Author Archive

Gregory House: The Rarest and Most Realistic Character on Television

August 25, 2007

I really like House, both the show and the character. The show is full of humor and insight, and manages to deliver both in doses that facilitate their digestion. The same can be said for the balance kept between plot advancement and focusing on the diagnoses process, each one entertaining but eventually fatiguing if not helped along by the other.

When I talk to people about the show, they seem to be watching House from the outside and only relating to the supporting cast, House’s more “normal” residents, attending physicians, bosses and colleagues at Princeton-Plainsboro Teach. They might have a liking for Dr. Allison Cameron (which I might share), or they might find Dr. Eric Foreman a friendly and human counterpart to House’s unwavering misanthropy.

Most people never get past the initial impression you get from Hugh Laurie’s character – the show even gives us some sparse but critical views into House’s nature or motivations, but most people I talk don’t seem to have been awake during those scenes. The reason I say that House is the most realistic character on television lies in those moments when we it becomes clear that the show manages to slowly explain the reasons behind his acidic (and yet strangely magnetic, at least for all of his co-workers) personality.

House sees beyond the world that his fellow doctors and patients live in, which is what gives him the ability to be so good at his job. He has a strict definition of what consists of entertainment for him, and where everyone else is busy exploring themselves, House discovered “himself” a long time ago. He’s not bitter or misanthropic, he’s just extremely self-aware. List the things which House might do when not practicing, and the items won’t extend too far past riding his motorcycle or playing games within his social environment.

My point is that this TV show has captured a type of person that doesn’t exist in any other show, but which we occasionally encounter in real life – someone who doesn’t have the need to question their actions. This is troubling, and we’re inclined to think that at some point House will see the error in his ways, apologize to everyone and marry one of the women with whom he has constant sexual tension, but this would be defeating the realism of his character, and I hope it never happens.

I hope the final episode of House shows no change in his person. As of now we believe that House’s years of personal development are behind him, and if he is to remain a realistic character, this must be the case. He’s not happy, and definitely doesn’t experience the fleeting moments of joy his friends might when they run around and repeatedly make personal and professional mistakes (as is the case with most characters on TV). He knows who he is, and he judges the world we live in while making no concessions. He’s not happy, he’s content.

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Thoughts of a Hero

August 14, 2007

Recently people have been asking my about heroic situations. In particular, what makes someone act as a ‘hero’ in a heroic situation?

I’ve always thought the answer lay in some inherent qualities of heroes, for whom courage and action are ever-present in the mind and ready to make themselves useful at any moment. This was until today, when an encounter with a mother and her lost child (along with a good dose of meta-thinking), gave me the right answer to the question posed above — a hero is just someone for whom the mental decision-making roulette falls on “act” as opposed to “ignore” more often than not.

Here is what happened:

I was downstairs in the lobby of my office building, having come back from eating lunch (hot dog, Diet Coke® and two Tylenol® Cold Multi-Symptom). As the doors to my elevator began to close, I noticed a little girl, alone dressed in pink, crying in a corner of the lobby. At that moment I would have had enough time to stick my arm through the elevator door and stop it, walk to the girl and escort her to a guard. In the heat of the moment, I chose to let the doors close, mostly due to laziness and telling myself she would be ok since the lobby was full of security people.

I get to my floor, the elevator doors open, and I’m immediately confronted by a distraught mother (also dressed in pink) and an entourage of helpers. “Have you seen a little girl?” she asks. “I saw a little girl, alone, crying and dressed in pink” I reply. Her face lights up and she rushes past me into the elevator, saying “That’s my daughter!” I step out and start talking to her entourage – she seems to have just met them. They tell me the little girl stepped into an elevator and went down on her own. We talk about 9 seconds, and right then an elevator across the hall opens, and inside is the little girl, still alone and crying her eyes out. One of the men I was speaking to lunges to hold the door open so we can wait for the mother, but it closes before he can properly get to it. If I had acted quickly enough, I probably could have gotten there before him (he looked about 70) and held the door open. But I didn’t, I just assumed everything would be ok, that he would get the door in time.

This shows that, at least for now, my roulette isn’t set up for heroic acts. Like anyone else, I’d love to think that I would jump into incoming traffic or spread myself taught over a manhole, but empirically it looks like I would just think that, as Sweetbox told us, everything is gonna be alright. Hopefully I can change that, and next time I’m confronted with a situation like the one above, I’ll act as if my roulette had landed on “be a hero”, if only for the sake of writing about it later. I’ll be a hero next time.

The Emmy award nominated NBC show “Heroes”, which follows the lives of several seemingly ordinary people who suddenly seem to have superpowers, makes the wrong assumptions about what it means to be heroic.

For the show, its hero main characters are imbued with a passive quality which makes them heroic – whether it is the ability to fly, teleport, copy/paste the time/space continuum, or never get hurt. In the real world, very few of us, if not none of us at all, have any of those abilities, so the closest parallel we can find is the incorrect assumption I held in the beginning of this essay that heroes are people who possess an inherent quality which reveals itself in a stressful situation, but which is always present.

This quality, much like the quality of NBC show which everyone seems to love, is inexistent. The following diagram explains the only difference in the minds of heroes and non-heroes (I believe this can change at any time during a person’s, whether through conscious or unconscious processes):

heroes.jpg

STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl

August 7, 2007

 

 

IN GAME 

I’ve been fighting the same battle for 45 minutes. The camp leader is dead. Sergiy, a guy I befriended at the beginning of the firefight, the man I gave my last set of bandages to so he could keep fighting, died by my side 5 minutes ago. The Polar Explorer, a jovial young fellow who had just arrived in the Zone, is dead. Before the battle we were sharing an energy drink.

Right now I’m sitting in a derelict toll booth, crouched under a broken window, and the bullets refuse to stop. Earlier I thought I had killed the last of them, so I wandered around the camp for a while. As I kneeled next to Bes’s body, mourning his loss and eating some sausage, a bullet ricocheted off the helicopter next to me and into my leg. I barely made it to this booth, where I have managed to stop the bleeding and reload. I’ve identified three targets over the hill, and they know I’m here. My only chance is to lure them into the valley next to the camp, where I know there are some radioactive anomalies which might slow them down. I’m turning off my flashlight.

[…]
I’ve found a bus in the valley to hide behind. They had to chase me around the camp fence so I had time to stop by Bes’s again and pick up his AK-47. It’s been upgraded with a muffler so the bandits will have harder time pinpointing where I am. The mutated jellyfish I’ve strapped onto my belt seems to be helping my blood clot, but the radiation is making me terribly dizzy. I’ve finished my last bottle of Journeyman’s vodka, but I feel like by now it’s doing more harm than good.

The bandits are getting closer, wasting their ammo on the side of this bus, but they seemed to have taken a position a few meters away from where I know is an extremely radioactive area. They don’t seem to want to get any closer.

[…]

Finally it’s over. The cold steel of a broken-down helicopter I’m temporarily calling home feels like a mother’s womb. A wasted whore of a woman who didn’t want me but who couldn’t keep Misha the tax collector off of her loins on a late Ukrainian night, but a mother nonetheless. By crawling over here I managed to lure the bandits into the radioactive trough – I watched with relief and disgust as their bodies writhed with pain in the throes of death, the alphas and gammas making short work of their ghostly porcine vessels.

As for me, I’m fucked. I must have sucked up dozens of rads walking over here, and my Geiger wont stop clicking. The anti-rads are sticking out of my arm like an Andalusian bull’s worst nightmare. For whom the bell tolls…probably for me.

OUT OF GAME

“STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl” is one of the most enjoyable games I’ve played in a while. This shows that we don’t need Silicon Valley venture capitalists and preppy CNET journalists drinking free mojitos at E3 2007 to tell or define what makes a good game. If it were up to them, we would all still be playing Oblivion, a game which shipped with equal parts frustration potential and unoriginality.

The truth is that the creative Kiev-ites at GSC Game World, the developer that managed to put together this excellent game, know what your average intelligent and demanding game-player of the 21st century wants. I don’t know if I’m part of the principal demographic that most developers are trying to reach, I probably am, but I’m forced to write off most contemporary games as miserable failures.

The Ukrainians have rediscovered why I spent hours playing games like Chrono Trigger when I was a bit younger. Not that STALKER has anything to do with Chrono Trigger, and the appeal for each game comes from completely different sources, but they’ve tapped into the same quality muse which so rarely opens her arms to game developers.

I won’t go into the reasons why STALKER is such a good game, you can read this to see why, but everything about it makes me smile (even the terrible translation). The plot is loosely based on the 1971 science fiction novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I can’t say much about it, but I know that the Scandinavian Congress on Science Fiction Literature named it the best book of the year printed in Sweden.

I’m still not very far into the game, nor have I ever even seen this book, but I know that it tells the story of treasure hunters looking for radioactive artifacts which have been imbued with powers which defy laws of physics as they are commonly understood. The most sought after of these artifacts, having achieved almost legendary status among said treasure hunters, is an item called the Golden Sphere, which has the power to fulfill your deepest desires. Even though I haven’t read the book, clearly Michael Crichton has.

Harry Potter, Oppressed Peoples, and Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg

July 23, 2007

It’s easy to get lost in Harry Potter’s egocentric war. J.K. Rowling has created a world in which anyone who is not lucky enough to be the-boy-who-lived is either dead or completely inept. In the final installment of the series, Deathly Hallows, the tyrant Voldemort, even though he claims otherwise, has risen to power mostly due to the sheepish acquiescence of the wizarding community to the newly occupied Ministry of Magic.

Voldemort’s political puppets send out a plain summons to members of the public who don’t come from wizarding families, requesting that they appear for “questioning” – those who do, i.e. the majority of the addressed, are subjected to a kangaroo court and unceremoniously locked away.

Rowling is clearly attempting to draw parallels between her world and other regimes which came to power on a platform of supporting the interests of a pure race or people. Rowling fails miserably – whether due to a poor understanding of history or a lack of storytelling ability I cannot say. History has taught Rowling that any group of people who is singled out and lied to by a government they trust will easily submit themselves to whatever injustices are immediately laid before them, happy to live in the illusion that some part of the government will come to its senses soon enough. This is a fallacy.

What history has taught the rest of us is that whenever governments were successful in subduing and controlling a portion of their constituents, along with convincing the population that the double standards they are witnessing are justified by law or reason, it took a lot of time.

Rowling historical recreation of race-based regimes fails to grasp even the most basic concepts of groundwork or cultural foundations. The propaganda issued by the Ministry of Magic, a token afterthought which appears in the form of pamphlets expounding the dangers posed by those who are not of pure-blooded families, pales in comparison to the cultural upheavals undertaken by regimes who succeeded in isolating and imprisoning people they considered inferior.

In a way, one can almost take offence in Rowling’s borrowing from the darkest times of 20th century history. I have no personal connection to the race-related tragedies of our time, but even I cannot help but cringe when Rowling presents us with a parade of easily manipulable victims, completely convinced that their government knows what is best. I blame Rowling, and not some latent hypersensitivity on my side, since to me the connection was immediately apparent after I had read a few chapters of the new book. I’m sure others have felt it as well, although whether they consider it offensive or not will be determined more by their own understanding of the nature of the historical examples and not on the objective fact that Rowling is a bad writer and a terrible reader of history.

This brings me to my next point. Since Harry Potter is surrounded by a nation consisted of thousands of plot devices, unable to help themselves and completely dependent on a 17 year-old boy to save them from Voldemort’s well-organised and resourceful institution, my failed suspension of disbelief prodded me to find historical examples where this might have been the case. If Rowling is going to fail at accurately constructing a mass cultural and political personality for its people, then the least I can do is help her by finding her a factual crutch on which to stand.

All I could come up with was Claus Schenk, Graf von Stauffenberg. Stauffenberg is perhaps the most well-known member of the failed German Resistance during World War II – he was the one attempted to assassinate Hitler with a briefcase bomb. Stauffenberg’s life was sometimes parallel with Potter’s – he came from a well respected noble family, was educated in literature and the arts (Hogwarts), but decided to pursue a military career instead (Harry’s inclination towards destroying Voldemort). A cavalry officer during Hitler’s rise to power and WWII, Stauffenberg found most of Nazism’s ideals either ridiculous or disgusting, but he seems to have been supportive of its Nationalist aspects. Stauffenberg also bore scars, but to a much larger degree than Potter, having been strafed in his car by a British plane and losing an eye, his right hand, and two fingers off his left.

The parallels between Stauffenberg and Potter are forced at best (and non-existent at worst), but it is one of only a handful of times when history lay in the hands of one well-intentioned individual. The attempt occurred on July 20th, 1944, and it was completely the opposite of what Stauffenberg had envisioned. A year before he had planned to kill Adolf Hitler in Berlin and immediately get on the phone with high-ranking Nazi officials around the country in an attempt to convince them to join the coup before they decided otherwise. Due to a series of mishaps and unfortunate coincidences, Stauffenberg was compelled to execute the attempt in Hitler’s fortified command center in Poland – by July 1944, the plot had become almost entirely motivated by ideology, justified by the fact that the world needed to see that not all of Germany agreed with the horrific policies of Nazism.

Stauffenberg succeeded in sneaking the bomb into a meeting with Hitler and other high-ranking staffers. The bomb detonated and killed four of those present, but Hitler was saved by the legs of the heavy oak table at which he sat. Stauffenberg was later arrested and sentenced to death by strangling, which occurred in the courtyard at the Ministry of Defence (known as the Bendlerblock, which I visited last year).

Stauffenberg failed, and if Rowling wants to redeem my opinion of her understanding of history, so should Harry. I purposefully wrote this before finishing the book, so my writing wouldn’t be skewed by how the book ends. Harry Potter, much like Stauffenberg, has absolutely nothing in his favor except for poorly-directed good-will. He receives no support from the population at large, who are content to witness their community falling apart like the crappy characters they are. Were fact and not fiction, it would not be 12 hours before Harry and his co-conspirators would be caught, executed, and cremated. Whether he survives or not, in my mind Rowling has already killed him.

(Afterthought: If Stauffenberg had a grave, he would be rolling in it as I write this, since Tom Cruise is slated to carry his legacy in the upcoming movie Valkyrie. Several high-profile Germans have issued statements disapproving of the producers casting decision, but it looks like he remains the one. Their motivation seems to be that Cruise is associated with the Church of Scientology, whose policy of deception and forceful influence is a dishonor to Stauffenberg’s courage and accomplishments. Mine would be that he is a terrible actor.)

Government Culture at Fault in TAM Linhas Aéreas Disaster

July 18, 2007

Congonhas Airport

(Img Source: Flight Global)

Among pilots, it was known as the “aircraft carrier”. To passengers, it was just another airport.

Congonhas – São Paulo International Airport serves the São Paulo metropolitan area as its main hub for domestic and short international flights. Having flown into this airport several times, I can say that the proximity of the airport to urban developments was more of a novelty than a source of fear. Having something to look at makes the frustrating and boring process of landing go by faster. Much like Rockaway Beach for passengers flying into JFK, the residential and commercial neighborhoods that surround Congonhas Airport were a welcome distraction.

The only reason I could indulge in being distracted was because I felt safe. I knew this airport was an anomaly when compared to others, which for the most part are withdrawn from the cities they serve and in sparsely populated areas, but I was sure the necessary precautions had been taken. I was wrong.

Two things were wrong about my assumption: that the government would have understood that Congonhas is a unique airport and taken the necessary measures to ensure that planes would not over shoot the runway (including in an attempt to abort landing and take off), and that they would not allow planes to land on any runway which had previously been the center of controversy regarding the ability to receive them. The former I had thought of and dismissed, the latter I did not know of until today.

For years airline pilots have been calling for an extended safety zone, or at the very least a concrete arrester bed, to be installed. Nothing was done.

This tragic disaster can serve as a metaphor for the current government of Brazil. Slowly the country has slid into an epoch of political complacency and cronyism. The Nomenklatura of the Soviet Union, which became an elite cadre of government administrators embedded in an impenetrable web of patron-client relationships, seems commendable and efficient when compared to Brazil. In the Soviet Union at least the rigidity of the system, where one had to enact the policies of one’s patron or lose a job or a chance of promotion, was preserved, understood, and even sometimes respected. In Brazil, a political free-for-all has developed where the only metric for success is money and sloth.

Brazilian political integrity has languished to the point of becoming pathetic. It is not a surprise, since this is depressingly parallel to our stagnated growth rate which, at 4%, is doing nothing but surfing on a wave of global expansion. During the next international recession (like 1997), Brazil will collapse into a pile of underdeveloped industry and commodities which no longer sell for what they used to.

In Brazil, civil servants build policies not around the needs of the population or even common sense, but around that which will most benefit their own motives. Expecting a government to be exempt of self-interest or corruption is a high standard to set, but expecting constant shift in the right direction is not. Take, for example, this quote from a BBC News article regarding the banning of larger aircraft from the airport in Congonhas in February.

“The safety conditions of the runway and the airport as a whole are adequate,” a spokeswoman from Brazil’s National Agency of Civil Aviation said.


She added the judge’s ruling could end up affecting 10,000 passengers per day.


“If the injunction stands, it will cause total chaos,” a spokesman for TAM Linhas Aereas, SA, the nation’s biggest carrier, said.”

I’m glad they avoided chaos. 200 people are dead, the stock prices and reputations of Brazil’s 2 largest airlines are crumbling, and the tourism industry can expect a heavy blow – but at least everyone at the office got to go home early for a couple of months.

Eating Cheaply in New York

July 16, 2007

This city is driving me insane. It’s 2:42 PM and I’ve spent $14.35. This was just for Breakfast (Iced Tea + Fruit Salad), and Lunch (Subway sandwich and Diet Coke). When I started my unpaid summer job I gave myself a budget of around $10 a day for food, but I didn’t realise I would waste all of that on the assorted drinks which accompany my meals, which is what will probably happen today once I buy dinner.

I need to find a way of keeping myself on a reasonable food budget, so today I’ll try to keep myself under, say, $18 by cooking at home. This means I can only spend $3.65 at the super market, so “cooking” will probably turn into making some kind of sandwich. While cleaning my new apartment today I found two glass containers full of pasta, but I have feeling they’ve been there since 1982, so they can’t be a part of my frugal dinner.

I guess this leaves me two options: frugal sandwich or frugal Lean Cuisine. Either way I can probably stay under $3.85, but buying bread and cold cuts would probably allow me to make other sandwiches in the future, so it definitely the best option.

Willard Wigan, micro-sculptor, micro-talent

July 9, 2007

Henry VIII, Willard Wigan

(Source: Willard-Wigan.com)

I recently came across Willard Wigan, a sculptor from the UK who achieved international acclaim through building some of the smallest works of art in world. He is short-listed for admission into the Order of the British Empire, and the entirety of his remaining ouvre has been purchased by tennis player-cum-art collector David Lloyd for a total of 22.5 million US dollars.

I wish Mr. Wigan the best, and respect his success, but in the end I think we all agree that he sucks.

The first indicator of his lack of talent is that this “purchase” was executed without particular prices defined for each work — Snow White and the Seven Dwarves wasn’t valued any higher or lower than Henry VIII and his wives. The collection was simply valued and sold at about US$321,600 per sculpture.

It follows that any Willard Wigan sculpture is as valuable as any other. And what follows from this is that they really only have one quality: their tiny-ness.

Looking at the pictures on his website, what first came to my attention was that Mr. Wigan’s work seems crude and childish. His Statue of Liberty is lopsided and appears ill or, at best, tired. His Thinker bears absolutely no resemblance to its inspiration. Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston look barely human, seeming more like lacquered insects losing an awkward fight against gravity.

In summary, Wigan’s sculptures are not visually appealing in any way, have no inherent value or meaning, and have only attracted attention because they are very small. Monks (Buddhist? I’m not sure) have been inscribing religious texts on grains of rice for millennia, and have reaped little to no reward save for a Travel Channel blurb and personal satisfaction. Mr. Wigan has become a millionaire by exploiting a skill that most people could master given a summer’s worth of work, and on top of this he flaunts his ability to lower his heart-rate through meditation before working. I believe the only thing he has lowered is his dignity.

Stock Pick

July 6, 2007

I’m calling it: Short Skechers (SKX) at 29.80. I just saw an ad where they advertise their ticker. I don’t like the strategy. Time was, the shoes were popular and the product sold itself. Now they have to reach out to investors because 13 year olds have moved on.

Sure, it’s already fallen about 8 points since May, but that’s no reason to think it won’t fall another 8 points by September.

iPhone Review

July 2, 2007

I read 12 iPhone reviews. I played with a coworker’s iPhone today. As a proud owner of a Samsung Blackjack, I can easily say that, after the novelty value of the touch screen and shifting menus wears off, all iPhone owners will regret having purchased one. Not that they’ll admit this to themselves, being that anyone who pays $500 for a phone is deluded to begin with, but in the end there are dozens of other better (and cheaper) options which are much better products than the iPhone. They’re just not backed by Manchurian candidate brainwash marketing campaigns.

 Once your iPhone is covered in smudge, the huge screen is broken, your friends think you’re an idiot because you can’t type anything, and you’re sick of scrolling through your vacation pictures (if you ever even got around to uploading them), remember that you could have purchased a BlackJack for $50 and gotten 5x to 6x more long-term happiness.