April 26, 2008

I recently watched the movie Se7en. It was… well, a decent movie, but I have a serious problem with it.

The basic premise of the movie is that there is a serial killer trying to send a message of repentance. He killed one man for gluttony, another for greed, another for sloth, another for lust, etc. The seven deadly sins. And so in an attempt to learn more about his psychology, the cops themselves read Dante’s Divine Comedy, some Aquinas, some medieval morality plays, and so on. They even eventually catch him by scanning the public library records and seeing who had checked out all those books and books on serial killers. Makes sense, right?

Well… no. The thing is, the concept of the seven deadly sins is damned simple – there’s seven of them, namely lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, wrath, envy, pride, in ascending order of seriousness. You don’t need any research to learn that. What the killer would have found from those books was what exactly those sins mean. But there seems to be no evidence that he did – the person he punishes for pride isn’t guilty of pride at all, but rather vanity – a sin most people see as the same as pride, but which according to the seven-deadly-sins system is not at all the same.

The one thing he did seem to get from them was the concept of contrapasso – punishing them with their own sins. But even this he didn’t really follow very well. The punishments of the gluttonous, lustful, and wrathful made sense, kind of – the glutton is forced to eat until his stomach burst, the prostitute was raped until dead, the wrathful main character was made angry enough to kill someone and then get punished for it. I didn’t really understand the punishment of the greedy lawyer, so I won’t comment on that. The supposedly slothful drug dealer was tied in his bed and allowed to atrophy – I don’t see how it punishes sloth to force someone to be slothful. There’s no evidence he was slothful before that was done to him. The envious had no contrapasso whatsoever – he just got himself shot. And the vain model who supposedly was prideful was forced to choose between disfigurement and death, and chose death – a sin, sure, but that’s not what pride is, I don’t think. She didn’t die in an act of pride, she died in an act of envy, I would say…

Anyway, the point is, there’s no reason the killer would have had to read all those books to get the idea of killing one person for each of the seven deadly sins. He didn’t seem particularly erudite to me.

So why was that element inserted into the plot? My suspicion is that it is because many people don’t even know that much about the seven deadly sins in the first place. To them, what he was doing did seem to require a great deal of education. At UD, we read Dante, we read Milton, we read Aquinas, and we were kind of laughing at the movie and how the murderer didn’t really seem to be using the source material at all. (We also tried to draw connections between the actual punishments of sinners in the movie and Dante, but alas, there were none to be found. If there were, it would have made the movie much more interesting, in my opinion.) But most people don’t, and so it probably would have seemed mysterious and intellectual.

I suppose this is more of a problem with our culture in general than the movie itself – we no longer can write a book or movie and expect the audience coming in to have already read Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and many others. That’s probably an unfortunate side-effect of books and movies no longer being written for the upper classes, for people who could afford to get an actual education and had the time to read those things, but rather geared towards a general audience…

Thinking about Thinking (about Thinking)

April 19, 2008

We recently read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in my philosophy class (“Philosophy and the Ethical Life”, the first of three required philosophy courses at my school). Among many other interesting topics, in Book K, Aristotle discusses the “contemplative life”, i.e. the life of a philosopher, and argues that it is the happiest and highest life possible to man – indeed, it approaches the divine.

This is, for obvious reasons, an argument I’d like to find persuasive. Thinking as the highest form of activity? Sounds good to me. But… something troubles me about it. Actually, a few things.

First of all, in my mind, thinking is a linear process – you start with a premise and argue towards something. Once you’ve shown what you want to show, then, what are you going to think about? It would be like claiming learning was the highest activity – if that’s so, how does it make sense that at a certain point (unreachable by men, granted) you can no longer learn?

Of course, Aristotle’s definition of contemplation is somewhat different – you first learn something, through a rational sequence of thoughts, but then you just kind of dwell on what you have learned and don’t think about anything else. Aristotle’s God is the first mover who eternally thinks himself. Here, thought is basically a circle, not a line. (Interestingly, since contemplation is the highest activity, the bes thing to contemplate is, well, contemplation – so God ends up being thought about thought about thought about…)

Something bugs me about this circular definition of thought, though. It seems kind of, well, pointless. I suppose that, really, it has to be pointless – if it has a point, then that point is higher than it, and it cannot be the highest. But since it seems that thought, usually at least, clearly does have a point, it’s cheating to say that, despite that fact, true thought doesn’t.

Jennings & Rall

April 12, 2008

I just finished watching the (seven episode long) second season of Jericho. Unfortunately, the show, which was canceled after its first season and brought back after a massive show of fan support, was canceled again, and it will only come back if e.g. the Sci-Fi channel picks up the show. So the final episode of this season was probably the series finale, and I’m going to treat it as such in my comments here.

First off,, I’d like to note that I think it’s pretty cool that CBS made all the episodes available on their website, without advertisements in the actual video – the page might have some, I don’t know, I have AdBlock – and the ability to watch it fullscreen.

Now – what do I think of season two of Jericho? Well, it’s radically different from season one. Season one was basically straight-up post-apocalyptic speculative fiction a la Alas, Babylon – a small town tries to survive the lawlessness and lack of a central government that result from a nuclear attack. In season two, the government begins putting itself back together (the season begins with the army arriving and stopping a border skirmish between Jericho and New Bern). It’s actually a rather interesting premise that I don’t think has ever been explored before. Alas, Babylon ended with the arrival of the Air Force plane and the revelation that the government had put itself back together after a fashion – so season two of Jericho could be seen as a television adaption of a non-existent sequel to that book.

But how well executed was it? In many ways, extremely well. The interactions between Jericho, New Bern, the army, and Ravenwood (Jennings & Rall’s mercenary army) was really interesting – the army is such an overwhelming presence, you would think it could just bring law and order immediately, but that’s not the case – mostly because the reconstructed government was almost, well, fascist, in the economic sense. The governmental corporation Jennings & Rall starts taking everything over, getting everyone in debt to them, etc, and the Jerichoans are not particularly happy about that. (That’s all I’ll say to avoid spoilers.)

So the show was really good when it focused on the town. The problem is, sometimes it didn’t. The entire storyline with Robert Hawkins, the undercover CIA/FBI/black-ops/something agent who tried to stop the nuclear attacks but failed and then starts trying to expose the governmental cover-up, seemed kind of silly to me. Amusing at times, but mostly unbelievable. I think the show would have been better keeping the focus on the town of Jericho.

That’s not to say they shouldn’t have had the political stuff with the various countries arising from the ashes of the USA – the Allied States of America based in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and encompassing all states west of the Mississippi save Texas; the Independent Republic of Texas; and the United States of America based in Columbus, Ohio governing all states east of the Mississippi. That stuff was pretty fun – reminded me of the Laredo Nation, the Texark Empire, the Denver Nation, etc, from A Canticle for Leibowitz. But I thought Jake and Hawkins’ excursion to Cheyenne to recover a nuclear bomb, in particular, was just over-the-top – though I’m not sure how else they could have gone about resolving that plotline. I think part of the problem is that that part of the plot advanced unrealistically fast, an unfortunate result of having the season be only seven episodes long.

And how about the ending? It was technically a cliff-hanger, but didn’t have any cliff-hanger feeling to it – it felt like Jericho’s job was done, they had done what they could to start the overthrow of the corrupt Cheyenne government, and now it was in the hands of the eastern USA. A fairly good end for the series, I think. Apparently there was an alternative, more cliffhanger-y ending shot that you can see on the DVD, but I’m content with the current ending.

And I am very happy that I am able to be content with the current ending. I may have mentioned this before, but if not – I much prefer TV shows that actually have an advancing plot that leads to a definite conclusion, rather than just story arc after story arc after story arc with the show never ending. So in a way, I’m not that upset that Jericho was canceled after season two. I think the show works as a story arc as it currently stands, and doesn’t really need much more – you could tack on another season, but it isn’t really necessary.

So all in all – I still think Jericho is a pretty good show. I do think the first season is in many ways better than the second – or, at least, some of the episodes were better, though it had several episodes that were essentially filler, which they couldn’t afford to do this season. But season two is definitely worth watching.
And even though the show was canceled unfortunately early, don’t be afraid of unresolved cliffhangers – I think the series ending works fairly well (much better than if they had ended with the last episode of season one and never filmed season two).


April 8, 2008

As you may recall from last year, I’m a baseball fan and during the regular season I occasionally talk about the Texas Rangers (my home-town team) and how their season’s going. And now the 2008 baseball season has begun.

I’m going to the game against the Baltimore Orioles tomorrow night, incidentally.

So far this season the Rangers are 3-4 (3 wins, 4 losses). That’s not exactly good, but not horrible either. It’s still early in the season. There’s hope. There’s…

Hell, no there’s not. The problem is the Rangers sucked last year and have done very little to improve. Their starting pitching situation has not improved (the new pitcher, Jason Jennings, had an ERA over 6 last season, and everyone else is pretty much the same), the major acquisition in the Mark Teixeira trade, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, isn’t even starting, the outfield is still pretty much in shambles and Marlon Byrd can’t be expected to produce at last year’s level, etc etc… I believe Jon Daniels, the general manager, has even said that they’re currently “rebuilding” and don’t plan on being competitive until 2010.

The person who really got screwed over in all of this is Michael Young. He signed an extension to his contract a year ago on the understanding that we would be competitive now. Instead we’re back in rebuilding mode, just like we have been for the last seven years. He could have gone somewhere else for good money and actually been on a winning team.

This is the Rangers’ basic problem – they have some good players, but not enough to build a team out of, and the ownership/management is completely inept. So as a fan, you find yourself liking the players, but really frustrated with the team as a whole.

I really wish Tom Hicks would sell the team…

April Fools

April 4, 2008

I think it’s clear now – I have too many friends. Or, really, a better way of putting it would be that I know too many people.

Why is this a problem? A few different reasons:

  • While there aren’t that many whom I actually desire to not know, there are many whom I honestly don’t care if I know or not – they’re rather generic, actually. So I find it kind of irritating that I’m forced (by social convention) to associate with them.
  • For whatever reason it just seems like it would be more fitting for me to know fewer people. It’s an issue of aesthetics. I don’t want more than five or ten people I associate with regularly. It strikes me as unnatural that every time I walk across campus I encounter at least two or three people I know and am obliged to at least greet in passing. (I’ll try not to rant too much about the inanity of saying – you’re not really asking, after all – “what’s up?” while passing someone who’s walking the opposite direction.)
  • It feels like I’m wasting a lot of time hanging out with people when I could actually be productive. This applies to people I want to associate with as well those I don’t. It’s not just in my head either; I finished the short story I was working on over Spring Break and haven’t started any new writing project since (and, while it seems quite recent, that was two and a half weeks ago), I haven’t really gotten anything done with Wesnoth or Orbivm since break either, etc…

But it doesn’t look like my circle of acquaintances is going to shrink any time soon. Unfortunately it’s probably going to grow. I might have to take drastic action sometime in the near future to correct this problem… i.e. stop being nice to people (though it’s not exactly like I’m nice to them now; I really don’t understand why people are willing to associate with me).

Whatever. I suppose there are worse problems I could have.

Anyway, is there any character with this kind of anti-social problem? I think so – Crelanu the mage. This is the description santi (author of Legend of Wesmere, where the character Crelanu comes from) offers (from here):

Crelanu is a rather mysterious character. Low deliberately leaves many questions open-after all these can lead to more campaigns. Clearly he is a very old guy, looking wise , with a white beard and a purple robe and staff. Is he good or evil? Low does not specify. Did he come with Haldric and Jessica in TROW or was he a lieuteunant of Jevyan? Again, Low does not specify, as it is also not specified whether Landar slays him or not when he forgets his potion in News from the front. So this is where you can make the decision, if these are to figure in the drawing specs. I would picture him to look sincere, he is very concerned with preserving his life’s work(his book) more than anything else-something like a scientist devoted to his work.
(Right, I can see Crelanu’s drawing a la Einstein with his tongue sticking out). He should look serious, but I would not give him the exact “dogged” style of determination I would save for Delfador. He is more resigned, save for his will to save his book.

[He is] someone who sees his end coming and cannot hope to find someone else/better to entrust his book to, at least not in the neighborhood he lives in and time he has left.

Obviously that description is rather open to interpretation. Mine is that Crelanu lived somewhere rather populated, a mage working for a noble lord. Eventually he decided that his life’s work – his eponymous book – was more important than people and he left, worked on it until the end of his life, and then realized he had no one to give it to.

This connection with me is clear, and I won’t belabor the point. But I will post kitty’s new Crelanu portrait, which, as always, is pretty damn good…

Crelanu, by kitty

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