probably won't convince him, or me, or anyone else on the train that Jay-Z is walking the streets of West End at 6:30 am.

To all the men standing around in the terminal wearing cowboy hats and talking in drawls about the Rangers' fate for the 2009 baseball season, I could hardly tell I was about to board a plane to Texas.

To the guy who was sitting across the aisle from me on the flight to Austin, I wonder how many people feel like they're in an episode of 24 when they see you. That you're a dead ringer for Ike Dubaku is only the beginning. Texting those guys with shady French African sounding names, and covering up your phone when the flight attendant walked by, is much stronger evidence. Your fashionable but unconventionally-colored dress shirt didn't hurt either.

To whomever gave Austin the area code 512, your subtle and geeky mock trial reference made my weekend. (Oh, I know that the Austin area code was probably around long before the Longhorns were ever team 512, but it's the order I found those out in that counts.)

To the professor who shall go nameless for the sake of avoiding self-incrimination, you seemed like a really nice guy, and your research sounded sort of interesting. Then you saw my name tag, found out that I was from Georgia Tech, and asked me about a certain professor I may have had for a class at some point. I'm glad I didn't share my feelings about that certain professor (they would have been something strongly worded) because it seems you two are friends.

To the grad student that I met downtown, one of a couple dozen, how you got such a fantastically pretty and pleasant girlfriend is totally beyond me. Oh, wait, it's probably because your school has 26,000 women, and mine has 6,000.

To Delta Air, I appreciate your clever and novel euphemisms, but it's okay with me if you call it a "trash bag". "Service bag" is really not necessary.

Currently listening: "Robots", Flight of the Conchords