Saturday, January 17, 2009

Happy Birthday, Dad!

My dad-- along with Muhammad Ali-- turns 67 today, January 17th, 2009. Dad's still going strong, and I wish him many more happy years. I love you, Dadso!

(January 17 is also Ben Franklin's birthday, but he's not 67, and Franklin never rated "expert" on the M16/M203.)


Friday, January 16, 2009

musings on BSG mysteries

I just sat through "Sometimes a Great Notion," the thirteenth episode of "Battlestar Galactica" and the first of so-called "Season 4.5" (the notation reflects the series' bifurcation as a result of the writers' strike). What a depressing episode that was! The tears, the arguments, the drinking-- it was practically a Korean soap opera.

BSG keeps you guessing; with that in mind, here's what we think we know by the end of the episode: the Starbuck now among the Galactica crew may not be the same as the Starbuck who seemed to perish near the end of Season 3. Starbuck 2.0, accompanied by a Leoben Cylon, follows her instincts and ends up finding the husk of a Viper with a pilot suit still inside-- shattered helmet and all. My immediate guess was that the suit would be empty, but no: Starbuck 2.0 lifts the helmet and we see the charred, skeletal remains of a pilot within. Trembling, Starbuck 2.0 digs around and finds... her own dogtags.

The viewer is led to conclude, at least tentatively, that Starbuck 2.0 is a true 2.0: we seem to be staring at the burned corpse of the 1.0 version, the one we'd been following from the 2003 miniseries through most of Season 3. "What am I?" Kara Thrace screams at Leoben. And we mentally respond: the fifth of the Final Five Cylons, of course! Leoben's expression is cryptic but spooked: we get the impression that this wasn't what he had expected.

But no: the honor of Fifth Cylon goes-- again, only apparently-- to Ellen Tigh. The four "Final Five" Cylons we know about-- Tory, Tigh, Anders, and Tyrol-- are having flashbacks to their existence on Earth, which appears to have been irradiated in a nuclear holocaust some two thousand years ago. Tigh's remembrance about Ellen comes at the very end of the episode: as the bombs are dropping, we see Tigh and Ellen two thousand years ago, with Ellen trapped under some sort of wreckage; as she dies, she tells Tigh, "It's OK: everything's in place. We'll be reborn. Together."

Admiral Adama and President Roslin, who both finally declared their love for each other at the end of the first half of Season 4, are having their own problems. The morale of the fleet-- and in particular, of Galactica-- has reached a new low now that Earth, radioactive and infertile, appears to be a literal dead end. President Roslin burns her copy of the Pythian scriptures, asking Adama to leave her alone. She and Adama share the same shame: they led the people to this pass, and so many have died along the way.

Adama, after a bitter confrontation with Tigh (whose Cylon nature is known to all), decides that the fleet needs to pack up and move on. We see, in these moments, the seeds of the great samsaric wheel in which all the dramatis personae are ensnared: All this has happened before; all this will happen again.

But despite these shocking new developments in the BSG story, the one that kicked me in the gut was Dee's suicide. Good God! I didn't see that one coming-- did you? Poor Dee had been with us from the beginning, a strong, quiet, angelic presence. Her marriage to Lee Adama went down in flames, through no fault of her own, but she always did her duty. Dee, often a minor character in the series, epitomized a female type not seen among the major female characters. She wasn't ruthless the way President Roslin could be; she wasn't as reckless and deadly as Starbuck. Dee was calm, centered, and morally upright, which is why her death hurts: if even Dee can be driven to suicide, then humanity is most definitely screwed.

I have to give BSG credit for zigging just when we think the show is going to zag. I also think Ronald D. Moore might actually have the guts to flog the series toward a truly dark conclusion. But I do have some questions.

1. Was Earth an entirely Cylon planet? This seems to be the implication of the action and dialogue at the beginning of the episode: after finding both the remains of droid-Cylons unlike the centurions currently in use, and the bones of beings who turn out also to be Cylons, Baltar concludes, "The thirteenth colony was Cylon." But Ellen Tigh's dying utterance to Saul makes me wonder whether she and Saul-- and, perhaps, other Cylons like them-- were somehow in cahoots, somehow different from the rest of the population, who might have either been human, or Cylons unable to reincarnate* through the "downloading" procedure with which we've become familiar. Ellen seems to be implying ("Everything's in place") that only a chosen few will be reborn after the global catastrophe, and that this isn't common knowledge.

Or could the Ellen and Saul of 2000 years ago have been humans, part of a cabal of people who craved immortality and who had worked hard to develop (or fund the development of) technology that would conduce to this form of immortality? If we follow that line of thought, then Baltar and all the people around him might actually be Cylons: they're looking at real human remains for the first time, and seeing them as not-us. Thinking of themselves as human, they declare the human remains Cylon.

Going even further afield: if only a limited number of humans on Earth (say, twelve or thirteen) died but downloaded themselves, thereby becoming primordial, but highly advanced, Cylon models, how does one explain the racial variety of the twelve colonies? Could it be that those early Cylons-- recently deceased-and-downloaded humans-- had figured out how to craft their genes so that they were susceptible to mutation?

2. Why does Earth of 2000 years ago look like modern colonial (i.e., modern North American) civilization? The clothing, the language, and the architecture all look like what we saw on Caprica. Could it be that-- as I have suspected for some time-- we've been watching one round of an eternally cyclical Cylon tragedy, a story that has been playing itself out over and over again? Maybe, in the end, everyone is a type of Cylon, and the machines have been trying to get themselves out of a loop that causes them to recreate the same human languages, fashions, cultures, etc. The cycle doesn't repeat itself exactly, but it does repeat-- the "humans" seek new worlds to colonize, they build their robots, the robots develop enough sentience to rebel, mass destruction occurs, and then some genius always says, thousands of years after the initial exodus, "Let's find Earth." No matter where the machines establish themselves, they always end up seeking Terra. All this has happened before.

3. If the Five are from Earth, and are an altogether different species of Cylon from the regular "Model 1-8" Cylons, how did the regular models come to know of the Five's existence?

4. Is it possible that there's a thirteenth Cylon-- perhaps Starbuck? The seven regular humaniform Cylon models are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8. To that, we add the Final Five, who are (we think): Samuel Anders, Tory Foster, Saul Tigh, Galen Tyrol, and Ellen Tigh. Where did Number 7 go? If Starbuck is a Cylon, is she the lost 7? The 13-Cylon concept makes the notion of thirteen colonies easier to grasp in the abstract (one model per colony), though I don't know how this would play out concretely. Could Starbuck be the Cylon god? Could that be why Leoben backs away from her, after all of his own god-talk? Was he freaking out about finding himself standing next to God?

This brings up a whole new set of questions about what the term "god" might mean in the BSG universe. Up to now, we've been content to view Cylon religion as monotheistic in something like the sense we Earthlings understand the term, and to view colonial religion as a form of Greek polytheism. But Starbuck, who has shown herself capable of visions, who has been told she has a "special destiny," and who now seems able to reappear Cylon-style after her supposed death, might just be some sort of goddess in a sense that machines might appreciate.

Prophecy is a major theme in BSG. In many ways, the series has walked a fine line between a dark naturalism (no gods, no aliens, no ghosts or spirits-- nothing but cold, vast space and a dying human race) and some sort of theism, as evidenced by the creepy way in which certain prophetic predictions come true.** The series has done an excellent job of dangling the possibility that everything we have seen fits into some sort of plan, but has also left open the possibility that the whole plot can be viewed through a purely naturalistic lens, even if what we finally discover is that the Cylons are all that's left, and they've been reenacting an epic story for millennia... or millennia of millennia.

5. What is head-Six, exactly? Baltar's hallucination might not be a hallucination at all: in the first half of Season 4, there's a moment where a prostrate Baltar is yanked to his feet by an invisible force-- presumbly head-Six. I've sometimes wondered whether she's somehow satanic: she's a temptress, almost always appears in red, and talks constantly about God. What's more, Sharon Agathon's half-Cylon daughter drew pictures of a blond Six, littering the pages with crayoned 6es. I picked up a strong satanic vibe during that scene.

6. Can the colonists really afford to turn away from Earth? Whatever regenerated Starbuck and her Viper (always assuming that the corpse in the Viper really is Starbuck's 1.0 version) must still be functioning, either on Earth or on the moon, or somewhere in the locality. You'd think that locating that tech would be a priority.

7. Speaking of the moon, what would a sideways glance at the moon reveal about the nature of Earth's civilization? Any above-ground or underground outposts?

8. Cylons are stronger and faster than humans (or so the narrative goes); what would make the Earthbound Cylons build civilizations that, at least according to the flashbacks, look no different from human civilization?

9. When the fleet prepares to jump away from Earth, why does De'anna Biers say that she prefers to sit on-planet and die among the bones of her "ancestors"? I understand her urge to jump off the samsaric Ferris wheel, but her use of the word "ancestors" puzzles me. It seems likely, based on the little evidence we have, that Cylons may come in all shapes and sizes through a sort of parallel evolution: humans move to different planets and always end up inventing some form of humanoid robotic servant, some form of Cylon, or it may even be that Cylons also start inventing Cylons.

Enough questions for now. The series will, alas, end in late March. I'm actually hoping that Moore will remain true to his dark reimagining of the original, campy TV series, right up to the end, and will either snuff humanity out or show us that it's been nothing but Cylons all along.

*The process is incorrectly referred to as "resurrection" in the series, but properly speaking, the download procedure has more in common with Hindu notions of reincarnation than with resurrection, which is a much murkier business. The process might also be thought of as similar to Buddhist rebirth.

Speaking very generally: Hindu reincarnation involves the idea of an atman, an indestructible kernel of self, that passes from body to body, always subject to the law of karma (action), which determines where one ends up during the next round of the wheel: one travels not only into a new body, but also a new situation. Cylon reincarnation doesn't quite follow the Hindu model: instead of an indestructible atman moving into different bodies (some of which might not even be human), the Cylon's memories are somehow transmitted to a new body that is, effectively, a clone of the now-dead Cylon body. This is a major disanalogy with Hindu reincarnation: an ensemble of memories is not the same thing as an indestructible atman. Nevertheless, the notion that some sort of distinct personhood is transmitted from body to body is common to both reincarnation and Cylon downloading. A loose analogy is possible.

Resurrection, especially in the biblical sense, may involve a body that is not quite like mortal flesh; it might instead be a soma pneumatikon, a spiritual body. Some schools of thought say the resurrected body is identical with, and a continuation of, the body that died. If so, this is completely different from Cylon downloading, which involves two distinct bodies: the now-dead Cylon's body, and the new body into which the dead Cylon's "mind" (or collection of memories) has been transferred. If we stick to the soma pneumatikon model of resurrection, we see no analogy among the Cylons. A "reborn" Cylon is not a transcendent being: it is merely Cylon consciousness re-enfleshed, with no hint of apotheosis.

Could Cylon downloading be analogous to the Buddhist concept of rebirth? Buddhists prefer this term to "reincarnation" because they deny the reality of the atman. Instead, what transfers from body to body is merely a collection of personal aggregates held together by the momentum of karma. This is, at first blush, strongly analogical to Cylon downloading (a collection of memories), but as with the Hindu reincarnation model, we encounter the problem of the physical bodies: a dead Cylon downloads into a new body that is exactly the same as the old one; this isn't the Buddhist vision. Also, in Buddism, the physical body itself is considered one of the five personal aggregates (rupa skandha, the form-aggregate). While a strong analogy can be established between Buddhist rebirth and Cylon downloading, this analogy contains major flaws.

So take your pick: Cylons are reborn or reincarnated, but they aren't resurrected.

**As someone who did time in religious studies, I do need to note that academics would bristle at the equation of "prophecy" with "prediction." The two concepts can and often do overlap, but it would be wrong to call them synonymous. I'm addressing this note to my more academic readers to signal my awareness of the relevant distinctions.


a teacher-farmer speaks out on McCandless and Krakauer

The following email from my friend Mark Tueting-- father, AP History teacher, and farmer-- has been reprinted with Mark's permission.


Your review sent me scurrying to Amazon to update my wishlist.

Before I hit anything of substance, I first have to ask for the source of the "eat the hell out of it!" quote -- I love it. I may put in on my classroom wall.

I had a few comments about Krakauer's analysis of the link between McCandless' asexuality and his "lust" for the wild, specifically:

McCandless's apparent sexual innocence, however, is a corollary of a personality type that our culture purports to admire, at least in the case of its more famous adherents. His ambivalence toward sex echoes that of celebrated others who embraced wilderness with singleminded passion-- Thoreau (who was a lifelong virgin) and the naturalist John Muir, most prominently-- to say nothing of countless lesser-known pilgrims, seekers, misfits, and adventurers. Like not a few of those seduced by the wild, McCandless seems to have been driven by a variety of lust that supplanted sexual desire. His yearning, in a sense, was too powerful to be quenched by human contact.

I think (and what the hell do I know? if you are reading the musings of a semi-literate dirt farmer you get what you pay for) that Krakauer is confusing causation and correlation. I suspect that, even if Krakauer is right about the asexuality of the uber-transcendentalists he mentions -- Thoreau and John Muir -- we may be seeing an artifact of the sample group rather than a causal relationship.

In casting doubt about Krakauer's assessment of Thoreau and Muir's sexual compasses, I'll admit that I'm not a Thoreau or Muir scholar. But I get suspicious when people make the assertion that Thoreau was a lifelong virgin. I want to see some evidence. And that evidence is likely hard to come by. Even if there was a public declaration of virginity, I'd still be suspicious: Thoreau emerged as a leading light of a time period when the elite were trying to draw hard boundaries between the soul of man and brute reality. I suspect that affecting a public indifference toward sex would burnish one's reputation of being focuses solely on that "inner light" much beloved by Transcendentalists. I don't know much about Muir, but his contemporaneous zeitgeist implied that sex was something that interested the less refined (read: scary new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe). The upper crust, you see, was the master of its own id.

I'm even doubtful if we can truly know if McCandless was asexual (though there may be compelling evidence in the book, which, again, I haven't yet read). Perhaps McCandless was simply painfully shy. If the Sean Penn scene with the topless Copenhagen beauty is also in Krakauer's book and not a figment of Hollywood, the fact that he didn't openly ogle her might be an artifact of politeness. When a (probably experienced) young girl (played by Stewart) propositioned him, it doesn't necessarily follow from his rejection that he didn't want to sleep with her. If he lacked confidence in his own experience or abilities, fear of inadequacy might have held him in check. I suspect some of the attraction men have to chaste girls is that no one wants to be unfavorably compared to the last lover. Hell, McCandless may have turned her down, retired to his hermitage and masturbated himself into a coma -- it's doubtful that he would have recorded that sordid spectacle as marginalia in his copy of Walden.

Speaking of Thoreau, the fact that the primary source shows that he focused in on Thoreau's "Higher Laws" presents an interpretive morass. Did he scribble "Indeed!" next to a praise of chastity because he saw in Thoreau a fellow traveler and wholeheartedly agreed, or was he a lonely virgin boy trying to make himself feel better about his failure to achieve launch?

But for the sake of argument, I'll put aside those quibbles.

If Thoreau, Muir and McCandless were indeed asexual, it doesn't necessarily follow -- as Krakauer argues -- that their sexual lust was supplanted by the wilderness' seduction.

First off, I'm unconvinced that an appreciation for nature springs from the same well as sexual lust. I'm as interested in conjugal bliss with the wife as the next man, but I can also stand in my pasture and feel the magnificence of nature around me. I shudder at sounding sentimental, but there are times when the joy of the land is overwhelming. Passion for the diversity found in my grass polyculture fields in no way supplants my physical desire for my wife (or the more agape facets of our love). Evolutionary psychologists would back up my anecdotal experience, methinks.

If I'm right that the drives for nature appreciation and sex are separate, Krakauer poses a problem -- why have some of the most prominent naturalists been, apparently, asexual?

My guess is that there are plenty of sexual people who love nature, but that their more balanced lives lead them away from quiet lives of nature writing. Becoming a good writer demands tremendous commitment and dedication to what is usually a solitary pursuit. It's almost monomania.* So: Maybe Thoreau, Muir, and McCandless didn't arrive at their appreciation of the wilderness because of their asexuality. Perhaps their ability to communicate (at least in the cases of Thoreau and Muir) is superior because they didn't divide their attention between the vista and a warm coed.

I don't think that asexuality is necessarily a prerequisite either. There are nature writers out there who lead balanced lives. My two favorite nature writers, Micheal Pollan and Gene Logsdon, are married fathers who, inferring from their enjoyment of other sensual pleasures, probably enjoy a roll in the hay as much as the next guy.

Great googly moogly!** I was just going to send you a quick note and this darn thing has gone on and on. I've lost half an hour of paper grading time.

All my best,


* I'm a case in point. Although I appreciate good writing, I just don't have the drive or patience to make mine any better. I'm aware that my tone can swing erratically: In the asterixed paragraph, I go from contemplation of the origin of skilled writing to an easy light term like "warm coed." I imagine the tone could be jarring and I should spend some time contemplating how to make the two sides mesh better. In fact, I suspect I should clean up the "warm coed" phrase into something more serious. But I won't. 'Cause it amuses me. I'll never be Thoreau and I'm okay with that.

** There I go with the mixed tone again. Heh.


Agent Walker's fearsome mien

FBI Special Agent Renée Walker, one of the new characters in Season 7 of "24," is a fiery redhead, and based on both her toughness and her temper, the usual stereotypes about redheads seem to apply.

Something about Walker's fearsome expression, after she had revived from Jack Bauer's chokehold, reminded me of some other actress, and for a while I couldn't remember who it was. Then it hit me:

Joanna Cassidy!

Watch Cassidy as Zora in "Blade Runner," delivering a sword-hand strike to Harrison Ford's throat, then tightening Ford's necktie to strangle him. That look of naked fury in Cassidy's eyes was classic, and that's exactly the look I saw reincarnated in Annie Wersching's portrayal of Agent Walker. Love it.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Peter on radio telepathy

Peter of the fantastic philosophy-of-mind blog Conscious Entities takes on the "Brainstorm" scenario, something also discussed in my book.


the gall of the wild

If gods there be, they must hate Indonesia.

JAKARTA, Indonesia - A ferry capsized in a severe storm in central Indonesia Sunday, killing an estimated 250 passengers onboard.

Fishing boats were able to rescue only 18 survivors, according to a port official in Parepare on the island of Sulawesi, where the ferry began its journey.

About 250 passengers and 17 crew are believed to have been aboard the ferry when it went down 30 miles off western Sulawesi.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

who are you?


That's right-- YOU, the reader out in Pleasant Hill, California! Who are you? I know who some of my other regular readers are, but what do I know about you?

IP address: 69.181.114.# (Comcast Cable)
Operating System: Microsoft WinNT
Browser: Firefox Mozilla/5.0 (Windows; U; Windows NT 6.0; en-US; rv: Gecko/2008120122 Firefox/3.0.5

Send me an email. Tell me about yourself. Lurkers creep me out.


well, that changes things

As I wrote before, I have two proofing/editing jobs. One job pays substantially better than the other, but doesn't provide much work. The other job has been giving me a slew of assignments, but pays peanuts for them. The better-paying job has insisted on paying me by wiring money to my Korean account, where it's not immediately accessible to me (I have my Korean ATM card with me, but it won't work in any US ATMs). Since that job isn't sending assignments with nearly the same frequency as the lesser-paying job, I'm content to let the funds pile up in the Korean account, where they'll sit and wait for my eventual return to Korea.

I've convinced the folks at my lesser-paying job to wire cash directly to me, here in the US, but we had a bit of a miscommunication about when, exactly, I could expect pay. They had said, vaguely, that pay would come "near the end of the month," so I had expected pay last month, sometime around Christmas. It never arrived. I wrote an email to the boss a few days ago, asking him about the pay situation, and just got his reply today. According to him, payday is the 25th of the month, and it's for the previous calendar month's work.

This is fairly standard practice in Korea, so I don't begrudge this, but it does change matters: I did relatively little work in December compared to what I'm doing now, and my January pay will reflect this. I therefore won't see a substantial payment until late February, and then again in late March, which is problematic. I had hoped to restart the walk in early March, but might have to delay a few weeks as I'd like to have a satisfactory amount of financial padding before I begin the walk again. Hakim might have done his 3300-mile walk with only $217 to his name, but I gather that he wasn't saddled with a $600/month scholastic debt.

So that's a note to the folks out west who are awaiting my return: I might not be seeing you again until later in March.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Our next-door neighbor, who's getting along in years, called me a few minutes ago to tell me she was all right-- that she had simply been out getting her car fixed, there was nothing to worry about, and please tell my parents not to worry. I had no idea what she was talking about, so I just rolled with the conversation, telling her I was glad everything was OK, which I was. She's a very nice lady.

I called Dad and told him what she'd told me to say, and Dad explained that emergency vehicles-- an ambulance and fire truck-- had come by the next-door neighbor's house this morning (while I was still asleep), apparently in response to a "911" call.

So I guess the entire thing was a false alarm. But if our neighbor didn't call 911... who did?


Monday, January 12, 2009

Bauer power for another two hours

I had written last night about Jack Bauer's intuitions on "24," and had thought to comment that Jack, whose first instinct is usually the way to go, was probably right to think that Tony Almeida couldn't possibly have gone bad. So when Almeida was captured in last night's 2-hour premiere, I was tempted to write that he was probably just working undercover. I chickened out.

But it's a good thing I did! As of tonight, we now know the situation is complicated: Tony's helping the only two people who still hold a candle for CTU-- Bill Buchanan and Chloe O'Brian-- but as he told Jack, Tony had, in fact, crossed over to the other side, motivated by bitterness against the US government. This means that Jack and Tony have unresolved issues, as I wrote last night. (And if Tony is lying to Jack because this is actually a double double-cross, it still means that he and Jack have unresolved issues.)

Tonight's back-to-back episodes cemented my appreciation for the redheaded Agent Walker, who fell victim to one of Jack's famous sleeper holds ("Don't fight it," he whispered, almost romantically), but sprang up madder'n hell. Suckered once by Jack, she vows not to be suckered again. We'll see. I have a feeling that she's going to be an interesting character to watch. The fact that she and Jack seem to be kindred spirits makes this all the juicier.

One of the trademarks of "24" is its portrayal of torture. I hope the people who worried that the show was going to soften up were happy to see Agent Walker engage in a bit of intensive fact-finding this evening-- first by shoving her gun into a hospitalized bad guy's bullet wound, then by pinching off his air tubes. Personally, I've had an uncomfortable relationship with the show's almost casual approach to torture-- I found it genuinely shocking when I first worked my way through Seasons 1 and 2 on that bootleg DVD in Korea-- and by my lights the show hasn't softened up at all.

It was good to hear all that un-subtitled French (even though it didn't amount to much more than "What's going on?" "We're under attack!") from the African characters, and to see both Chloe and Bill Buchanan again. I wondered, at first, whether CTU was secretly up and running, but from the dialogue it appears that, yes, CTU really is gone. Perhaps that's for the best: over the previous six seasons, CTU was a deathtrap for its staffers-- it harbored numerous moles, lacked sufficient safeguards against nerve gas, had easily compromised computer systems, etc. The depiction of CTU's physical space over six seasons also rubbed me the wrong way: the place was far too shadowy; it had too many niches, dark corners, and security camera blind spots. Its invasion by the Chinese in Season 6 was particularly embarrassing (they erupt through its floor, for God's sakes!). Nah... I'm glad CTU's gone. I hope the building's been turned into a Wal-Mart.

So now we're a sixth of the way through Season 7. I assume we'll be getting only one-hour doses of "24" from here on in. It's a good time for me to be home: both of my favorite TV series, "24" and "Battlestar Galactica," are starting up again.

An aside about the other TV series I've been watching on and off: I find "House" interesting for its relentless focus on its hilariously megalomaniacal main character, but the show's plots follow almost exactly the same formula in every episode. I love "Burn Notice," but haven't had the chance to watch it from the beginning, so I sometimes feel a bit lost. I'm tired of "Monk," a series whose charm depends entirely on whether you, the viewer, enjoy watching neurotic, OCD-afflicted characters on a long-term basis. I've had absolutely no desire to watch anything else-- not "Heroes," not "Smallville," not "Desperate Housewives," not "Lost," nothing. I occasionally get sucked into the "Law and Order" vortex if I stumble across it late at night, but it's another series that, like "House," relies on almost exactly the same formula for every episode. Doritos for the mind.

So if, at this point, you asked me what TV series I'd have with me on a desert island (assuming this island had cable TV and/or a DVD player), my choices would pretty much boil down to "24" and BSG. Both are in-your-face, tightly scripted shows that keep you guessing. They're unabashedly about Big Issues, and not afraid to do something corny now and then. They also share a tendency to bump off major characters, which sucks from the actor's perspective ("Gotta find a new job, dammit"), but is great for the viewers, who never know who might be next. This heightens the suspense. Ah, yes: both series now feature a "Madam President."

Too bad I'll be walking while these shows are playing... but I'm in America, so I have access to Hulu. (Unless something has changed since April 2008, Hulu was unavailable in Korea because of Korean digital piracy problems.) Best of luck to Jack... and to the human race in the BSG universe.

PS: I still think Janeane Garofalo's character is a mole.


from trickle to torrent

I'm busy these days, though not the way I used to be. When I first got back to northern Virginia, what most occupied my time was all the heavy and light lifting involved in the parents' renovation project-- furniture, boxes, construction materials, you name it. These days, I'm working two jobs for two different Korean firms, proofing and editing magazine articles and other documents. The work started out as a mere trickle-- a one-pager here, a three-pager there. But lately, I've been receiving as many as three assignments a day, and one of my employers recently handed me a 17-page assignment. It's too bad my Korean isn't good enough to do translation work: as my buddy Charles tells me, the pay is crazy.

So I don't lack for things to do, but I do hold weird hours, often going to sleep around 5AM and waking up around lunch. I get six or seven hours' sleep like other normal folks, but I'm out of phase with most of the daylight-loving world. The current shift to vampirehood isn't a new thing for me; while working at Sookmyung Women's University, I tended to slack off during our vacations, often staying up until dawn and waking up only at lunch. It's a habit I picked up as an undergrad, and I've never really broken free of it. While teaching at Sookmyung, I had to wake up at 6 or 6:30AM to be in time for my first class of the day, at 7:40AM. You have no idea how painful that was.

Once I start the walk again, I'll be resuming a more normal schedule and will reduce my workload to part-time for both jobs, earning enough money to take care of my never-ending monthly bills (the scholastic debt about which I've moaned on many occasions), with a little left over for other expenses. In the meantime, though, just call me Vlad. But don't call me before noon.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

the return of Jack Bauer

I had expected a bit more from "24" this time around, but ended up feeling it was more of the same-- this despite the supposed leftward turn the show might be taking.

The first two hours of the seventh season of "24" premiered tonight, featuring newly inaugurated President Allison Taylor (a super-bland Cherry Jones); her stressed-out husband Henry (Colm Feore, who was the ill-fated President Adar on BSG), an advisor who has secretly hired a private investigator to investigate his son's death; FBI agent Renee Walker (Annie Wersching); a beleaguered Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland, back in growling/throaty whispering mode); and Jack's old friend Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard), now apparently on the other side of the law and helping terrorists who appear to want to undermine the American cybernetic infrastructure, but who are actually thinking bigger than that.

It was disappointing to see the premiere rip off "Die Hard 2" and "Live Free or Die Hard": we see the bad guys provoke a near-collision at JFK Airport by usurping the air traffic control software, and discover that the device that allows this sort of hack might also be capable of doing far greater damage to all the computer-run networks that now form an integral part of American society.

It was also disappointing to see that the new president fails to project an authoritative presence, this despite the series' usually reliable inclusion of strong female characters (Nina Meyers, Chloe O'Brian, Sherry Palmer, Mandy the Freelance Terrorist, et al.). At least so far, Allison Taylor is no David Palmer-- a character I sorely miss.

The premiere quickly establishes its More of the Same feel, this despite the shakeups: CTU has been disbanded, Jack is working with the FBI, and we don't get to see Chloe or the super-cool Bill Buchanan (loved him in Season 6) yet. But Jack's intuition is still dead-on (he quickly concludes the FBI has-- surprise!-- a mole in its ranks), the camera work remains largely hand-held, the villains have some personal connection with Jack (who seems to be on a first-name basis with every bad guy in existence), and Jack bucks the system the first chance he gets.

Conservative fans of the show needn't worry. Bauer's impatience with the system still mirrors the classical conservative's chafing against the perceived ineffectiveness of government; the show will have plenty of explosions and gunfire to scare away the squeamish pansies who shrink from TV violence; and I'm pretty sure Bauer will have a chance to torture some bad guys, or be tortured by them.

The premiere does have one strong female presence: Agent Walker, the fierce, freckly redhead. She's not as confrontational as Bauer, but she's just as direct, and handles herself supercompetently in physical confrontations (she gets a shining hapkido moment against a heavy when she and Bauer track down an associate of the terrorists). I'll be curious to see what her character's arc will be. There's a good chance Bauer will come to like and respect her... which, in the "24" universe, often means the character is dead meat.

It may be too early to make predictions, but at this point I'm going to wager that Janeane Garofalo's character, Janis Gold, is the FBI mole. Garofalo is, in real life, a person of strong convictions, and she's played gritty, stern characters before. From what I've seen of her in "24," her character seems suspiciously meek and mousy, but I've also noticed she's always in the midst of the action. That combination of unobtrusiveness and nearness to power smells like mole to me. I will also tentatively predict the deaths of Agent Walker and Tony Almeida. Jack and Tony have issues to work out, and it's not going to end well for Tony, who in six-plus seasons of "24" has never once beaten Jack in a direct confrontation. Jack has killed both friends and superiors before (Curtis Manning and Ryan Chapelle) in the line of duty, so if Tony stubbornly continues his attempts at undermining the country, he's toast, no matter how close he might have been to Jack.

"24" is known for introducing heavy hitters late in the season, so I can't make any predictions beyond the ones above. The overall story arc of a "24" season is always hard to predict. I thought it was hilarious when, in Season 1, we eventually discovered that the big villain was none other than a wild-eyed Dennis Hopper. That was fantastic! I was watching the series on a bootleg DVD at my university office in Korea (sshhhh), and when the big reveal of the true bad guy occurred, I laughed out loud. And Hopper didn't disappoint, either: in the episodes following his unveiling, he attacked his role as Victor Drazen with fiendish glee, corny Serbian accent and all.

Despite the disappointments with tonight's episodes, I thought that the script was still tightly written and the action was as watchable as ever. As I wrote elsewhere, "24" has about the same structure as a Dan Brown novel. The methods by which the show manipulates viewer interest are obvious, but they hook the viewer, anyway. Season 7 doesn't seem to break new ground, but we're off to a running start.

UPDATE: A conservative argument that Season 7 will most assuredly not be more of the same.


taking zee plunge

I'm about to improve my life (we hope) by buying a notebook computer: the well-reviewed ASUS Eee PC 1000HA 10-Inch Netbook. Sometime in February, after I get a significant lump of cash, I plan to purchase one of those devices that allows you to connect to the Net via cell phone. The reason for this is that I'll be working while on the road, now that I have two proofreading/editing jobs.

I've been thinking carefully about which items in my backpack have seen a lot of use, and which can probably be sent home. I have a few heavy items-- including some large carabiners that turned out to be useless-- that will likely find themselves kicked off the trip. These items, once gone, will be replaced by the notebook, which I'm fervently hoping will survive the rigors of this walk. At this point the laptop's not really an option-- it's a requirement: I'm going to need it to navigate, to work, and to communicate. So to protect it, I have to buy something that is sturdy, proof against heat and humidity, and not too bulky.

I also need to swoop into REI and restock my wardrobe: I've now become a disciple of the All-Synthetic School of Thought. Everyone was right: synthetics are lighter, pack more tightly, and are generally more breathable than natural materials. From REI socks on up, I plan to be Synth Man from here on in.

Meantime, I'm itching to get my hands on that Asus.



From reader and friend Andy R.:

Hi Kevin,

I liked your write-up of the McCandless story.

By chance, I came across his story in a text-book I was using here in Japan about 2 months ago. I remember the story from TV reports when it first came out, but the book had more information than I got the first time around.

Re: wanderlust. A bit before I read your article, I had been thinking about what drove the guy. On one hand, he had Daddy issues. On the other hand... you don't just go to Alaska because you're angry... most guys run out of steam around the 3rd time they meet pretty girls.

I was going to write something insightful about folks being born what they are, and include some examples of folks choosing surprising life paths... but it seems that's not McCandless' deal. He seems to be a guy who got his Dad's super-drive to accomplish... but somehow missed his earlier chance to do.... well, I'm not sure what.

It's late, and I wanted to dash this off before I turn in. Well done done write-up. Congrats!