Archive for March, 2005

Circus

March 31st, 2005 — Wordman

After over a decade of being kept alive with technology — possibly against her will — Terri Schiavo is dead. I’d like to be able to say that she died with dignity but, unfortunately, the legalistic, religious and hypocritical furor surrounding her death left very little room for anything dignified.

I’ve been thinking about how to think about the events surrounding Mrs. Schiavo’s death, which provide quite a bit to ponder. Mainly, I’ve been wondering about who, of all involved, can be considered to be acting morally. One possible way of examining this is to subject the people involved into hypothetical situations and see where it takes you.

Suppose I’m a District Attorney. Based on the suggestion that Mrs. Schiavo requested not to be kept alive artificially, suppose I accuse her family of sustained and repeated torture of their daughter, taking calculated and extreme measures to artificially maintain what I (as DA) call “an unpleasant, hopeless existence” in accordance with their own wishes and opposed to hers.

Granted, this is a hypothetical situation about law, not morality, but let’s see where it takes us. As I see it, the family has only two possible legal defenses against such a charge.

The first defense would be to say that the claim that Mrs. Schiavo requested not to be kept alive artificially is false. Unfortunately for the family, regardless of whether or not you personally believe that Mrs. Schiavo truly wished to avoid being kept alive by machines, the court system believes this past all point of appeal. So, from a legal standpoint, this defense would not keep the family out of jail for torture.

The only other defense the family could mount against a torture charge is that Mrs. Schiavo is not aware enough to register pain or pleasure and, therefore, cannot be truly tortured. Whether or not this defense would keep the family out of jail isn’t that relevant to me. What matters is that, to even mount such a defense, the family would have to embrace the idea that they have been fighting against.

To me, this indicates that the family doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on. Further, it suggests their moral stance is on fairly shaky ground as well.

Regarding Arizona Bay

March 29th, 2005 — Wordman

Inspired by a new way of formatting music, this is a representation of Tool’s Ænema (some links not work safe):

Now if only someone would post similar reworkings of the lyrics of Spocks Johnson.

Sisyphean volunteers

March 23rd, 2005 — Wordman

Imagine you rule hell. Long, long ago, you were asked (by, perhaps, another pantheon) to severely punish this Greek punk that betrayed the gods and captured the god of death. Since this punk, Sisyphus, was so industrious, you put him to work pushing a boulder up a steep hill. But just when the boulder approaches to the top, it rolls all the way back down the hill. You compel Sisyphus to always want to get the boulder to the top, making him labor for eternity.

While initially quite pleased with this punishment, eventually the novelty wears off and you spot some problems with it. For one thing, planting the compulsion to push the rock leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It seems… artificial somehow. For another, after a while you notice that Sisyphus seems to accept his fate. He makes peace with the fact he’s going to push the boulder forever and, to your shame, takes some comfort in that knowledge.

You forget about this until thousands of years later, when a more insidious punishment stikes you. It would still have the endless toil aspect (of which you are so fond), but with the following differences:

  • You would trick people into actually volunteering for the punishment by making it sound pleasant. Ideally, they would pay for the privilege.
  • The volunteers would seem to accomplish goals but, in fact, their actions would have no real consequence and, in most cases, would reset to be “accomplished” by the next volunteer. This prevents them from coming to grips with their punishments for much longer.
  • The illusion of accomplishment would be strengthened by allowing the volunteers to brag and “help” each other, but even en masse, volunteers would have no actual ability to change anything.
  • Failure (often accompanied by hideous, painful death) would be punished solely by the offer of resurrection, tricking the recently dead to volunteer again for the task, over and over if need be. Volunteers would not find this odd.
  • At some arbitrary point, cut off their advancement so that they no longer have the crutch of getting better when they “accomplish” something, but allow them to either continue anyway (perhaps by meddling with other volunteers), or start all over again in some other form.

The end result punishes the wicked in a far more insidious way. They register that they are being punished on only a subconscious level. Their ignorance brings them a certain amount of bliss but, deep down, realize that they are just as useless as Sisyphus. They are toys for your amusement.

They are, in short, characters in World of Warcraft.

What other explanation would your tauren shaman have for sleeping for days at a time, only to wake up to be killed over and over, then sleep again? How else can your troll warlock rationalize the centaur invasion that he just singlehandedly repelled coming back twenty minutes later like it never happened? Why else would the meager vein of tin your gnome picked bare disappear, only to reappear hours later? They’re all in hell, they just don’t know it.

This could be said of most video game characters, but the addictive nature of MMORPGs and the flimsy rationalizations of their players suggest a hell that has expanded to punish the living.

In any case, a MMORPG that actually embraced the idea that its characters are running the gerbil wheel of an afterlife, rather than just resurrect them continually without explanation, could be fascinating. You might even base it somewhat on the old Sierra game Afterlife, with its virtues and sins. Or perhaps theme it around a war between heaven and hell, where the players can be angels or demons. Maybe they can be (or, perhaps, must be) mortals until the first time they die, and their actions as mortals dictate on what side of the war they find themselves and how much power they start with.

Mabus

March 17th, 2005 — Wordman

Several days after my previous brief mention of Nostradamus, NPR broadcast a story about Mahmoud Abbas. While listening to it, I was still in a prognostication frame of mind and put together some Nostradamus writing with Mr. Abbas.

I don’t put a lot of stock in Nostradamus, but one prediction that seemed to go beyond coincidence is the use of the name “Hister” in relation to a prophesy of a certain German dictator. Nostradamus didn’t use proper names that often, so it’s not like he threw a bunch of names into his quatrains and just happened to get lucky here. He did, however, use another proper name once, allegedly in reference to his “third antichrist”: Mabus.

When listening to the story, I realized it is not much of a leap from “Mahmoud Abbas” to “M. Abbas” to “Mabus”. Foolishly thinking I might be onto something, I googled for “Mahmoud Mabus” and, naturally, got a bunch of hits from Nostradamus fanatics who figured this out a long time ago.

Unfortunately, most of these brains seem to completely ignore what Nostradamus actually wrote. While I have a more or less pluralist view of different belief systems (all belief systems, including mine, are equally useless), it bugs me when people completely ignore the rules of whatever belief system they claim to follow. If you are someone who claims to run your life by following the Anasazi Oracle, that’s great, so long as you actually follow that oracle’s rules.

What Nostradamus wrote about Mabus was this (Century II, Quatrain 62)

Mabus puis tost alors mourra, viendra,
De gens & bestes vne horrible defaite:
Puuis tout à coup la vengeance on verra,
Cent, main, soif, faim, quand courra la comete.

…which means (as translated by John Hogue):

Mabus will soon die, then will come,
A horrible undoing of people and animals,
At once one will see vengeance,
One hundred powers, thirst, famine, when the comet will pass.

This seems to be a pretty clear prediction that someone named “Mabus” will get killed, then a bunch of bad things will happen immediately after. That’s it. For some reason, however, most of the Nostradamus “scholars” out there will go on at great length about how Mabus is the third antichrist and speculate about who he is, in spite of the fact that the above prophesy says nothing of the kind. It is just as likely that the third antichrist kills Mabus. You can’t tell from this prophesy.

An entire belief system seems to have deluded itself by completely ignoring the rules of the system in which they claim to believe (rules like “pay attention to what the prophet actually said”). There have even been TV shows based on the idea that Mabus is the antichrist when there seems to be no foundation for this idea within Nostradamus’ work.

I’m sure at least one Nostradamus fanatic will point out the error of my ways. (Someone will also no doubt point out that if you hold “Mabus” up to a mirror, you get a good approximation of “Saddam”.) I’d also love to hear from anyone who has references to what people before 1900 A.D. thought Mabus meant.

In any case, if Nostradamus is to be believed and if Mahmoud Abbas really is Mabus, sounds like his impending wacking will ignite quite the powder keg. I predict it will also ignite a wave of “we told you sos” from the Nostradamus faithful and at least one TV special, probably on Fox.

Self-indulgent drivel

March 11th, 2005 — Wordman

A digression from my usual posting style and the start of my descent into a self-obsessed wasteland, inspired by Dr. Vikingzen.

Ten things I’ve done that you probably haven’t

  1. Suffered second degree sunburns on the backs of my ears.
  2. Received a letter from Steve Wynn correctly criticizing my archetectural theories.
  3. Sang in front of hundreds of people dressed as a monk, complete with “shaved head” wig.
  4. Acted as the corporate voice for Jack Hunter Ford (age 10).
  5. Sat behind Alexander Solzhenitsyn for several hours in Harvard Yard.
  6. Drank a toast to large-breasted women with the guy who wrote the theme song to Silver Spoons.
  7. Witnessed a Blue Man completely break character to greet my father.
  8. Shared an elevator with several obviously armed Secret Service agents assigned to guard then Vice President George Bush.
  9. Illegally entered, and drove the full length of, a (then active) United States miliary base. With my mother in the car.
  10. Received a scolding for staging a fake fight on an elementary school playground, in front of a church (fifth grade).

Being missed

March 8th, 2005 — Wordman

Judging by the number of advertisements I see that are obviously not targeted at me and the number of products I really enjoy that I discover by mechanisms other than advertisements, I clearly don’t fit into the current advertising demographic system very well. I am, in short, being missed, in spite of being a 18-34 year old male with a decent disposable income.

Until recently, I assumed this was caused by a skewed sense of taste, called “eclectic” by some (others have called it “strange”, “whacked”, “bizarre” and “crazy”). After all, I reasoned, most people don’t have Citizen Kane, Akira, Bubba Ho-tep, Monsters Inc., Wings of Desire and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death in their DVD collection. This, however, is wrong. A significant collection of people (probably much larger than you think it is) find nothing at all unusual about that collection. This group is certainly much larger than advertisers think it is.

Recommendations often come my way to watch movies or TV shows I’ve never heard of with the caveat “I think you would love it”. These recommendations almost always involve something that didn’t do very well or got canceled. The last such recommendation was for a science fiction series, a TV show called Firefly. I’d never even heard of it (evidently I’m in the “wrong demographic”), but based on this recommendation, I bought the complete season on DVD. My wife and I intended to watch one episode every few days or so. Within about 10 minutes into the first show, this plan went out the window and we watched the entire series back to back over the course of a weekend, forgoing much needed sleep to do so. It was, quite simply, the best sci-fi I’ve ever seen grace television. I’ve never seen a show with writing, production and characterization that tight so early in its run. Even compared to all other genres, from any time period, I’d place it well into the top 10. It was canceled by Fox after half a season, citing low ratings.

Two years later, Serenity, a movie version of Firefly, is in post-production. Tellingly, this film is being distributed by Universal, not Fox. Somehow, a “low ratings” TV show has enough fans to warrant spending $35 million to make a film version. You can read a lot into this, but it suggests to me that either the TV ratings systems or Fox management (or both) are seriously flawed. The vocal, young, money-spending fans of this show were, in short, being missed.

Firefly was produced by Ben Edlund, creator of another brilliant show canceled by Fox: the animated version of the Tick. While this show was on the air, a large proportion of the people I knew at the time watched and loved it. To my knowledge, this show has never been officially released on DVD, but if it ever is, it’s sales will stun the company that releases it (as many bootleggers are discovering). You could go on about any number of shows that were markedly better than anything else on television at the time (Twin Peaks, Farscape, Get A Life, etc.) It’s fans were, and still are, being missed.

So, how can this “lost demographic” make itself known? A couple of half baked solutions:

Solution One: Stop using TiVo

It occurs to me is that common theme in a lot of these shows is that they catered to an audience that was significantly smarter (or, perhaps, more curious) than the people who canceled them. I don’t mean that in a bitter, ironic way. I’m suggesting that it is literally true. Unfortunately, this audience is the kind of smart that has figured out that watching advertisements is a completely avoidable downside of the television experience. Furthermore, most of them do not watch shows when they air, but at a time more convenient to them. Both of these habits are made possible by TiVo and other DVRs.

By being smart enough to avoid seeing ads, this audience has made itself completely inconsequential to advertisers. They have no incentive to give money to a show to place an ad they know will not be watched. Shows that appeal to such an audience, therefore, are not as profitable to a broadcast network. Additionally, TiVo viewing may not register in ratings (though I may be wrong on this one). Ultimately, the already small number of shows that would speak to this audience will dwindle to nothing.

The economics suggest a more broad approach as well…

Solution Two: Convince Advertisers Directly

When shows get canceled, the fan base tends to hurl their outrage on the network. This energy could be better spent convincing advertisers to buy time in a show. Convince them there is a hidden demographic that wants to know about their products and they’ll buy ad time. The networks will be baffled, but they’ll be happy.

Solution Three: Pay

It may be that the economics of broadcast television simply select against smart audiences. It is no coincidence that some of the better shows on television right now are on a network that doesn’t follow the broadcast model: HBO. They make money through subscriptions, so they have an incentive to make shows that are good, not shows that have mass appeal to certain types of people. I’m not saying they don’t care about demographics, but anyone who pays a subscription is just as good to them as any other. This is not the view that advertisers have of viewers.

So do we start our own subscription network? Do we pitch shows to HBO? I’m not sure. Certainly Stargate SG-1 had success with Showtime. The recent campaign to get fans to pay for an additional season of Enterprise could have interesting fallout (though, in my opinion, the show doesn’t seem worth the effort).

Solution Four: Hack the ratings systems

I don’t know enough about how the ratings systems work to figure out how a group of dedicated viewers might be able to adjust their representation in such a system, but it seems like the root problem is that we are invisible to these systems, so the obvious solution is to change this.

Solution Five: Assimilation

One reason this demographic is lost is that it stealths into genres it is not expected. For example, a decent-sized portion of this demographic loves professional wrestling. Well, “loves” might be a strong word. “Appreciates” might be better. Most, however, are far removed from the average WWF fan. This is difficult to articulate, but it’s as if we like the idea of professional wrestling more than the execution, digging the sort of crass social manipulation it uses to entertain, the sheer will and cojones it takes to parley a talent for getting hit in the face with a metal chair into your own cult of personality. Anyone who views the Undertaker and his wraith-like manager as geniuses of self-marketing knows what I mean.

As difficult as it is for me to describe this love of low-brow entertainment for reasons only tangentially related to the entertainment itself, it appears even more difficult for Madison Avenue to understand it. Marketing is defined by putting people into boxes, and we don’t fit very well into any of them. A cure for this may be to become one with the advertising industry. My pity goes out to those that volunteer for this assignment.

On the other hand, maybe it’s a good thing that advertisers don’t see us. Maybe we can use that to our advantage somehow. I’ll have to think about that.