Battlestar Galactica and LOST Endings Revisited

Nearly four years ago, two of the best genre shows from the last decade finally concluded. I decided to re-watch the Battlestar Galactica finale, Daybreak, and the LOST series finale, The End, to see if I felt the same way about them as when they aired. At the time, I had two very different reactions to each series’ conclusion. Would putting a few years between me and the last episodes lessen my massive disappointment in Galactica’s end or soften my general satisfaction with LOST’s conclusion?
I’d given up on LOST after the second season out of a mix of frustration and anger. Nothing was being answered and absolutely none of the characters ever got together and compared notes about what they saw and thought of everything. A giant dragon with the head of a Panda could suddenly appear, eat a few of the anonymous crash survivors, piss a stream of cotton candy over everyone else, then suddenly blink out of existence, and Kate would be like, “Oooh, Sawyer, you’re so mysterious and untrustworthy because Jack says you are, but I’m mysteriously drawn to you at the same time.”
Longing look at Jack in the distance arguing with Locke.
“I’m sooo….torn.”
And Claire would be going on about how a Charlie ate her bay-bay or something while Hurley started gorging on the cotton candy, his hair and beard encrusted with warm chunks of the pink, sticky stuff that moments before had exited the strange beast’s genitalia.

WALT!

Seriously, nobody ever just talked to each other about what was going on. They kept the weird things they saw to themselves, as if it gave them leverage over everyone else, and instead focused on how much they distrusted each other. I can’t shake the feeling that it was a cheat used by the writers to keep milking everything out and preventing them from actually having to answer any of the smaller mysteries, much less the greater ones.
Galactica, on the other hand, wore its angst on its sleeve, but its first couple of seasons were so well written, so well-acted, and so well-produced that I still believe that it’s the best science fiction ever put on screen, big or small. The characters were realistic and beautifully flawed. Their fears, doubts, ideals, and paranoia bounced off each other and propelled the show forward.
But something freaky happened midway through both shows’ runs: they swapped bodies. Galactica, which had built its reputation on strong characterization and exploring issues of war, torture, and what it means to be human, suddenly became obsessed with The Mysteries. Who were the Final Five cylons? Where was Earth? What does it all mean? The show’s finely woven threads began unraveling as its characters started acting against their established personalities in service to an increasingly nonsensical plot.
Meanwhile, LOST had reclaimed the strength of its characters. It still had its wacky plots, but Jack, Sawyer, and company didn’t suddenly start doing things out of character to force the plot to work. By the time Season 4 rolled around, I didn’t care if they discovered the “Mystery of the Island,” I just wanted Desmond to find Penny. I wanted Jin and Sun to be happy with each other. I wanted Ben to keep getting the shit beat out of him. I wanted Jack to finally let go of all his hang-ups and just roll with everything.
As I got back into LOST, I figured out that I hadn’t abandoned the show because the writers were constantly churning out new mysteries without answering the old ones, or because the characters didn’t respond like actual people to the weirdness surrounding them. I stopped watching because they killed Mr. Eko. I loved that guy. He was Locke, if Locke had been a child soldier in Africa who abandoned his own plans so his brother could have a better life, instead of a serial fuck-up who got conned out of a kidney and use of his legs by his father, and eventually his life by Ben Linus.
For Locke, the Island allowed him to play at being a romantic and manly Great White Hunter and explorer. Mr. Eko had been there, done that, and gotten the ear necklace to prove it. He was there to seek absolution, not validation.
Locke came face-to-face with the Smoke Monster and proclaimed that he had seen into the heart of the Island. Mr. Eko came face-to-face with the Smoke Monster and prepared to beat the shit out of it with his Jesus stick. He kind of lost that one, but still, he was a strong, engaging character and his death pissed me off so much that I couldn’t watch the show anymore.
As I started watching the show again, my focus on the mysteries receded into the distance while my concerns over the characters came to the fore. I think that’s why I’m one of the 10 people on the Internet who actually liked the series finale. The finale accomplished what I wanted it to: it gave the characters a resolution to their personal stories. I left the show knowing that each character had reached the end of their journey and most of them had found what they were looking for.
I know a lot of people were dissatisfied with the show’s inadequate or non-existent answers to all of the mysteries, but I didn’t really care about them in the end. They weren’t important. When you read or watch a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, do you care where the island is located, or how it got there, or why it’s populated with strange people and myriad creatures with magical powers? No, that’s just the setting. The play is the thing! The characters’ interactions with each other and their conflicting motivations are what matter, and that’s what Galactica forgot.
Galactica became so focused on resolving all (or most) of its plot questions that it forgot to take care of its characters. It had spent most of its third season and all of its fourth season steadily destroying its characters and turning them into props to serve the machinations of a convoluted plot, so that by the time the finale came around, most of them were hollow shells of their former selves.
I’m not going to address the whole god thing, but I still can’t abide the absolute ridiculousness of the idea that everyone in the fleet would suddenly leave all technology behind to go roughing it in pre-Ice Age Earth. This was a group of people who couldn’t even agree on whether to even land on the previous habitable planet and now they suddenly decide to chuck it all away and venture forth with nothing but the clothes on their backs? Wouldn’t the doctor at least want his life-saving medicine and medical equipment, just in case, you know, all the people who’ve never been on this planet inevitably fall victim to the fungal, viral, or bacterial infections that their bodies have no defense against?
I’m certain the underclass of the fleet couldn’t wait to get off those ships and away from the rest of the assholes, but I guarantee that there was a sizable group of people who enjoyed the comforts of civilization and wouldn’t let it go just because Apollo suddenly decided that they all needed to return to the land. But none of that mattered because the plot demanded that breaking the historical cycle depended on everyone abandoning technology, so that’s what happened, whether it made sense or not.
Still, I wanted to see at least some resolution for these people I’d come to know and care about. Why did Apollo say he’d never see his father again? Adama has a ship capable of bridging the vast gulf between the stars in the blink of an eye, but he can’t cruise a few hundred miles to catch up with his son every once in awhile? The main dynamic between Adama and Apollo was the normal tension between father and son, but also the anger felt by Apollo towards his father over the death of his brother, as well as their clashing ideals. Over the course of the series, their relationship alternately improved and deteriorated, but at the end you’d think they had finally come to respect and value each another. But nope, Adama tells his son, “I’d rather spend the remainder of my life alone on a strange world than to ever see you again.”
And Starbuck didn’t even give Apollo the decency of a goodbye. She just blinked out of existence when he turned his head, like Batman.
You know, with the ending that we got, it would’ve been better had the show ended shortly after they found the irradiated, uninhabitable husk of Original Cylon Earth. It would have at least been a fitting end and in keeping with the series’ bleak tone. Instead, the writers opted for a “happy” ending, where our ragtag fleet finds its way to Our Earth because the coordinates are somehow related to the notes of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower.
Listen, I get where the writers were going with this. They wanted to express the idea that there’s some Jungian collective unconscious that humanity taps into, no matter the time and place. But Dylan? Really? For the entirety of the show’s run, they had accomplished the same thing by using old Sanskrit prayers, traditional instruments, and the like. You know, things that have actually stood the test of time on our own world and tap into universal emotions and imagery for most of humanity, rather than the fandom of people from a certain generation. I’m not saying Bob Dylan is some forgettable slouch, but if you’re going to go this route, why not something from Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Holszt, or someone whose art has proven appeal amongst a wide breadth of humanity and not just American white males between the ages of 40-65?
I can only imagine a television series 20 years from now where the answer to the grand puzzle of some cosmic drama far in humanity’s past turns out to be the lyrics to Smells Like Teen Spirit.
The distance of a few years between the end of both shows hasn’t really changed my reaction to them, though I’m not as disappointed with Galactica’s finale as I’d originally been. At the time, I was so angry with it that it retroactively ruined the entire show for me. It’s only now that I can go back and re-watch some episodes, as well as get around to watching Caprica.
Ultimately, Galactica’s lack of satisfying character resolution was exacerbated by absolutely insipid plot resolutions. If one had been done well but not the other, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but they completely screwed the pooch on both.
On the other hand, LOST still holds-up for me. As I said before, I cared more about the characters than the plot, so I’m satisfied with it. The show raised so many questions and introduced so many plot points that tying it all together, while at the same time providing a satisfying conclusion for all of the characters, would’ve been impossible and probably resulted in the same hot mess as Galactica’s finale. Instead, the writers chose to focus on the characters and passed on answering a lot of the minor mysteries so that at least one half was done correctly. It just so happens that it’s the half I actually cared about.

The Hobbit Review: Standard Format

I went to see The Hobbit in standard format today and as I hoped, the movie is ten times better than the high-frame rate version. Most of the issues I had with the film on my initial viewing didn’t really turn out to be as significant as I thought, mainly because I could maintain my suspension of disbelief and stay in the movie instead of constantly being thrown out of it by scenes that just did not look right. It turns out the movie is really quite good. The pacing isn’t as bad as I thought and the “darker” elements that I thought Jackson was forcing into the story flowed naturally and didn’t detract from the film much at all. I laughed, I cheered, and I became emotionally invested in the story and characters instead of feeling an odd detachment from everything. The epic scenes actually feel epic in the standard format, instead of coming-off like a video game cutscene or worse, an SNL parody.
After seeing the standard version of the film I can see where the High Frame Rate has its advantages. It’s really good at eliminating motion blur during action scenes, plus the CGI looks far better than in a standard frame rate; however, this type of fidelity comes at the expense of live actors on a brightly-lit set. The hyper-realistic look has its place, but not in a live-action movie. If what I’m looking at appears to be a TV show filmed on video or even a live play, I’m expecting other cues that just aren’t there and I’m unable to maintain my suspension of disbelief. If I’m watching a play, I can hear the actors walking across the stage and listen to their voices echo in the theater. I can smell the sets and enjoy a direct connection to the play itself, but the atmosphere of a movie theater is so completely different that watching something with the fidelity of a play yet none of the other sensory cues just feels wrong. Even if I’m not consciously aware of it, my brain is.
I can see the format benefitting an intimate character drama, but until the lighting issues are fixed I’m dubious even that wouldn’t cross into Uncanny Valley territory; however, all animated movies should now be shown at the higher frame rate because I’m certain they would look amazing.
I am glad I gave the High Frame Rate version a chance, because at least I now know that much like 3D, I’m not missing out on anything.

Well, It's a Life

(Here’s another thing I found from around 10 years ago. It’s a little long in the tooth and fairly obvious, but here it is.)
Child labor and abuse. Shattered dreams and an evil Republican cripple. Frustration, poverty, and an idiot uncle. A wife who wasn’t your first choice and a family you never really wanted. Drunk driving, bar fights, malfeasance, and suicide.
Not exactly the stuff family holiday classics are made of, yet all this is in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Life is often derided as a hokey and syrupy bit of Americana, yet compared to today’s movies, it’s surprisingly dark and realistic. Turn on any popular TV show or attend a commercially successful movie and you’ll find the same dominant theme: Achieve your dreams. You’ll be sorry if you don’t. That’s because the message of modern American society is that to be happy, you must do everything you can to achieve your dreams or you’ll end up a bitter, frustrated person full of regret. It’s a Wonderful Life flies in the face of that philosophy and presents a man who doesn’t get a single thing he wanted out of life, yet winds up the richest man in town.
We first see George as a youngster saving his kid brother from certain drowning and later as an older boy working for Mr. Gower in a drug store. In both instances, he’s saving the lives of others in spite of peril to himself. He braves freezing water to save his brother, loses hearing in one ear, and gets slapped upside the head by Mr. Gower when he refuses to deliver poison to a sick boy. Unlike the heroes of today who spring into action without a second thought, George always hesitates just before making a decision–an important distinction. He chooses to do what he does, and those choices involve helping others, even at his own expense. As a child, his decisions result in mere physical pain, but as an adult they will bring about terrible mental anguish.
In the same sequence involving the Gower Affair, George is introduced to his future opponent and thematic opposite, Mr. Potter. He’s the man who has everything and if given a choice, will choose what’s best for him over the welfare of others. What’s more, he’s rich! He’s the embodiment of today’s message, yet instead of being a happy, fulfilled man, he’s a lonely, bitter old miser with no friends.
When we next see George, he’s come of age and ready to see the world. George is shopping for a suitcase and goes on about how he wants a big steamer trunk that he can slap labels on for all the places he’s going to visit. The shopkeeper pulls out a large, empty suitcase for George to inspect and it turns out it’s from old Ear-Slapper himself, Mr. Gower.
These scenes are very busy, full of movement and energy. They convey the feelings of expectation and excitement that come with escaping the familiar and doing new things. In the dinner scene at home, someone’s always moving in and out of frame instead of the traditional portrait of a family eating a quiet meal together. The school dance scene follows, continuing the frenetic imagery of the drug store and family dinner scenes. George gets friendly with town hottie Violet, but a friend who wants George to give his kid sister Mary some company quickly pulls him away. Once again, George hesitates before finally deciding to do his friend a favor. After a brief introduction, he and Mary start doing the Charleston and take a dip in the pool thanks to the insidious shenanigans of Alfalfa.
The energy of the previous scenes dies down for purposes of exposition as George and Mary take their stroll past an old, broken-down house. Mary’s obviously taken with George and she reveals her dream of living in that house and raising a family, but George is too wrapped up in his own excitement at leaving town to notice. The scene shows George at his zenith, culminating in his boast to Mary of roping the moon and bringing it down to her. Little does George know that it is he who will be soon roped and brought back down to earth in just a few minutes, as he’s informed that his father has just had a heart attack.
Mr. Potter shows his nasty mug again, and he’s still the same greedy old SOB he always was. His selfish words irritate George to the point that even though he plans on leaving Bedford Falls for good within the next hour, he still makes an impassioned speech for saving the Building & Loan. It’s not that he really cares for the institution, but that he really hates Potter and recognizes that if Potter can get rid of the Building & Loan, he’ll own the whole damn town and they’ll all be the worse for it. His rant finished, George makes tracks for the railroad station only to be stopped by one of the board members who says that the Building & Loan will remain, but only if George stays on as Executive Secretary.
Capra is perfect in this moment. He lets the scene hang on George’s face as the realization sinks in. All the frenetic energy of the earlier scenes suddenly stops and the effect is devastating. George hangs his head slightly and makes the decision to stay in town. George offers himself some hope as he figures he’ll be able to leave once his younger brother gets back from college. He won’t be able to go to Europe, but at least he’ll get out of town eventually.
A few years go by, and once again, the energy of the train station scene corresponds with George’s expectations of getting out of town, since his brother’s coming home from college. Once his brother gets off that train, George is free to go to college and get on with his life. Harry gets off the train and George is happy. Harry’s unexpected wife gets off the train and George is happy. Harry’s wife tells George about the job her father’s offered Harry, and George is not so happy. Upon hearing the news, the scene comes to a dead stop as the camera pushes-in on George yet again. We can see the wheels start turning in George’s mind as he starts wrestling with the dilemma of fulfilling his own dreams against letting his brother have a good life of his own. That same evening, his mom pushes Mary on him, since she seems to know before George that he’s not going anywhere. She points him towards Mary’s house, but George goes the other way.
After briefly chatting-up the town bicycle, Violet, George eventually winds up at Mary’s house. He’s obviously irritated throughout the whole scene, since he knows that by settling down with Mary his dream will be completely and utterly dead. He makes a few empty protests before finally giving-in and accepting Mary. Game Over. Turn in your steamer trunk for a briefcase.
The rest of the film reinforces the notion of George being denied what he wants for the sake of helping someone else. His honeymoon is ruined by a bank scare that costs him his entire savings. He’s constantly going at it with Potter to keep the Building & Loan in operation and he’s helping the community to get better housing than what Potter offers, at the expense of a good house for himself and his family.
The film eventually reaches its crisis point when George’s idiot uncle loses $8,000 dollars and the Bank Examiner shows up (it appears that financial institutions were regulated in the past and financial officers could face some form of criminal punishment). Potter swears out a warrant for George’s arrest and Bailey realizes his number’s up. He barks at his family and heads out to the bar to get drunk.
This is where Capra’s decision to have George make his choices instead of being a mere victim of circumstance pays off. If George had been carried along by the whims of fate instead of being a willing participant in his life, the film wouldn’t work. George knows that his decisions have brought him to this point and he hates himself for it. He considers himself a failure because of those choices he’s made. All of his frustration at being denied what he wanted again and again finally boils to the surface when he considers jumping off the bridge and ending it all.
But it’s Clarence the Bumbling Angel who jumps in the water first, and George momentarily forgets his own problems to jump in and save the guy. Saved from the icy river, Clarence and George sit down for a heart to heart and George lets off the flippant remark about wishing he’d never been born.
What Clarence shows George is that had he not made all those “wrong” decisions, the entire town would have been worse off for it. Sure, he may have not been able to leave Bedford Falls and see the world, but at the same time he enriched the lives of everyone else, including his own, though he was too blinded by his own self-pity to see it. And that’s what makes this film superior to the “feel good” movies of today. People are encouraged to damn the world in pursuit of their dreams, lest they be unfulfilled and unsuccessful. But what of the rest of the world? In It’s a Wonderful Life, we’re shown the guy who supposedly has everything. Mr. Potter’s rich, he owns half the damn town, and he can get anything he wants. He’s also a bitter old man with no friends or family of his own. If Potter hadn’t existed, the world would have taken bare notice and would be no worse for having not known him, because he was only concerned about himself and the accumulation of material wealth.
The world was obviously worse off for not having George Bailey around, and though he never pursued his dreams, he did choose to help those around him. By elevating the lot of his fellow man, he made his world a better place. He may not have had the best house or a fancy car, and his kids may not have had the best clothes, but he had a family and friends who loved him. Harry’s not kidding when he calls his brother “the richest man in town,” because in every way that matters, he is.

The Hobbit Review: High Frame Rate

(Warning: Possible, minor spoilers. Nothing earth-shattering, but you’ve been warned.)
The Hobbit is a good movie, but the 48 FPS (High Frame Rate) version just does not work. It was so distracting that I couldn’t really get into the movie. A lot of the time, it looked like we were watching a behind-the-scenes featurette on a DVD or a made-for-TV movie with a large effects budget. There were even a few moments where the movie appeared to be a well-staged play. My son said that it looked like something you’d see at a theme park, where they get some of the actors from the movie to show up in a video for an interactive ride. I found the whole effect distracting to the point that I now have to watch the movie again in a standard frame rate to see how it looks as a film, rather than a TV documentary with legendary creatures.
Frame rate issues aside, the movie itself is very good, but Peter Jackson appears to be exhibiting early signs of Lucasification, as he’s clearly indulging his every whim in this movie (the frame rate issue was the first clue). For those wondering how in the world he can make three very long movies out of a very short children’s book, the answer seems to be: by making every scene several minutes longer than it needs to be. It’s been more than a decade since I last read The Hobbit but it looks to me that Jackson is including every single scene from the book, and quite a few that aren’t, and each is given several minutes worth of footage to boot. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “You little shits want to rake me over the coals about Tom Bombadil? Here’s five minutes of a guy reviving a hedgehog.”
Jackson also appears to be in the same quandary as Tolkien back in the 1950s. After writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien went back to The Hobbit and tried to give it the same feel and tone as the latter books. He got as far as re-writing the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter before abandoning the project. The fundamental stumbling block is that The Hobbit is a children’s tale about a guy taken out of his comfort zone and propelled into an adventure where he encounters strange and funny creatures along the way. The book’s tone isn’t serious and it doesn’t even take itself seriously. It’s a light-hearted, witty, fast-paced story where the only thing at stake is whether his dwarven group will be able to slay the dragon and reclaim their home. You can’t shoehorn-in the Lord of the Rings’ tone without utterly destroying what makes “The Hobbit,” The Hobbit.
Unlike Tolkien, Jackson doesn’t seem to want to recognize The Hobbit for what it is and let it be, as he persists in a vain effort to dovetail it thematically with his version of The Lord of the Rings. That’s really hard to do when you have slapstick trolls, Jabba the Cockney Goblin King, and Radagast the Brown piloting a high-speed sleigh drawn by a dozen jackrabbits. The juxtaposition of the Witch King of Angmar, dread and terrible leader of the Nazgul and recently resurrected by the Necromancer by fel, dark magic to once again cast a shadow over the lands of Middle-Earth, attempting to slay a crazy man with bird shit in his hair, doesn’t really work. You have to choose either to show The Hobbit or a darker movie inspired by The Hobbit; you can’t do both. Factor in the high frame rate, which makes it look almost like a College Humor video parody of the Lord of the Rings, and the entire effort teeters on the brink of ridiculousness.
Still, The Hobbit is a good, fun movie and all of the criticisms I’ve outlined above do not break the film. In fact, I actually enjoyed it. I think that if I saw it again at a normal frame rate, most of the detractions that stood out before would likely disappear into the background. The High Frame Rate really exposes flaws in a movie that would otherwise normally be forgotten or missed. It’s not yet ready for prime time, at least until filmmakers are able to figure out how to cheat and hide certain things like they can with standard movies. When I see it again, I’ll follow-up with a post with some thoughts on how the movie goes without the distraction of the high frame rate (edit: and here it is).

Green Tambourine

(I recently found this amongst a few files I recovered from an old hard drive. It was published in August of 2003 on my old website. I’ve edited it for spelling, accuracy, and clarity)
I’ve listened to Green Tambourine at least a few hundred times, if not more, and I don’t know why I love this song so much. Maybe it’s the sitar riff at the beginning of the song. Everything is second-rate in this song, from the simple three chords to the lame tambourine itself, but I’m compelled to listen to it. It resides in every playlist of mine and when I hear it on the radio, I’m unable to change the station. I’m trapped by its kooky power.
The song itself doesn’t make any sense. Look at the first couple of lines:
Drop your silver in my tambourine
help a poor man build a pretty dream
give me pennies, I’ll take anything

There’s nothing obviously amiss here. This damn dirty hippie is poor and looking to make some dough to fuel his reefer madness. Most people use a guitar case or a cup to collect loose pocket change and crumpled dollar bills, but this guy’s so poor he can’t afford such luxuries. All he has is his little tambourine. I feel sorry for Mr. Tambourine Man, who is most likely the subject of The Byrds’ song of the same name, but more on that later. I want you to look at the very next line in the song:
Now listen as I play my Green Tambourine
I know I’m a little soft in the head, but how the hell can you play the tambourine? It’s got money in it. If you start banging on that thing, all those hard-earned pennies are going to fly out all over the place. You can bet your unwashed ass that all of your pretty dreams will disappear as street urchins battle each other for the scattered copper loot. I’m starting to feel not-so-sorry for Mr. Tambourine Man, who’s evidently thrown away thousands for want of a fully functional short term memory. But perhaps that’s his plan.
Maybe, just maybe, Tambourine Man serves as a central collection point for tourists’ money, which he then distributes to his unfortunate neighbors in the most equitable manner possible: by randomly scattering it about as he plays the tambourine. Could that be his pretty dream, to bring money and happiness to orphans and winos who otherwise would go hungry because they lack the talent with which to earn money? Is Tambourine Man the result of a complex evolutionary process that has produced a mutant hobo with a talent that confers a natural advantage over others of his kind? If so, Tambourine Man’s charitable efforts toward his unfortunate kinsmen are worthy of praise and respect.
But this brings up another question: Who the hell wants to listen to someone play a friggin’ tambourine, much less pay for the privilege? The lyrics contain a valuable clue:
Watch the jingle-jangle start to shine
reflections of the music that is mine
When you toss a coin, you’ll hear it sing
Now listen as I play my Green Tambourine

This is no ordinary tambourine. A standard tambourine is just a simple wooden hoop with some irritating cymbals and a drumhead. A normal person’s response to this instrumental kluge is to either get out of earshot in the quickest manner possible, or beat the tambourine player for assaulting the tympanic membranes of the citizenry.
So how is it that Tambourine Man escapes certain death when he heads out to the street corner to play? The answer is obvious. He plays a magic tambourine, as evidenced by its conspicuous green color. As he beats upon its surface, the jingle-jangling of the mini-cymbals mesmerizes the audience into a stupor and opens them up to the hypnotic suggestion of the music that is his. The audience, in thrall of the tambourine, is compelled to throw money into the tambourine once the song is complete. As a reward, the tambourine itself “sings” to them. What devilish tune this hellspawn instrument whispers in their ears is unknown as the lyrics are unclear on this point. But it can be inferred that the tambourine’s song prevents them from questioning the insane act of giving someone money for playing the infernal instrument.
The tambourine’s magical properties help to answer another puzzle of the song’s lyrics:
Drop a dime before I walk away
Any song you want I’ll gladly play
Money feeds my music machine

It is here that the song takes a disturbing turn. Not only does Tambourine Man feel confident enough to actually threaten walking away (which would be a welcome action), he’s so sure of the tambourine’s hypnotic power that he can actually convince people that he is capable of playing songs. Now we all know that a tambourine is incapable of playing a song. It cannot reproduce notes. One can only smack it in a sort of rhythm approximating a song’s beat, and even then the reproduction is so vague that you kind of have to take the musician’s word for it. Is that Walk Like an Egyptian or Love in an Elevator? Who knows? The zombified audience is too busy reaching into their pockets to feed his music machine.
It’s the description of the tambourine as a music machine that highlights a potentially disturbing dimension to the song. You can take its meaning at face value: the tambourine has some sort of mechanism facilitating the hypnotic trance, perhaps by broadcasting high-pitched radio waves. The testing and R&D phase of the device must’ve been interesting. Did initial audiences soil themselves or form angry mobs focused on rooting-out Communists from the film industry?
Such idle speculation of a mysterious internal device within the tambourine itself is, of course, ludicrous. This self-described poor man could not afford the components and sophisticated equipment necessary to fashion such a hypnotic device, which leads us to the only conclusion possible: the tambourine is the vessel of a malevolent entity.
This conclusion is terrifying in its implications, for it suggests that Tambourine Man is not, as we guessed, a gifted street bum, but the victim of supernatural forces beyond his understanding and control. Perhaps he raided a gypsy camp and stole the accursed tambourine with the intention of pawning it, but was instead enslaved by its demonic power before he could rid himself of it. Unable to resist the Green Tambourine, the man plays it in public, feeding the demon’s insatiable need for pocket change. Its need for money is likely the result of a cosmic bargain that led to the demon’s imprisonment within the tambourine itself. The spirit must collect within the maw of the instrument a certain amount of money before it can be set free; or worse, exchange places with whatever poor soul happened to take possession of the tambourine.
The Tambourine Man must’ve quickly ascertained the true nature of the instrument and fought to keep the monster locked within its cage by immediately dispersing the money after the collection. One can only imagine the terrible existence of Tambourine Man, locked in a contest of wills with an imp of enormous psychic power. One can also imagine the frustration of the tambourinic djinn, who sees his hour of freedom come tantalizingly close, only to have his hopes scattered along with the money amongst the four winds.
We should therefore not only pity the Tambourine Man, but also take strength from his example, for he demonstrates that even the lowliest of us has the power to stymie the efforts of the Dark Side. If you doubt the djinn’s power, you need look no further than The Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man. The hypnotic power of the demon was so powerful and lasting that a group of musicians felt compelled to craft a song about the Tambourine Man and then perform it for years without question or hesitation. Even though their song was a result of demonic influence, it does allow us to view firsthand the power of the tambourine from the point of view of the audience, in contrast to the Tambourine Man’s own lament and coded warning to stay away at any cost.
Indeed, there may never have been a Mr. Tambourine Man had the Lemon Pipers not released Green Tambourine. The djinn knew that Green Tambourine had the potential to keep him enslaved for eternity, so it was necessary to sing that special “song” for The Byrds to record, bringing people from all over the globe to listen and toss money into the tambourine, thus hastening his liberation.
Did the demon’s efforts pay off? No more mention is made of Tambourine Man after The Lemon Pipers released their record. We can confidently assume that the genie was freed after a particularly large group of Japanese tourists heard the Tambourine Man play and tossed hundreds of thousands of Yen into the tambourine. In what might be the ultimate example of cosmic irony, the supernatural mechanism in place may not have accounted for international exchange rates and so took the monetary value of the Yen at face value and set the genie free for only thirteen dollars and a few cents.
So what became of the Tambourine Man after the malevolent spirit was liberated and founded Microsoft? Hopefully, he was freed of torment as well and completed his task of pawning the now spiritually benign instrument for some much need reefer money. Such a scenario may help us sleep peacefully at night, but the truth may be far more sinister. We must assume that somewhere in this world a possessed Green Tambourine, imbued with the spirit of an angry and tormented soul, quietly awaits its next unsuspecting victim.

This is the Future

At around 10:45 Pacific time on August 5, 2012, I realized I was living in the Future. We only learned how to fly just a hair over a hundred years ago, and last night we used a sky-crane straight out of science fiction to lower a nuclear-powered robot the size of a car onto another world. We had no control over the descent, the parachute deployment (also the largest ever devised), the sky-crane, the rover–none of it!
These were a programmed series of maneuvers that had to be accomplished without human intervention. More than that, these were maneuvers that could never be tested here on Earth. You will never find video of sky-crane prototypes lowering mock-ups of Curiosity onto some airfield on Earth, because it could never be accurately accomplished here. It was all simulated in a computer. Last night’s landing was its first proof-of-concept demonstration.
I witnessed this amazing event not on the legacy media of network television, which broadcast grainy black-and-white pictures during the moon landings over 40 years ago, but on two internet livestreams (one from the Planetary Society, the other from JPL), a 3D real-time simulation, an audio commentary, and several Twitter feeds.

Curiosity Descending to Mars, as Seen by the Mars Recon Orbiter

The rover itself sent data during its landing to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), relaying the information 154 million miles to the Deep Space Network here on Earth, which then relayed the information to communications satellites orbiting our own planet, which then sent the information to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, who then transmitted the information to the people of Earth over the Internet so they could watch it on their computers and phones–their phones!
I know a lot of people are fairly underwhelmed with the idea that we have dozens of robotic explorers and satellites on other worlds within our solar system, serving as evidence of our scientific curiosity and engineering genius, and continuously relaying new discoveries about the world we live in and our place in it.  But to someone who lives in a country patting itself on its back for past accomplishments and steadily shrinking away from doing great things while slowly crumbling from within, it was nice to be reminded that in a lot of ways we are living in the Future and that there are still those among us daring to do mighty things that elevate us as a species, instead of sucking us down into the muck and the mire of common barbarism.
It was a reminder that we can be so much better than we are and that we’re still capable of doing the great things that propel us forward.
All these worlds are ours and on each of them is the chance to make ourselves anew. Let’s go.

Review of Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312

2312, The Year of the Lens Flare

Summary: A weak protagonist and an even weaker ending overwhelm what could have been a strong and thoughtful novel.
2312 presumably takes place within the same universe as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, but it fails to live up to the thoughtfulness and epic scope of those books.
The protagonist is a silly, shallow, self-absorbed dilettante who flits about the solar system, moving from one distraction to the next like a 24th Century Paris Hilton. We’re told that she was intelligent once, but apparently her penchant for novelty via various body and brain modifications has rendered her into a vacuous sensualist with an implanted AI. Indeed, one of the major discussions threading the novel is whether an AI could achieve consciousness, and if so, how could you tell if it had? In one of the major ironies of the book, the main character is someone who is so one-dimensional that you’d have a hard time distinguishing her from a simple AI.
A weak protagonist can be easily overcome with a strong plot, which this book has for 90% of its length. There’s a mystery surrounding terrorist attacks on spacer colonies in the solar system, coupled with odd and potentially dangerous qube (quantum computer) behavior. Throw in an increasingly desperate and depressing Earth (which in the novel has basically become the solar system’s Africa), and you have a story threading together various inferences that seem to lead toward an epoch-shattering conclusion.
Alas, ’tis not to be. The general malaise throughout the book remains unresolved and humanity continues along its meaningless path. The problem with the qubes, which could have represented a new era for humanity by having a novel, alien intelligence with which to interact and learn, is quickly resolved and dispatched in a few paragraphs. The central mystery of the novel–terrorist attacks on spacer colonies–turns out to be nothing more than an unintended consequence of a minor real estate dispute involving characters who are barely mentioned in the novel.
The slow, gathering surge toward an epic conclusion merely peters out in the end. It’s almost as if the author, after painting a picture of humanity as a stagnant people who are merely distracting themselves until they die (ironically delayed due to longevity treatments), was afraid of the potential transformative power his qubes represented and pulled back for some reason.
As I read the book, I actually thought the protagonist was a thumbnail for a moribund humanity who’d reached the limit of its abilities. It was almost as if the human race was bumping up against a wall which, for all of the mind and body enhancements, it could not conceptually break through due to fundamental flaws in its construction. There’s a lot of movement and apparent progress, but when observed from the macro level the species is just spinning its wheels. There’s a lot of heat, but no fire.
The qubes, who appear to be evolving and perhaps even self-aware, are appearing in human bodies that are indistinguishable from the genuine article, much like the cylons from the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. It seemed like the book was heading to a point where these qubes would in some way transform human society and break it free from its stagnant state. Instead, all of the build-up involving these new qubes is swept away with not much said about what they were or what they could become.
The book could have ended with the genesis of a post-human society, or at the very least a humanity with some sort of hope for the future. Instead, it ended where it began and reading it turns out to have been an exercise in futility, much like humanity’s existence in the book.
Despite all that, I would still recommend picking up this book at the library since it does generate some food for thought (if only incidental to the main story), plus it features some high imagination, from surfing Saturn’s rings to a city crawling along Mercury’s terminator (and what happens when it stops). Just don’t expect to be treated to the epic breadth and depth of ideas presented in Red Mars and do not expect a big, world-changing ending.

Expired

I’ve been going through Wired’s first issue on the iPad and it barely resembles the safe, neutered magazine that bears its name today. I didn’t buy the first issue, but I did read most every issue up until around 1997 or so. I had always been a fan of the cyberpunk genre and a huge technology enthusiast, so Wired was a magazine tailor-made for someone like me. It was a garish mix of absurd pretentiousness and genuine art. I liked it in spite of itself and enjoyed it without irony.
The thing that kept me coming back, besides wondering what heights of self-importance it would reach in the next issue, was its focus on people, ideas, and culture rather than a dry recitation of some beige box’s specs. It seemed plugged-in to the Silicon Valley scene, plus Interesting People wrote for it, so it felt like a magazine that was actually commenting on the digital revolution instead of obsessing over the actual devices that were making the revolution possible. It was the only technology mag to ask, “What does this all mean, anyway?”
It was the first place I’d seen the word “colophon.”
Going through the first issue made me somewhat sad, but not really from any sense of nostalgia. It was a painful reminder of how much the magazine has changed from a weird, dangerous, avant-garde magazine from the future to basically PC Magazine with a goatee and cargo shorts. This was a magazine whose cover, in addition to a rogues’ gallery of provocative thinkers and technologists, once featured the Apple logo encircled with a crown of thorns over the word “Pray” to mark the return of Steve Jobs to Apple. It was a fairly controversial cover to people who had never heard of the magazine, much less actually read it, but it was keeping with the magazine’s attitude.
Now, the magazine has a cover with a “Geek Dad.” Seriously. They might as well just fold it into Men’s Health or something.
I stopped reading Wired regularly in the late-’90s, as the web finally became interesting and informative in its own right (rather than people talking about how interesting and informative it was going to be). Combined with newsgroups and IRC, Wired instantly seemed old-fashioned and quaint. The digital world it heralded had finally arrived. The hackers, crackers, phreaks, and other Genuinely Smart People were moving things along at a furious clip, far faster than anything as mundane as a monthly magazine could hope to keep pace with.
Wired had its own website, Hotwired, but it never really caught fire with me. Once you’ve tasted digital ambrosia yourself in far more interesting places on the ‘net, you can’t really take a comparatively safe and mainstream website seriously–especially one tied to a supposedly forward-looking, underground magazine. The arrogant seriousness of the magazine didn’t really mesh well with the culture of the ‘net in those days, which was far too experimental, self-aware, and sarcastic for a magazine that took itself way too seriously.
Wired was supposed to be about the future, but it turned out the future was ASCII dicks and spam.
Wired was very much a product of its time. It’s deeply embedded in ’90s cyber-culture and the world it foresaw has largely come to pass. In a sane world, the magazine would have shutdown with dignity at the turn of the millennium; alas, anything that turns a profit, even it has long outlived its mission, shambles along like a shadow of its former self, forgetting who it was or what it was doing here in the first place. So it goes with Wired.
At any rate, revisiting the first issue was an interesting look into the future, courtesy of the past, when we knew what was going to happen before it actually did.
Except for Comments sections. No one saw that train wreck coming.

Phoenix Comicon 2012: Good Times, Great Con

Damn, girl, your mom let you out of the house dressed like that?

If you’ve grown tired of the frustration machine known as San Diego Comic-Con and you’re casting about for something that has a bit of that old comic con magic, then do yourself a favor and head on over to Phoenix next year, because Phoenix Comicon has got it going on.
In a word, the Phoenix Comicon was fun. In another word, it was friendly. In yet another, it was fantastic. As we stepped off the train (Phoenix has a light-rail system) we noted the distinct lack of scantily-clad women desperately trying to rid themselves of glossy ad stock. In San Diego, you would be laden with three pounds of ads, brochures, magazines, and other assorted debris before you could make it to the convention center. Many cannot bear the load; so many ads litter the street that you could walk from the Gaslamp to the convention center and never touch pavement.
Briefly taken aback by the lack of barkers, balloons, and speakers blasting bass lines, we casually strolled to the convention center–yes, our little band from the train actually strolled along the sidewalk as if enjoying a casual walk in the park, instead of rushing headlong into the unknown like a dozen doughy battering rams, only to be absorbed into the ever-expanding blob of flesh, as is the norm in San Diego.
The entire vibe of the con was accepting, laid-back, and just plain fun. People weren’t all stressed-out about getting to a panel, or bored-to-death from standing in line for hours, or exhausted from being packed like sardines into a tiny space filled with some of the whitest people you will ever see. We didn’t witness packs of aggressive young men pushing and shoving each other out of the way to snatch worthless trinkets being thrown indiscriminately from a booth, like some obscene parody of third-world folks desperately vying for meager rations of food distributed from the back of an aid truck.
Everyone was happy to be there and it showed. You were able to take things as they came, instead of feeling pressure to do this now so you can get there then and oh god, I’m never gonna make it to–no, none of that harried exhaustion was in evidence here. People were happy to stop and talk for as long as they wanted. It’s amazing how enjoyable a con is when everyone you meet doesn’t have that sense of urgency to be somewhere else. At San Diego, everyone looks like they’ve just felt the first burble of bubble guts and realizes they need to get to a restroom quickly, but don’t want to look like they need to get to the restroom quickly, even though it’s plainly obvious to everyone else that they need to get someplace else quickly. I didn’t see one person running or doing that weird, brisk walk that people do when they want to run but don’t want to look like Usain Bolt off the blocks, so they just keep their upper body stiff as a board while their legs furiously propel them forward at an awkward pace. Multiply that constant low-level stress and anxiety by 150,000 people and you’re exhausted by noon.
And the lack of people–oh god, the glorious lack of people! Phoenix had just the right amount of people so that it wasn’t too crowded, nor did it feel like a meeting of the LM386 Integrated Circuit Appreciation Club at the airport Hilton. It was just the right size for the venue with the right mix of people. They were all in a great mood and that mood permeated everything so that you were just happy to be there with them at that place. Mood is a force multiplier. A good mood can spread and grow and feedback on itself so that everything is enjoyable and little setbacks can be brushed away like the trivialities that they are. A good vibe is hard to spread and maintain, but Phoenix made it look easy. It was like a rock concert without the threat of imminent hearing loss. Unlike SDCC, Phoenix Comicon is to be enjoyed rather than endured.
The other great thing about Phoenix is that the con felt like it was organized by the fans for the fans. It had an organic, bottom-up feel, with dozens of little panels on the schedule that had limited appeal, but seemed equally valued nonetheless. The problem with San Diego is that it’s become just another stop on the Hollywood junket tour, with everything geared to promote movies and TV shows at the expense of everything else. It has a very top-down, authoritarian feel that leaves no mistake about who the con is really servicing. The sad thing about it is that people miss all of the great things about the convention by standing in line for hours just to sit in the same room and watch HD screens of movie/TV panels for the rest of the day. With the minor exception of a couple of panels where a little advanced planning was needed, you could walk right into any panel at the Phoenix con and check out something cool. You never felt like you missed out at Phoenix Comicon.
The only thing that could really improve the Phoenix con would be better support from the major comics publishers. Marvel and DC: send your artists and writers, but keep the massive booths and meaningless spectacle in San Diego. Hasbro and Mattel, just stay away. You can keep your Exclusive Con Giveaways and the ridiculous ticketing systems you use for them with the other BS in San Diego.
I really hope Phoenix is able to maintain the great organization and camaraderie they’ve fostered without being lost to the Dark Side like SDCC was. I can’t emphasize enough how incredibly fun Phoenix Comicon was this year and I’m already looking forward to going next year. If you can fit it in your schedule, you owe it to yourself to go. I’ll see you there.

My Problem With Zombies

The number one problem with zombies, as far as I’ve seen them depicted, is that they’re a short term threat. I’m not talking about the type of zombies in 28 Days Later, where people just get a virus and become dicks, I’m talking about genuine, shambling, ambulatory corpses seeking BRAAAIINS (or zombie cattle seeking GRAAAIIINS).
I’m not saying they wouldn’t be an existential threat–far from it. A zombie apocalypse would not be a pleasant experience, but it would eventually end, with survival favoring those in certain climates and locales.
First off, if the zombies are rotting corpses, then simple human decomposition would ensure the  zombie throng would quickly burn out in about 18 months. They simply wouldn’t be able to walk after a certain period of time, as their muscle tissue and tendons deteriorated to the point that they simply stopped moving.
So, if you find yourself in a sparsely-populated area when the zombie balloon goes up, you just need to hold out for about 18 months and you’re pretty much good to go. But it gets better! If you’re in a tropical or humid location, the zombies will decompose at a far faster rate. You might only need to hold out for only a year if you’re in the Southeast US.
But if you’re in more northern climes, you’re not in that bad a situation, either. If the zombie throng starts shuffling in earnest in the spring or summer, you’re in for some tough times, but once winter hits, freezing temperatures will slow or completely stop the undead, allowing you to gather head shots at will.
So, best case scenario, you’ve gotta hold out for only 6 brief months–a hockey season. Worst case, you need only endure 18 months, with the zombie contingent steadily reducing in number with each passing week, before dropping off exponentially after about 13-14 months. That’s why the zombie apocalypse is the least terrifying end-of-the-world scenario. If a big asteroid hits the earth, we’re all fucked, with any survivors leading a life of extreme starvation and savagery as they slowly die off. A supervolcano eruption leaves us with a similar scenario. Global thermonuclear war dispenses with the whole, drawn-out death of a species and just knocks us all out fairly quickly.
In light of actual, real-world apocalyptic options, the zombie plague is actually the preferable one. It offers a real good chance for survival of the species and a chance to quickly recover. Unless, of course, the impetus for the zombie plague is a biological agent that infects everyone (like in The Walking Dead), expressing itself not only when bitten and infected by a zombie, but also upon death (even a non-zombie-inflicted death). In that case, game over humanity. Just try to infect as many animals as possible, because zombie grizzlies would be really cool to see.