Archive for ‘teevee’


Eventual thread convergence

Speaking of the really bad science in teevee shows like Numb3rs, and speaking a long time ago about that really annoying book that Stephen Wolfram wrote, we are extremely amused to read that:

Wolfram Research served as the mathematical consultant for the CBS television series Numb3rs, a show about the mathematical aspects of crime-solving.


No further comment required.


More bingewatching

I went and fixed the spelling of “Numb3rs”, which I had written as (the more properly-133t) “Numb3rz”, and added Dollhouse to the list of ones that I want to pay attention while I watch.

Also just watched another Numb3rs, and it was so awful that I want to rant. :) It was actually light on the “ridiculous modeling” aspects, because the Fancy Math(tm) was mostly used only to do things you wouldn’t actually need much fancy math for.


First, the whole premise of why things were Very Serious was that a body was found of a person who had had Avian Flu, and although Avian Flu isn’t really contagious between people, the flu in this particular person might have mutated into a very contagious form, even though it has never done that before in the entire world, and we have no actual evidence that it has in this case, so we might be in danger of a rapidly spreading endemic flu outbreak! Uh oh!

Second, and even more infuriating, the especially-nerdy-professor character, who dresses badly and is familiar with all world literature and science and doesn’t use contractions and always speaks as though he were writing a journal paper, misuses “begs the question” to mean “raises the question”, just like a semi-literate Web comment-writer. Arrrrgghh!

Further update:

House: Not watching this very much anymore since I realized that every episode has exactly the same plot.

Leverage: a fun little show about this good-guy insurance investigator who loses his job because the insurance company is evil, and gathers a bunch of quirky criminals to help him pull a con to get revenge and set things right, and then decides that that was so much fun that he’ll set up a company to do that to other bad guys who are otherwise untouchable. I actually forget why I haven’t been watching those recently; I’ll have to add it back to the rotation! (See also our alternate-universe review of this back in Passive Gaming.)



Old TVIt turns out that having some random TV episode or movie streaming on my Cellular Telephone off to one side of my desk at work helps me focus, and/or keeps me from wandering off to get yet more food that I don’t need. So I have been watching lots of things in a “not really paying attention” sort of way, on the Net Flix. A few movies, but mostly many consecutive episodes of various old TV series.

Let us write things about some of them!

Warehouse 13: This was fun, and I’ve watched every episode that NetFlix streams. Which includes only Seasons 1-3, darn them. I could like pay Amazon money to see some more, but that would be silly.

Numb3rs: This felt kind of fun at first, but eventually the horrible scientific / mathematical gaffes got to be too much to take. Now I just watch a single episode now and then, when I’ve OD’d on everything else obvious. Pretty much every episode involves Our Hero making a mathematical model of some very complex real-world phenomenon (generally a crime), and using that model to figure out Who Done It, or How Many Shooters There Are, or Where The Killer Will Strike Next. And in every case it’s utterly implausible if you actually understand anything about how modeling works, how rough and approximate it is at best, and how many unknown input parameters are always floating around.

Bones: This is superficially better, because not being a forensic anthropologist I don’t realize that all the cool-looking science is crap (I have heard third or fourth hand that in fact it is, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised). But over time the soap-opera stuff starts to pall, and the basic moral-majority premise, that the rational atheist polyamorous Bones will not be truly happy until she is an irrational religious believer in the Magic of Love and monogamy like Booth, palls even more.

Lie To Me: Fun premise here, where the protagonists have the scientific ability to tell whether people are lying, what they are feeling, and so on, from the microexpressions on their faces, and their body language. I’ve watched a bunch of these (and when watching something else afterward I’m always wondering why the characters are so clueless about what the bad guys are thinking and all). But recently they’ve been mostly about how angry the main good guy is about everything, and how much trouble their company is in for various reasons, and so on, which seems unnecessary.

Sliders: Premise sounded good, but is apparently targeted pretty narrowly at High School Kids or something.

CSI / Law & Order : NY / SVU / LA / Criminal Intent: So far these all sort of mush together as decent Police Procedurals with high production values, but everyone is always frowning glumly and darkly alluding to grim back-stories from off-camera or last season or something and being generally depressing. So I don’t watch these alot.

Star Trek: TNG: Eh. I should be all fannish about these I guess, but the science and general plotlines are so often so bogus, just clumsy artificial set-pieces for some particular character interaction or whatever. Will have to try various Star Trek things again sometime, there must be something there?

The X-Files: So classic, how could this not be great!? But somehow it feels incredibly dated. “There is a vague hint that there might be an alien spaceship around, CUE SCARY MUSIC!!!” Really, guyz; a vague suggestion of alien spaceships, even ones that maybe sometimes steal people, maybe, just isn’t all by itself all that scary.

Witches of East End: Completely silly-looking premise: there is this group of magical people (“witches”) who came to the mortal world from the magical realm of Asgard (seriously?); the mother is immortal, and she is cursed so that she keeps having these same two daughters over and over, who keep dying young, and then some time later she bears them again (kind of novel!). Her sister can change into a cat and has nine lives, and has also been here for a very long time. This time around, the mother tried to keep the truth about their history and powers from the daughters, hoping this would keep them from dying, but now they know. They have all made lots of enemies over the centuries, who keep bothering them. One of the daughters is engaged to this guy, but keeps having dreams about hot sex with his mysterious ne’er-do-well brother. That sort of thing. And lots of knives for some reason. It’s great because it doesn’t even nod in the direction of reality or sense, so I can watch it without wincing.

Buffy, Dollhouse, and Firefly: Nope! These, I want to pay attention to when I watch. :)

Suggestions for other things that might be good to have playing in the background while writing C++ are more than welcome…


Passive Gaming

In retrospect this should have been obvious, but I didn’t notice for awhile…

There’s a sort of continuum in gaming between completely open-world games (with Second Life for instance so far out on that end that it’s hardly a game anymore, and I gather things like the Fallout games also at that end somewhere), and “admire the pretty atmosphere and story while going through the set steps” things (like I dunno Myst and other puzzle games) down toward the other end.

But that’s not the extreme of that end of the continuum. When you’re so worn down by the Meaninglessness of Existence, and Humanity’s Inhumanity to Humanity, and stubbing your toe and all, that all you want to do is lie there and Experience Someone Else’s Stuff without moving your viewpoint around or fighting trivial monsters or solving any puzzles or even clicking Next, it turns out that there’s a whole genre of what I’ll call completely passive games out there, just waiting for you to collapse and fix your eyes on them and not move.

Leverage(Wow, that was a long sentence.)

Just now I spent a pleasant (or at least restful) 45 minutes to an hour playing one of these, an Android game called “Leverage: The Nigerian Job”. It’s a typical modern-day “steal from the thieves” game with a nice sort of twist in the middle.

I was about to say that there are five playable characters, but in a game this passive that doesn’t really mean anything! There are five characters whose viewpoints you play from at one time or another during the game, anyway. The viewpoint can cut very suddenly from one to another, but I didn’t find that especially confusing; it works well.

The story is very linear, and of course since it’s completely passive it plays exactly the same every time (or at least I assume it does; I guess there could be a random element so that it might go differently in different instances of playing it? Not sure.). The graphics are good, if mundane, and in fact, since they know exactly where your viewpoint will be at all times, I think most of the scenes are done live-action, filming real actors doing what the characters do, and then splicing that together to make the game-play.

Assuming there’s no random element (and none of the material about the game that I saw suggests there is), it probably doesn’t have much replay value. They make up for this (at least partially) by packaging the game as a series of “eipsodes”; after “The Nigerian Job” there is a sequel called “Leverage: The Homecoming Job”, and I gather a bunch more after that, with the same characters and in the same basic world, but with different quests or missions.

Also, although I said that it’s an Android game, that’s really not true; because of the completely passive nature of the game, it lends itself really well to server-side rendering. Like what OnLive does for less passive games, but the technical challenges are much simpler; they can basically just record one run through the game, and then stream that down to your client when you want to play. So it’s easy to make these games platform-independent; I played “The Nigerian Job” on my Android phone through a game-streaming app called “NetFlix“, that I gather specializes in these completely passive games, and has versions of its app for various platforms.

And there are alot of them! Some of them seem to be completely passive versions of popular normal games; I see some Star Wars and Star Trek spinoffs, for instance, presumably based on the normal video games in those same worlds. A clever idea!

It felt very frustrating at first, playing this, not being able to even move the viewpoint, much less control the actions of the protagonist (you can’t even customize appearance or clothing; that would make the server-side rendering much harder of course). But I will admit with some shame that the totally passive interaction mode got comfortable very quickly, just sort of sitting there not moving, eyes on the screen, mind sort of half-asleep.

So it was very relaxing and all. I do worry what might happen if this sort of completely passive activity takes off, though; might hundreds or thousands of kids grown up without the mental exercise of interactive games, just sort of sitting on the couch eating Cheetos and “watching”?

That could be bad…


Sunday, December 29, 2013

As usual all various things have happened since some amount of time ago!


I now have one of these:

an Oculus Rift device

and as soon as I get this one cable that it needs to attach to the enormous Windows machine, I will try out the demos and maybe like WoW or something (and sometime probably Second Life), and that will probably be amazing or disorienting or both.

(And boy will one look amusing while using it.)

The Smart-o-Phone

Speaking of the enormous Windows machine, I now have yet one more non-Windows computer, running yet one more operating system. Here is the Instagramming of my telephone upgrade:


Having skipped a few generations there, I now have one of these modern “Smart-o-Phones”, and am apparently an Android user (which also involves chocolate bars in some way).

KitKat logo

The Smart-o-Phone can do all various things; pretty much everything that the “i-Pad” can do, except that it is considerably smaller. But as I have pointed out when comparing a little laptop screen to a big desktop display, the Smart-o-Phone screen can be made pretty much as large as you want just by holding it closer to your eyes…

Oh, also, it has some sort of telephone in it. But that is okay, it does not hardly ring much or anything annoying like that.

I have been installing Smart-o-Phone “apps” on the Smart-o-Phone, which allow me to listen to the radio, and sign into WoW (once I convince WoW that I don’t want to use the i-Pad for that anymore), and look at train schedules, and drive little imaginary trains around a simplified model of Europe:

Pocket Trains

Also (like the i-Pad) you can watch TV on it, which I am in fact doing right now (mostly just because I can); this is mildly convenient if one wants to watch one of the subset of shows that Verizon makes available for streaming. For whatever reason the only thing I ever seem to watch this way is “Law and Order: something something”; they just barely clear the bar of being worth ignoring all those commercials.

Ooh, probably I should install the “Net Flicks app” also! That has things which do not have commercials.

So now I have the Smart-o-Phone running Android, the i-Pad running iOS (and which it’s not entirely clear what it is for now), the work computer running ChromeOs (and Chrome Remote Desktop connecting into the at-work work computer running Goobuntu (haha “Goobuntu”)), and the enormous Windows computer running Windows 7 something something, which is basically just for WoW and Second Life these days (and see recent Facebook thread where I complain about Windows’s virtual memory pessimisation algorithms). And the Oculus Rift. :)


Oh yeah, these things happened too!


Solstice Dinner 2013

Solstice Christmas New Year Holidays and all! Which is why I now have the Geek-o-Vision and the Smart-o-Phone and all. :) And the little daughter used some Interweb Site to create and produce this amazing tee shirt:

Best Tee Shirt Ever

which attentive readers will notice is based on a recent weblog posting just right here.

Isn’t that the best thing ever? Such an amazing little daughter…

I’m sure other things have happened also, but those are the only ones I will write down for now I think. Lots of lazing about to do today! :)

Update: some of the images in the above are nefariously appearing or not appearing at random, or perhaps with some weak correlation with my attempts to get them to appear. Tsk!

Update 2: Oh yeah, I was going to talk about Ingress on the Smart-o-Phone too! But I didn’t. Maybe later…


Much Ado About Whedon

Yeah, obvious title. :)

So I went out for/on Father’s Day here and saw Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing at the Burns.

It was good. A pretty straight-up modern-dress treatment, using the Bard’s original words; the funny parts were funny (it’s a comedy after all), the suspenseful parts were suspenseful, and the lovey-dovey parts were lovey-dovey.

Spoilers in the below, skip to the last couple paragraphs, for anyone who hasn’t seen it and might!

The main twists I noticed were making Conrade female (and the beginning of Act 1 Scene 3 an almost-sex scene), and the cute touch of having a black woman wedding guest at backstage center when Claudio says that he will marry a particular woman even “were she an Ethiope”. There’s no reaction or anything, just a quick cut away, but it was definitely a wink at the audience.

Significant Whedon fanservice. The Beatrice-Benedick romance is (going by the actors) Fred and Wesley from Angel (at which there is much rejoicing in certain circles). That’s Captain Mal from Firefly as the funny bumbling Constable Dogberry (the Watch locking themselves out of their car is another cute, what, synachronism, as is the production of an iPod when Don Pedro says “Come, shall we hear this music?”). And that’s the good-guy doctor Tam, also from Firefly, as the evil Don John.
Fred as Beatrice
(And another synachronism is the live smartphone video accompanying “My lord, your brother John is ta’en in flight, And brought with armed men back to Messina”, wahaha.)

Amy Acker is a great Beatrice. I could not for the life of me remember where I’d seen her before for the first part of the film, because she (unlike Fred) is confident and even haughty; only at some point in there where she softens did I think “Oh, it’s Fred!”.

Jillian Morgese is a pretty and convincing Hero, the wronged ingenue. From the website, she was being an extra in ummmm The Avengers when Whedon himself suggested she try out for Hero, which is extremely cool and fairy-tale-like.

(And what the heck is a female character doing being named “Hero”? Shakespeare’s fault, and extremely confusing. Someone must explain this to me!)

So in general, it was fun. The Burns is a comfy intimate theater (three screens, of which I think they were using only two today, seating about the size of the front third of your typical cineplex theater). And there’s a locally-owned candy and chocolate store right nearby! Hee hee.

So far the fact that Whedon is a flippin’ genius (for which I offer as evidence Once more, with feeling in particular, of which I now have the Original Cast Album, among other notable notables) has not reached out and struck me from this film; maybe I will gradually realize amazing things about it, but also maybe not. In any case, it was well crafted, and a Good Time, and I am glad I went.


Seth MacFarlane, Worst Oscar Host Ever

Seth MacFarlane, Worst Oscar Host Ever(Well, it’s the obvious headline.)

So last night M mentioned that the Oscars Pre-Game Show was on, saying jokingly that we should be watching it, and I said “Yeah, let’s!”, expecting it to be sort of fun vapid sparkling pop-culture nothingness.

Imagine my surprise.

There’s sometimes a fine and funny and challenging line between being a jerk and parodying jerkiness. Seth MacFarlane was nowhere near that line last night; he was way, way out on the “being a jerk” side.

Parody and satire are great when used against the powerful, or turned inward on ourselves. But I think it’s all too common that someone will think “hey, this stuff is great and gets laffs, but if I use it against the powerful or the audience I might get in trouble, and I’m sure not going to use it on myself, so I’ll just use it on women or minorities or people with funny accents or something”. And that’s the nasty territory that we were in last night.

And somehow the worst thing about the “jokes” marginalizing women, sexualizing a little girl (who was right there in the audience ffs), trivializing eating disorders and abusive relationships, poking fun at people with funny accents, and so on, is that they weren’t funny.

I don’t think I’ll ever look at the talking dog and the baby with the English accent the same way again. (That is this same guy, right?) If nothing else, I’ll have my hegemonic-analysis goggles on…


The morning’s news

I went to The Gym this morning for the first time in ages, so I was exposed to and can report on the Morning News Programs.

The TV most directly in front of me, tuned to that peacock network, had a long in-depth story about how beautiful Miss Alabama 2012, who is also the girlfriend of some football player or something, is, and how some sports reporter thought she was beautiful; it featured extensive footage of her being beautiful and an exclusive interview with her about how beautiful she is.

This was followed by breaking YouTube footage of a fat guy falling down alot trying to do yoga.

To the left of that TV was one tuned to that Eye of Sauron network, with a hard-hitting report about how cute and cuddly giant pandas are.

And over to the right, beyond a few TVs with just people talking and car commercials, on a network whose totem I didn’t catch, was a supermodel explaining that one should not “sweat the number on the scale”, but should apply argan oil directly to the hair, face, and body.

(Presumably it’s also good, for this purpose, to be in a job where one can spend upwards of forty hours a week on making oneself look hawt.)

But that is just TV.

The real news is that, in the back of the Lego store, past all of the boxed Lego sets designed to let you build something that someone else thought of, there is a big wall of bins where you can make your own Lego set a la carte, in a little plastic tub!


A mere US$7.99; a bargain at half the price! (The larger tub, not shown here, is like US$14.99 or something.)

Here are the parts I chose:


Yes, a bit vehicle-oriented, but sometimes one must choose.

And the first experimental result:


I have them at work now, for when my brain needs to flow in different channels for awhile… :)

Tags: , , , , ,

Darn that Colbert!

Here I am in the middle of a multi-week think about how to talk about the Magisterium and the Vatican and the LCWR and the Inquisition-I-mean-CDF and Just Love and all that, and there he goes making funny jokes about it on TV and having one of the admirable nuns herself on his show.

Well, although once something’s been on TV it’s normally far too old to be on weblogs, I may cut myself some slack and talk about it someday anyway, it’s so inneresting and/or creepy.

In the meantime, I will just take issue with xkcd, ’cause it’s not often one gets to correct that particular Fountain of Clue.

The Real Truth is of course as everyone knows:

A few: 3
A handful: 4 to 6
Several: 7
A couple: 2

Happy to have the chance to clear that up.

(Also, “Beer, Bad” was a fantastic episode, whatever those stuffed shirts over at Buffy Guide say. Or said. Back in 1999.)


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

So I was down at the Drug Store getting more of the pills to inhibit my neurotransmitter reuptake, and there on the bottom shelf of the cabinet near where you drop off prescriptions there were some Home Pregnancy Tests, and some Home Cholesterol Tests, and next to those there were some Home Drug Tests (Marijuana).

And while I realize there are all sorts of Important Social and Cultural and Moral Things to say about these, what I’m really thinking is what a great routine George Carlin could have done on these.

Just imagine, someone sees one of these in the store when he’s a little wasted, and he’s like “whoa, cool, I’ll take some o’ those, man”, and he takes them home and opens one up and figures out how to use it, and then he yells “SHIT!” and his roommate says “what’s wrong, man?”, and he says “Man, I’ve got WEED!!”.

Something like that, anyway.

I was going to write down other things, too, but I can’t remember what…

Oh yeah! So we forgive Jen Rhee for whatever role she is playing in the mystery infographic spam thing, because one of the things that she links to on her Digg page is 5 Questions We Desperately Need a Buckaroo Banzai Sequel to Answer, and Buckaroo Banzai references are worth alot.

(Although we also dimly suspect that the things on her Digg page are carefully selected to contain at least one thing that is worth alot to each of seventeen carefully-selected Internet Demographic Groups, about which she also has infographics. But probably we are just paranoid.)

Passive media invades the Internet!

In the sense that I heard something on NPR or somewhere about how all various people with lots of money, like Google and I guess Yahoo and all various other people are apparently spending lots of money to put together “channels” which would carry “programs” that people would then be expected to “watch” like they do (or used to do) with “television programs”.

Which strikes me as bizarre!

I personally have very little patience with non-interactive media these days, and the only things I really consume that you can’t click on, so to speak, are (a) background music, (b) WNYC while doing other things, and (c) occasional old Buffy episodes on Netflix. My impression of YouTube “channels” is that they are, like, places where you can go to find some mildly amusing “JibJab” thing with animated talking pictures of politicians or something, except now they have advertisements which if you have to watch more than like six seconds of invariably causes me to go do something else instead.

But apparently I may not be entirely typical (shocking thought), or at least some people with lots of money are willing to bet that I’m not. So there are whole “channels” on YouTube and YahooTube or whatever and maybe like Hulu and things, where people make “episodes” of “programs” with High Production Values, and advertisers, and all like that there, so you can have the whole stultifyingly dull and ad-saturated television experience right there on your computer, oh joy oh rapture.

Here is one they talked about on whatever NPR story or whatever it was that I heard: Barely Political. If you click on that you will go to a YouTube page where some video will probably play even without you asking it to. The one it showed me was incredibly stupid, but maybe you will be luckier.

(It occurs to me that when I watched several in a row “episodes” of (what was that? oh, yeah) Dragon Age: Redemption, I was probably consuming one of these very “web program” things, but it was just to moon over Felicia Day, and obviously that doesn’t count, right?)

This interests me somewhat, in that I like to think of the Internet as extremely liberating and empowering and tending to inspire and facilitate creativity and collaboration and participation and all, which is pretty much the opposite of the “sitting on the couch staring at ads interspersed with brief stretches of plot” paradigm that TV and this stuff represent.

Passive consumption has, I tell myself at some level, been so successful on TV just because the technology doesn’t offer the superior alternatives, and now that the ‘net so definitely does offer those alternatives, we’re basically done with that whole TV thing.

But maybe not!

Time will tell…

oh P.S.: This is probably the NPR story that I heard.


Sunday, January 15th, 2012

Having said that the longer I stay away from WoW the less I miss it, I have now naturally started playing it again. :) I picked up a (human male) Warlock that I’d rolled up a long time ago, who was sitting at like level 28 or something being bored in Westfall, and looked to see what they’d done to Warlocks lately, and started leveling him, and now he’s like level 83 I think, doing Cataclysm quests and instances and stuff.

It’s been fun, I’ve been RPing him very lightly (it’s an RP server) as an Evil Necromancer type Warlock, enjoying going around drinking any souls that come to hand, consorting with demons, making diabolical (although in fact actually beneficial) alchemical potions, laughing maniacally at the Light-sucking fools RPing around the Stormwind Cathedral, and all like that.

But wow, WoW is easy these days. :)

Continuing to think how very very painful it must be to be an intelligent Republican these days, with all the anti-science and religious purity-tests and things that seem to dominate the party. Not that the Democrats are all that wonderful, but they are at least not so incredibly blatant.

Also in politics, fascinated to see the Administration coming out rather strongly against the whole SOPA/PIPA “let the music companies censor the Internet” thing. Brief speculation Twitter that maybe someone had just hacked whitehouse dot gov and put words into their mouths seems to have been unfounded!

Right now I am listening to some live music streaming in SL, with lil Dale standing at the back of the crowd swaying subtly while I do things in other windows.

Oh! Question for readers: there is an old movie, I think it is an old movie, although I’m pretty sure in color, and in this old movie there is an aspiring actress, and at one point the aspiring actress has this script that she’s going to use to audition with, and she goes over the scene with a friend or another aspiring actress or something, and it’s a relatively ordinary conflict between two people like yelling at each other, and then later in the movie she goes to actually audition the scene with some older and maybe famous and maybe slightly has-been (I’m not sure) actor, and the scene goes completely differently, still conflict between two people but this time extremely intense and passionately charged, with them snarling at each other with their lips like an inch apart, and although it’s the same words it’s amazingly different from the earlier runthrough.

So! Anyone know what movie that is? :) I have no idea. I’m pretty sure I didn’t just dream it though.

Drove the little boy up North into the colder and further-apart parts of New York, for an audition for the Music School of a College that he’s already been accepted to (we’re two and zero so far!). That was a fun little expedition; we got to stay in a Hotel because it was a bit of a drive, and the audition was in the morning, so we drove up the day before and drove back after.

We ate dinner at the Cracker Barrel next to the hotel. Cracker Barrel’s got quite a thing going there! There aren’t any very near us for some reason, but we’ve been to a few now. They’re all basically identical, they have big porches with rocking chairs and checkers sets (all for sale), and big stores inside selling all sorts of classic Old Fashioned Country stuff (did you know they still make Moon Pies and Cracker Jacks that come in cardboard boxes rather than metalized plastic bags?), and then big dining rooms with old-time ads and farm implements on the walls, and menus with lots of classic and high-calorie and not very expensive food.

(Humans were intended, I think, to eat the meals that they serve at Cracker Barrel, but only after having spent at least four hours in hard physical labor.)

I had the Chicken and Dumplin’s, the little boy had something with macaroni and cheese and shrimp, and we got the free corn muffins, and I had a Stewart’s Root Beer, and we both bought little candies in the store (malted milk balls for me, huge Smarties for him), and it all came out to just about twenty dollars.

There was snow on the sides of the road starting about halfway there, and on any cars coming from the north, but it didn’t snow on us at all. There was a detour on the way back, but we only got slightly lost. :)

Watched another episode of Buffy last night; I’m still somewhere in Season Three. Willow is extremely cute; I’m looking forward to the season where she becomes like a scary evil super-witch (although sad about the reason).

And now The Magnificent Seven is on the teevee, and I’m listening to CelticMaidenWarrior Lancaster doing a live set in SL (currently doing shoutouts to the people she recognizes in the crowd and anyone else obvious, and about to launch into “Lay Lady Lay”), and we’ve had our bagels, and I’m just sitting here relaxing. Maybe I will go make level 84 with that warlock…


Vampire Willow

That’s a fun title! All sorts of possible meanings. But only one in the Buffy context, and this time we are in the Buffy context because I have been watching ancient Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes again (or, as I keep saying by accident much to M’s hysterical amusement, “Bumpy”).

That’s Vampire Willow over to the right there (or somewhere nearby, or else you just have to imagine a picture, depending on how you’re Experiencing this Content). She appears in two Episodes: “The Wish” and “Doppelgängland”. She is, obviously, the vampire form of Willow, the shy quiet bookish young hacker girl that everyone with an inner geeky highschool gynophile has an enormous crush on.

Vampire Willow is the sultry sexy id of the Good Girl Willow. She has Willow’s cute mannerisms, without the insecurity and repression. She also looks on humans as primarily a food-source, and enjoys causing fear and suffering, but our inner geeky highschool gynophiles are willing to overlook that because she looks so good in leather.

Besides fanboying all over the character, I bring up the topic of Vampire Willow because the episodes, especially “Doppelgängland”, touch on the question we considered the other week: just what is the relationship, in the Buffyverse, between a person and the vampire that that person becomes after they are, um, made into a vampire? And what does this tell us about personal identity, moral responsibility, justice, and so on?

One delicious and relevant moment in “Doppelgängland”:

Willow: It’s horrible. That’s me as a vampire? I’m so evil, and skanky… and I think I’m kinda gay.
Buffy: Willow, just remember, a vampire’s personality has nothing to do with the person it was.
Angel: Well, actually…
[pauses as Willow and Buffy look at him]
Angel: That’s a good point.

Now Angel was about to say something along the lines of “actually, a vampire’s personality is shaped to a surprising extent by the personality of the person” (and of course the “kinda gay” thing is lovely foreshadowing since it will turn out that Willow is in fact kinda gay, for various values of “kinda” and “gay”).

This suggests some sort of subtle grey area between our previous wondering whether a vampire is (a) the same person, just with the soul / conscience / goodness removed, or (b) a completely different person (well, demon) who is just using the body of the (now dead or whatever) person.

Perhaps the vampire is a demon who is using the body, and also using the personality of the original person, only with the non-demonic bits left out, maybe because this flavor of demon doesn’t have a personality of its own. When looking at the vampire, then, we might draw conclusions about the person, not so much that they are culpable for the vampire’s acts or anything, but something along the lines of “this is what Willow / Angel / whoever would be like if they cast off the shackles of conscience“.

This still doesn’t seem to justify (for instance) Xander or Giles hating Angel-with-soul for what demon-Angel actually did, so we still have a puzzle there. But one can imagine that knowing things of the form “if he were to cast off the shackles of conscience, Angel-with-soul would be capable of X and Y and Z” might make one sort of uncomfortable to be around him, at a visceral level. (As might, I admit, just knowing that his body had in the past done these various very unpleasant things.)

Nor does it really make any sense of the gypsies’ (gad, is that the right spelling?) wanting to give Angel back his soul so he could suffer for what he (“he”) had done. The closest it really gets is “we will give him back his soul so that he can see the awful kinds of things that he might do if he didn’t have a soul!”. But that’s kinda stupid. If not any stupider than any other explanation we’ve been able to come up with for the gypsy thing.

Presumably (or at least this is worth thinking about) we don’t hold anyone morally responsible for things that they would do if they had no conscience, because when we judge someone morally we are judging (among other things) exactly their conscience. If we found out that someone would be a murderer if only they were a better shot, we might judge them harshly; but “he’d be a murderer if only he had no conscience” is not nearly the same sort of accusation.

Of course I’m awful at explaining human behavior in general. :) Don’t get me started on sexual jealousy, for instance (another common Bumpy theme); why is Willow hiding in the girls’ room crying (in “Consequences” I vaguely think it was) because she’s found out that Xander (whom she loves but is carefully not physically involved with because she is going all steady with Oz who she probably also loves) has had sex with ummm Faith, and why does she dislike Faith intensely as a result?

It’s not like she and Xander had pledged mutual fidelity and he’s broken the agreement; quite the opposite in fact! (That is, they’ve promised not to get physically involved with each other.) Is no one she loves allowed to have sex with anyone else? (That would probably condemn Xander to a life of celibacy, given the Oz thing.) Is she envious of Faith? Is she wishing that society wasn’t so annoyingly monogamous so she could snuggle with them both? (That one would almost make sense to me, come to think of it.) But it doesn’t seem to be that kind of crying.

(Maybe it’s more the “In this situation I’m supposed to cry for no rational reason, like in the hundreds of similar love stories you’ve seen throughout your life, and don’t question it or you’re some kind of sick pervert!” kind of crying, heh heh.)

So okay, that (and for that matter my relative incomprehension of the immediate “never speak to me again!” reaction of Cordelia and Oz finding Xander and Willow kissing that time in “Lover’s Walk”, when you’d think that if there was any actual, y’know, love involved it’d be more like “I understand, pumpkin, you both thought you were going to die, it’s a perfectly normal reaction”, or in Cordelia’s case “whatever, as long as you continue to turn me on with your wild chemistry”) — ehem anyway, that is my cluelessness about human nature for the night.

I will go back to interacting with nice rational computers now. :)


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Personal Identity and the Continuity of Consciousness in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that one Babylon 5 Episode

We use these two fragments of popular culture (decade-old popular culture, at that) to explore and illuminate our intuitions, or lack thereof, about personal identity, consciousness, and moral responsibility (that last bit didn’t fit into the title, or really it would have fit, but then the title would have been really really long).

The theory of vampirism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as laid out by the title character in the Season Two episode “Lie to me“, is that when a vampire does whatever it is to a human to make the human into a vampire, the human dies, and a demon comes to inhabit and animate the human’s (former) body.

This simple theory is complicated by the vampire Angel, or Angelus. After he does terrible things to a stereotypical tribe of gypsies, the gypsies cast a curse on him in revenge. The curse, intended to make the vampire suffer, “restores his soul”.

There are (at least) two ways we could imagine this soul-restoration occurring: either the original human soul (including subjectivity and memory) is brought back from some afterlife to inhabit its former body (although, as textual evidence from other episodes strongly suggests, with the demon also still in residence in a usually-subservient position), or some generic soul (consisting really of just a “conscience” or a sense of right and wrong (whose?)) is injected into the body along with the demon.

The first of these possibilities is supported by most of the evidence; on first having his soul restored, Angel is confused at first, not knowing where he is or why. This is consistent with the consciousness having just returned from some afterlife, and not having been caught up with what the demon in its (former) body has been up to. But then the memories do arrive, and Angel is horrified to realize all of the things that he (the demon? his body?) has done, and begins to suffer as the gypsies intended him to.

Note the bizarre moral theory here, however. In this reading, in order to punish the demon for his evil acts, the gypsies have summoned up someone else entirely who will feel bad about these acts, and arranged for that someone else to suffer. (The demon, presumably, is not really suffering, except to the extent of being annoyed by this human soul having taken over the body; an annoyance that is attested to in later episodes when the human soul goes away again, and we hear from the demon; although the body of utterances there is not completely unambiguous.)

But why would the gypsies consider that to be justice, and why would anyone sane go along with that consideration? The demon has done terrible things, so we will arrange for someone else, who in the past inhabited this same body, to suffer. How could that be just?

The other possible reading is that the original Angel is still dead and gone, and some more generic feelings of guilt have been imposed upon the demon inhabiting the body. This seems a little more plausible as a kind of justice, but the theory of moral feelings that it requires is odd; in this view moral feelings must be something independent of one’s nature, of who one actually is, so that they can be sort of grafted on after the fact to any personality and consciousness at all, including that of the most depraved demon. And while Angel-with-no-soul is the vilest creature imaginable, Angel-with-soul is such a great guy that Buffy falls in love with him, the viewer is clearly supposed to identify strongly with him as a Good Guy, and so on. (Also, later on when the soul is removed again, the now-evil Angel says of the human one “your boyfriend is dead”, which is more evidence for the first theory, although it could possibly be a figurative way of saying “because I no longer have a conscience, I am evil and nasty again, so that goodness you saw in me before is dead”; but that seems a bit of a stretch perhaps.)

So neither of these theories is really satisfying, and this suggests that our ideas about continuity of consciousness, personal identity, and moral responsibility aren’t sufficiently well-formed to handle these counterfactual edge-cases in any consistent way. If a demon takes over my body, surely I shouldn’t be responsible for its depraved acts, and made to suffer in the name of justice. On the other hand, surely just adding a generic conscience to a vile monster would not convert that personality into something virtuous and admirable.

Then there’s that one Babylon 5 episode. Which one was it, let’s see… Ah, yes: Divided Loyalties (also in the second season, albeit of a different series).

The setup at one point here is that it’s known that someone on the station innocently and unknowingly has a bomb hidden in their brain, and in order to find who it is they have people line up to sit in a booth where, if they are the one with the bomb, it will go off and kill them, while not hurting anyone else. So everyone lines up more or less calmly, except for a bit of grousing about interfering with personal privacy, to sit in the booth and be examined and possibly die.

Ha ha, no, of course that isn’t actually it! That would be ridiculous. It’s actually that someone has an evil Psi Corps artificial personality implant, which will activate when a telepath thinks a certain code-word into their brain, so everyone lines up, with only a bit of grousing about not liking telepaths, to have the code-word thought at them. Which, if they are the one, will awaken the artificial personality implant. Effectively killing their real personality.

And that is actually it! And the people line up anyway! Is that bizarre, or what? It’s again hard to imagine the theory of personal identity and continuity of consciousness here, that would either cause the people to be willing to be tested with only a little grumbling, or that would cause the supposedly virtuous station staff to attack the problem that way (rather than, as they presumably would have done in the brain-bomb case, looking for a way to find and defuse the bomb without killing the person that happened to be carrying it).

It seems as though the writers, and the commentators who have written about this episode without noting the bizarreness of the whole test thing, are working from some theory where people only care that their bodies continue to exist, with some consciousness in them, even if it’s not the one that’s in charge right now. Echoes here of the gypsies, who only care that some consciousness in Angel’s body suffers, even if it’s not the one that was in charge when the actual atrocities were committed.

We might speculate, for instance, that we are so used to seeing a single body always associated with a single personality and a single consciousness, that we don’t really think very hard, at least in these examples, about what happens to identity, moral culpability, or personal survival when that is no longer the case, and we don’t always get a sensible answer when although there’s still someone in there, it’s now someone else.

Readers are warmly invited to submit other ways to read either or both of these fragments of popular culture, in ways that simplify or otherwise cast different lights on the issues.

Other things I might weblogify about in future issues: how Apple is becoming less evil, and iTunes-U and this thing I’m listening to. Also bread, and other stuff!