Thursday, 28 February 2008

"The Nikki and Paulo Problem."

The ‘Lost’ characters, Nikki and Paulo, were, it’s fair to say, universally despised by the fanbase upon their introduction back in Season 3. Conversely, the Freighter People in the present season have been embraced with open arms. Why is this? What was it about Nikki and Paulo?

The start of ‘Lost’ Season 3 suffered from bad writing. Under pressure from the studio to put out a 6-episode mini-season, the writers were hard-pressed and it led to some bad scripts particularly evident with the notoriously ambiguous phrasing of Eko’s last words. The dialogue wasn’t up to par, the pacing was all off, and time wasn’t distributed satisfactorily between the various characters.

Nikki and Paulo were introduced in the midst of this already heavy-laden story-arc. The character Nikki was introduced with a first line where she proceeded to have a go at Hurley. There’s the first mistake; you don’t get popular by insulting the most popular character on the island, especially when he’s just come back from a long hike and your criticism doesn’t make any sense. The second big problem with Nikki and Paulo was that they were Boone and Shannon. For some arbitrary reason, the show-runners decided to write these two lukewarm characters back into the show under an ever-so slightly different guise. Most crucially, Nikki and Paulo were uninteresting characters. Sticking an attractive non-entity into a scene may work on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ but ‘Lost’ has a richer depth of ensemble characters. Fling two pretty new survivors into the mix simply didn’t fit.

The Freighter People are thankfully genuinely interesting and, unlike Nikki and Paulo, have a definite reason for their sudden appearance on the island. Obviously the new cast members benefit from Season 4’s vastly improved scripts but the characters themselves are much more likeable (despite the fact that they may be a threat to the heroes of the show). Jeremy Davies’ character, Daniel Faraday, is wonderfully endearing because of the nervous and idiosyncratic way he’s played. I also like the angle they’re taking with his apparently poor memory; it seems to be an interesting arc and I cannot wait for Faraday to get a full-fledged flashback episode. Ken Leung’s character, Miles Straume, is not as endearing. In fact, it seems he’s just channelling Sawyer. But it works. What was great about Sawyer was that he was an enigma; a mysterious intelligent hillbilly conman. By Season 4 however we know all about him and, with the death of his namesake, his story-arc is complete. So it’s nice to get this Sawyer-type character who can be angry and mysterious. Miles also seems to know more than the Losties and that gives him a position of power comparable to Ben.

With a Desmond-centric episode this Sunday (tonight in the States), it’ll be interesting to learn more about the freighter and Frank the helicopter pilot. Having said that, any episode with lots of Desmond is a good one by me: he was the most interesting character introduced on that island even before he started supposedly ‘time-travelling’.

Season 4 of ‘Lost’ is a vast improvement over Season 3 bringing us some of the best episodes since late Season 1/start of Season 2. The game-changing season finale narrative shift last year has been continued magnificently and it’s really reinvigorated the show’s concept. For the very first time since the show began, it feels like the writers actually know where the story’s going; apparently they were telling the truth when they said they weren’t making it up as they go along. If you gave up on ‘Lost’ due to lack of resolution, you should try watching it again because Season 4 represents an entirely new chapter in the sprawling but ultimately rewarding narrative.

Monday, 25 February 2008

"All of this has happened before..."

Déjà vu (or properly, déjà vécu) is a strange phenomenon: the feeling, pure and undiluted, that one has experienced a scene before although rationally they could not have. Sometimes it feels like you have lived the exact moment, sometimes as if you are just remembering it from a dream or an imagining. And unfailingly there’s the agonising feeling that if the memory came just a little faster, you could predict or change the course of events.

Modern science tells us that déjà vu is a simple neurophysiologicalproblem: a faulty electrical discharge in a synapse. A fault in the human brain to be associated with temporal lobe epilepsy. Too much déjà vu can be symptomatic of stronger pathological disorders. I wonder if it’s a coincidence or not that the temporal lobe would have this effect on our perception of time.

Various less-empirical and more ‘far-out’ theories include the idea that déjà vu is a form of ‘future memory’ whereby in dreaming someone may actually experience a vision of their future timeline which they subsequently forget and then later experience, causing the memory to rush back vividly. This admits of the possibility that the human mind is built to experience outside of temporal dimensions, that time is a fixed construct into the future, and that this ability manifests itself in a majority of the population. Experiences like this one have happened to me. Then there are the latest quantum scientific theories about parallel universes which cause some to believe that déjà vu is a wrinkle in time, so to speak; a fluctuating of spacetime causing someone to share the experience of one of their parallel counterparts. The biggest problem with that is also the biggest problem with Plantinga’s ontological proof of God: the burden of proof is on anyone who postulates parallel worlds.

Are we to believe the scientific explanation? If we deny the paranormal/psychical explanations, are we denying the noble anthropological tendency of our ancestors to make up crap to explain our world? Does this lead us to abandon our quintessential humanity? For the most part science is too pragmatic to be ignored and prevailing theory is probably correct; déjà vu is probably a symptom of misfiring neurons.

But that doesn’t preclude the possibility that it happens for a reason nonetheless.

What is it about certain moments that cause the neurons to misfire? People I’ve talked to tend to experience déjà vu in clusters; suffering dry spells of ordinary temporal situating then having a group of déjà vu experiences all at once. Is this scientific coincidence or could there be moments when life is bent towards a certain important or necessary purpose; when the universe manifests itself in our minds to show us approaching these dense sections of life; these ‘nexus points’?

Probably not: this is all irrational conjecture. Nevertheless there is something to be said for enjoyable déjà vu experiences and all the better if they lead one to question the reality and direction of life. Real déjà vécu is a feeling too strong to be ignored and if we deny our emotions, wouldn’t that take all the fun out of life? As long as you can reconcile your own beliefs rationally, no-one can tell what you can’t do.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

"2010: A Linquistic Oddity."

I’ve let it slide so far because everyone was getting used to the new century. I’ve let this criminally inefficient manner of speaking go on for seven years without complaining. But now I’m letting the world know, a full two years in advance, that the year 2010 must be pronounced twenty-ten and not two-thousand-and-ten.

It started in the year 2000. It sounds jarring to say ‘twenty-hundred’ and so by unspoken public consensus we all started saying ‘two-thousand’. People’s decisions over word use are unconsciously swayed by what sounds aurally pleasing: the victory of Blu-ray over HD-DVD has, in some circles, been attributed to the fact that the term ‘Blu-ray’ subconsciously sounds nicer (I always thought that HD-DVD had a nice alliteration to it but what do I know?) Anyway the news reporters started saying ‘two-thousand’, the politicians said it, the cast of Eastenders said it, we all said it. Then 2001 came along. People had spent a year saying ‘two-thousand’ and thus it was easy just to add ‘and-one’. And so on for each subsequent year. Last year it reached a peak. Last year’s ‘two-thousand-and-seven’ was a whopping six syllables long.

When 2010 arrives we have a chance to break this inefficient cycle. It is not linguistically optimal to say ‘two-thousand-and-ten’ when ‘twenty-ten’ will suffice. From a pure numerical perspective it’s simply five syllables versus three syllables. We can all save time, breath, and precious syllables. Technically it’s easier to say ‘twenty-oh-eight’ than ‘two-thousand-and-eight’ but I’m letting everyone off the hook for the next couple of years.

None of us know what the future holds and what the mass media call 2010 will probably stick in the public’s consciousness. But for the next two years I will be promoting the ‘twenty-ten’ pronunciation. I don’t want to watch the ‘two-thousand-and-twelve’ Olympiad and I certainly don’t want to be party to the ‘two-twelve’ anything; I want to watch the ‘twenty-twelve’ Olympics.

I encourage you to join me and make the future a little bit more like the future we saw in “Back to the Future”. Solidarity, brothers.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Review - American Gods

‘American Gods’ by Neil Gaiman is one of those quintessential Americana books in the same vein as anything Stephen King writes. Odd that such a vivid portrayal of the States could come from an Englishman. At times it seems that the purpose of the novel is to let you experience America complete with regional idiosyncrasies, road-side rest-stops, long stretching desert vistas and temperate forest suburbs, and all that ‘apple-pie and independence’ stuff we foreigners are told about the Colonies. As you can tell from the title it’s a story about America; the land, the people, the places. And whether you find the book’s conclusions good or bad, it’s worth the journey.

‘American Gods’ tells the story of the things people believe in and when conflict arises between dying factions; when the new gods of technology face the old gods of superstition and religion. The glorious thing about the book is the way it tells little stories in with the big stories: it’s a trick I love and only a few authors do it (‘Lost’ season one did it but that tendency has unfortunately waned as the show has progressed). Throughout the main narrative there are peppered short stories or vignettes, only tangentially related to the main plot. Characters will just burst into story sometimes like an old man around a campfire and generally they’re very rewarding. All that said, a little more elaboration on the new gods and their motivations would have been nice. However you can tell that Gaiman was really more interested in the ancient mythological elements.

The amount of research Neil Gaiman must have done for this is greatly apparent. It was only after I visited Wikipedia and looked down the list of mythological creatures included in the book that I began to realise how dense the story is and how perfectly well-formed with awe and respect for the original stories. Being a big fan of ancient mythological tales, I spent ages just reading the Wikipedia entries on some of the deities and monsters. The borrowing of mythological elements from Ancient Egyptian, Norse, Far Eastern, and European cultures is wonderfully subtle and brilliant for anyone who cares to check it all out.

The book won awards straddling all the genres of what George R. R. Martin calls ‘weird stuff’: the Bram Stoker award for horror, the Nebula, Hugo, and SFX awards for science-fiction, and the Locus award for fantasy. Rightly so because it is frankly brilliant. There’s a certain intangible qualia behind it making it one of those rare books that hums with literary life and narrative power. It’s like a tale you’ve been told a thousand times before that you’re hearing for the first time. It recognises its job as a story to convey, to entertain, to point the way, and to revel in the ancient art of story-telling. It’s fun, deep, dense, heart-wrenching, and wonderfully weird.

Coincidentally enough, ‘American Gods’ is soon to be made free on the internet for a limited time in honour of Gaiman’s blog’s 7th birthday. If you don’t mind reading off a screen that is a must to check out. If you’d rather get the full experience of holding printed page in your hands, that strikes me as the way the novel is meant to be read.

I also managed to dig a book out from my shelves which contained Gaiman’s sequel novella ‘The Monarch of the Glen’ which managed to convey the feel of Scotland as well as ‘American Gods’ gave the raw feeling of America.

Friday, 15 February 2008

"Where's Wallet?"

In a shocking lack of memory the other day, I forgot my wallet when I left the house and didn’t notice until some time later. When I did realise and mentally chastised myself for being an idiot, I began to feel a gap in my sense of self. There was a void centred around the back pocket of my jeans; a place of nothingness where once a piece of my identity stood. And I realised just how helpless I was without that wallet and all the stuff contained therein. I couldn’t buy so much as a vending-machine Mars Bar, I couldn’t get any money out of the bank, I couldn’t even prove to anyone that I am who I say I am. Just as Voldemort’s soul became segmented into various Horcruxes, I think my wallet would most definitely be a Horcrux for me since my identity is so tied up with it.

In a capitalist society it’s funny how one’s soul becomes tied up with these objects and tools we carry around every day. Someone could get a pretty good idea of my personality from rooting around in the bag I carry everyday; my musical taste from my iPod, the fact that I write from the scraps of hastily-scribbled notes and large pad of paper, my chosen course of study from the philosophy texts, my literary tastes from a Neil Gaiman novel with a Shakespeare-quoting bookmark in it, and the fact that I need to be fastidiously organised from the timetable and campus map I keep on hand. All those objects seem to define me in such a way that I could not cope for a day without them.

Humankind evolved in the way we have because of our prehensile grip and prefrontal cortex, both of which are necessary to develop tool-using abilities. Now, further down the line, we as individuals have become dependent on our tools. This is demonstrated in the monstrously confusing “2001: A Space Odyssey” with the juxtaposition between monkeys first learning to use tools and then HAL, the ultimate tool, rebelling against it’s masters, human beings. So many people use their mobile phones for much of their communication that a sizable chunk of society would be lost without them.

It’s a sobering thought since one would imagine that being freed from the unyielding but necessary use of tools would be liberating. And that is indeed the feeling when one goes on holiday: you expect not to use your usual tools and you take a break from them. But being forced to undertake normal day-to-day tasks without the use of the tools that are ordinarily used to accomplish them actually seems to render one less free. Without my wallet and with no way of getting money (short of begging or stealing), my possibilities were narrowed. If I didn’t have my phone and no way to communicate with my friends, my possibilities for the day would be narrowed.

Tools are a necessary, if slightly crippling, part of human life and they have defined the course of our species from the beginning only for us to now find that we use them as a crutch: would homo sapiens be the greatest predator on the planet without knifes or guns? Obviously not.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

"February 13th 2009: The First Annual Minotaur Day."

National holidays are, nowadays, increasingly celebrations of abstract concepts. Christmas is a celebration of ‘peace’, Halloween is a celebration of ‘fear’, Thanksgiving is a celebration of... well, ‘thanksgiving’, and Valentine’s Day is a celebration of ‘love’. Insofar as these concepts can be worshipped, we do so on these days rather than worshipping the actual or mythical figures that the holidays originally represented.

This is probably because there is no mythical figure to celebrate on Valentine’s Day, apart from fat Mini-Cupid clones which adorn greeting cards across the land and are not cherubs. Geoffrey Chaucer first made Valentine’s Day a celebration of love since in reality Saint Valentine was just some dude who got killed for his religion like thousands upon thousands of other people throughout history. The whole affair which must cost vast amounts of money worldwide could stem from two simple lines about cheesing makes (choosing mates):

For this was on seynt Volantynys day

Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

February 14th first became associated with love around 1400 to coincide with the Roman festivals of fertility on February 15th because Western Europeans were jealous that those around the Mediterranean were having so much fun (and in fact most still are jealous). Eventually, in keeping with what humans do, banal stories and tales have built up around the day and elevated to the position of sovereign scripture, ultimately leading from what was originally a day only given importance by the Catholic Church and Chaucer, to a day where people are expected to get some token of appreciation for someone who they hold dear and ostracised if they don’t conform. Society took a short step from an arbitrary day in winter to a strict set of rules regarding social conduct on February 14th for anyone in a relationship.

So tomorrow people will celebrate ‘love’; a single name for a large group of emotions. The love between a man and a woman is apparently the same in the English language as the love between a man and his iPod (which, believe me, can run deeper than the rivulets of fire beneath the earth’s pristine crust). People will buy cards, listen to Steve Wright play some love songs, and make fools of themselves reaching for an abstract concept which, by now, has been made into a glamorised ideal far beyond the reach of mortal human. Life is not like ‘Friends’ and yet every February 14th that seems to be the lives people desperately yearn for.

Why don’t we have any holidays for important abstract concepts like ‘consciousness’ or ‘justice’ or ‘minotaurs’? “Happy Minotaur Day”, people would cry, feasting in the evening on beef and then gathering to watch the tale of Theseus enacted by claymation puppets on BBC One with Ronnie Corbett as the voice of the bumbling King Minos. You could anonymously send a bull’s horn (or synthetic bull’s horn) to someone as an expression of disdain and desire for them to be gored. People could ominously announce they’ve “got the horn”. That would be an awesome day; certainly no less arbitrary than Valentine’s Day.

Friday, 8 February 2008

"And two Presidents with the last name, Palmer...."

There was a documentary on More4 the other night where Dave Gorman lamented the decline of the traditional, American, family-owned business: ‘Mom and Pop’ stores as they know them over there. A shame then that this decline has not spread to Washington.

The White House is turning into a family-owned business. The last twenty years have seen two presidents with the last name Bush and, if Super Tuesday is any indication, may well see two presidents with the last name Clinton. The land of opportunity is turning ever more into a country where social class pins an individual down: the American Dream of any person’s hard work and perseverance paying off becomes a joke if even something as monumentally important as the Presidency can be secured by social connections. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Obviously the United Kingdom is in this sorry state at the moment. The title of ‘Head of State’ is passed down through the generations of the Windsor House and will be ad infinitum. The British may be stuck with a family-owned business running the country but there’s no reason for the Americans to be. The US Government needs to amend the Constitution to prevent people from the same immediate family achieving the Presidency for the simple reason that family members can have an undeniable and, in the case of George Bush Jr., damaging influence on wide-ranging policy decisions. Would Bush have invaded Iraq if his daddy hadn’t done it first? Would Bush even have become President if his daddy hadn’t first?

For the record, I don’t think ‘Hillary’ would be a bad President per se (as long as she doesn’t invade Cuba) or even that her husband was a bad President. The point I’ve laboriously tried to make is that it doesn’t seem right to make politics a family business. Politics needs to be about ideas, ambitions, and soul, rather than names, personalities, and connections. Family members successively occupying similar places of power is symptomatic of a lack of social mobility and a society where people are confined to their class because of their parent’s class is undeserving of the title of ‘a democracy’. The United States needs to amend their Constitution before it’s too late.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Review - The Beginning of the End

‘Lost’ returned to our screens this week. Does Season 4 seem any good? Do the new flash-forwards work as a narrative device? Will the Losties ever just sit down and discuss things with one another?

The Season 4 premiere was a lot more satisfying than previous premieres. While it lacked a mind-blowing and memorable scene at the beginning which subverted your previously-held beliefs like the start of Seasons 2 and 3, it seemed more focused. With a commitment to wrap up the story in 3 more seasons, the writers avoided the usual larking about with episodes focusing on different character paths. They just went for a cohesive story with time for all the characters which set up the tone of the season: in one word, dark. The confrontation between Jack and Locke was a great moment; for too long there’s been this pent-up animosity between them and it finally came to a head with the survivors splitting into two factions. The feeling of betrayal that passed as the survivors chose between Jack and Locke was palpable. Some of the acting in that scene was brilliant. Then it started raining to cement the feeling of separation, anxiety and hopelessness.

It was also the first premiere not to be a Jack-centric episode. Instead Jorge Garcia playing Hurley got a chance to show off his skills beyond his usual relegation to comic relief. He gave a great performance mourning the death of his friend, giving a nice little speech at the cockpit, and acting in his flash-forward. The best way to show the dark turn the show is taking was to have one of the lightest characters taking things so seriously. It both alienates and draws in the audience with the desire for the return of the care-free, cannon-balling Hurley.

I don’t like Jacob. I didn’t like Jacob in Season 3 either. The introduction of this new chunk of mythology felt so ad hoc. The mysterious ghost cabin feels like such a cliché and seems at odds with the rest of the island. I’m going to need some convincing to willingly accept Jacob, whatever importance and explanation he may eventually have.

There are some concerns over the splitting of the groups as well. Locke didn’t seem to mind Ben going with his gang despite the fact that a few ‘island’-days ago Ben shot him and left him for dead in a pit of decaying bodies. Hopefully that’ll be addressed in the next episode. Secondly it looks like Desmond went with Jack although intuitively he ought to go with Locke: there’s no-one who he’s interacted with on Jack’s team, he saw Penny on the screen and Charlie’s final warning. The only explanation must be that he really wants to get back home to Penny even though he knows it’s “not Penny’s boat” and he’s willing to risk that.

Overall it was a good episode: satisfying, with some great acting and it set the tone. As long as they continue the story and fill in some of the gaps, the fans will be happy. I’ll be happy as long as there’s more Locke, an explanation of ‘time-travelling’ Desmond, and an acknowledgement that it’s almost Christmas Day on the canon timeline.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

"The Poem of Endings."

The world ended with a cacophony of quiet.

No-one reacted, no-one moved as life was ungraciously torn asunder accompanied by nothing more than a vague feeling of disquiet. The stitching between realities evaporated and the Poem of Endings began to flow through.

People heard it first in their minds; the strange sibilance and guttural consonants of the inhuman language. It was new and strange. They ignored it. The gaps between atoms grew larger and more words seeped through as the armies of madness manoeuvred their siege engines on The Other Side. The words grew louder with the incessant but rhythmically impossible beating of inhuman drums joining the sound. They heard it in their minds as they heard it in their ears: a primeval language whose meaning lay just beyond the grasp of their finite intellects.

Atoms were pushed apart: solid objects became pliable, water turned to invisible gas, everything changed. The words rang out continuously: now a roar above all else, a litany of woe seeping through to human ears. It was a sound that was different from all other sounds. At once both shrill and soft: alien yet recognisable. Rumours of madness floated on the wind and people tore their ears out rather than hear another word of that language. All suffered and went insane as the armies recanted their stanzas of doom.

As reality split and the inhuman armies poured into vision, the words stopped and all was still.

They were so relieved, they didn’t care as their bodies began to liquefy. As the materiel was swept into darkness. The Poem ended with nothing.