Friday, August 26, 2011

The Message Boards are the Scariest Place on the Internet

In As Good As It Gets (1997), Jack Nicholson's character is asked how he writes women so well in his books, Nicholson being a writer. The irritated author replies, "I think of a man, then take away reason and accountability". 

The message boards are like 4Chan, if you subtract reason, intelligence and a modicum of sanity.

So it begins.
The place has the perfect blend of ingredients for total anarchy. There are no omnipresent mods, although particularly offensive comments do get deleted. There are no names or faces, and accounts are easy to make, so there's no accountability. And best of all, because everybody's a fan of one NFL team, absolutely everybody comes to the party ready to whale on 31 other factions.

Whether your player was ranked too low or criticized or someone else was ranked too high, there's always some reason to cuss out both the writer of a given article and anyone else within reach. And boy, do they cuss. I was reading a Michael Lombardi article (who I've read a lot of on and on; he's a Peter King-like writer and a good football analyst) on the best players in the league and practically every commenter was saying you suck, you're horrible, you should be fired because you ranked XXXX lower than YYYY, leaving ZZZZZ off the list is criminal (Criminal! Can you imagine?), and so on and so forth. For every positive comment towards a given article/other poster, there's 10-15 negative ones.

The only saving grace is that swear words are technically unlawful. I say technically, because since nobody gives a rip, the commenters find moderately clever ways to cuss each other out anyway ("b u l l s h i t, bullsh!t, bullshet, etc). The restriction also does nothing at all to mitigate the vitriol on the boards, just the ways in which it can be expressed. It's one big crowd of loud, angry, overwhelmingly male, poorly articulating, flagrantly misspelling, misogynistic all-hating assholes.

Oh, and few commenters even try for correct grammar or spelling, so it's that much more of a mess. There are some reasonable comments, sure, but the lack of a direct 'reply to this comment' function leads to one huge confused thread instead of lots of little threads that make sense. The reasonable comments get lost in a sea of misdirected Internet rage.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

An Open Letter To Creationists

Dear creationists,

Here’s a couple of interesting things I just learned.

In London, in the 1830s and ‘40s, there were a series of cholera epidemics. The city had no sewers as we know them today; instead, human waste was being flushed into Londoners’ drinking water, giving them cholera thereby. In 1849, a doctor named John Snow figured out that cholera was not spread by “miasma” or bad smells, but by sewage-contaminated water. Naturally, he published papers on the subject and told anyone who would listen, but the medical establishment remained convinced of the “miasma” theory and would not entertain Snow’s idea. Snow’s findings were not accepted until 1866, and as a direct result, tens of thousands of people died of cholera in the meantime.

We move now to Panama, near the turn of the twentieth century. Here, too, diseases ran rampant. Yellow fever and malaria, mosquito-borne illnesses, terrorized the French and later American workers building the Panama Canal. The medical establishment, again, thought that “miasma” was the culprit and that clean-living, morally upright people would somehow be protected from the disease. A Cuban doctor had discovered the mosquito’s role in spreading disease in 1881, and an American doctor corroborated it in 1898, but the American crews came to the Panama Canal in 1904 completely oblivious to the insects’ danger. Hundreds of workers sickened and died until, in the middle of 1905, the canal-builders began a concerted effort to eradicate the mosquito from their area.

I bring these two things up to illustrate the following point. In both cases, the people who believed in “miasma” were not malicious, evil or vindictive. They thought they were right, and were unwilling to even entertain contrary scientific evidence because of this, and consequentially many people died when they could have lived. Remove the deaths, creationists, and this should sound very similar to your own worldview. 

Science, at its core, is an attempt to fully describe and understand the world in the most detailed possible way. It is detailed, thorough and open-minded. And when a pre-scientific method idea runs up against a post-scientific method idea, the post-scientific method idea has always won and will continue to always win, because it is backed by evidence. See: flat Earth, the Sun revolving around the Earth, the Aristotelian theory of the atom, the Four Humors, the luminiferous aether, etc.

That’s not to say that the ancient minds who thought up those (wrong) theories were mentally inferior to present-day man. They weren’t. Both ancient and modern minds were engaged in the same pursuit: to explain a huge, crazy, confusing, wonderful world. Present-day man just has better tools and more experience to draw upon. If you view human history as one long march towards understanding, as I do, it’s not difficult to see ancient ideas as the bottom-most layer of a pyramid. Each successive layer of ideas brings us closer to understanding the world we live in.

You happen to be stuck on a layer that’s thousands of years old and no longer applies. Your layer describes the way that people thought the world worked thousands of years ago. Since then, we’ve found out (through a shitload of trial and error) that the world works differently, and we’ve moved up the pyramid. But you’re stuck with a set of ideas that are as hopelessly out of place in the modern world as a Tiktaalik roseae would be in New York City.

The point I’m making is that it isn’t just you who’s not caught up on your history. At every stage of history, people have resisted every scientific theory that differed from what they previously believed. And pretty much every time, science, progress and ascension up the pyramid have won out. So, just for the sake of breaking the trend, could you fucking well get ahead of the curve for once in our species’ existence? Otherwise, we’ll be dragging your dead weight well into the age of metahumans, and nobody really wants that.


Andy Tisdel

Monday, August 22, 2011

Linkstorm 8/22/11: The Most Fascinating News in the World

I stopped doing this awhile back, but a zillion interesting articles have accumulated on my computer in the past couple days and I feel like sharing them with everybody.

The most interesting thing has to be Warren Buffett's New York Times 8/15 op-ed (1) calling for-huh?-the unbelievably rich citizens of the U.S. to pay more in taxes. Author and neuroscientist Sam Harris had an interesting follow-up on his site (2), and linked back to a lengthier, more thoughtful piece on the inequality of wealth in the U.S. at present (3). Meanwhile, comedian Jon Stewart mounted his own defense of Buffett's claims (4).

Elsewhere on the New York Times site lurks a movie column containing the best description of Keanu Reeves I've ever seen (5), a rather astounding study showing that black scientists are less likely than white scientists to get funding from the National Institutes of Health (6) and the single best project ever, a $500,000 grant from DARPA to study the implications of sending humans to Alpha Centurai (7). Finally, The Fifth Down is a snooty but knowledgeable and thought-provoking football blog that I've only just come across (8).

Speaking of football, if you haven't perused the Yahoo! Sports investigation into Miami University's NCAA-illegal benefits, you absolutely should (9).

What else have we got? Vogue magazine has about the dozenth profile story I've seen on Jon Huntsman (photos by Annie Liebovitz of Washington Semester Program fame) (10), Charles Krauthammer has a damning but accurate column on Obama's leadership ability in the Washington Post (11) and the Post has a quick roundup of the idiotic things Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum have said lately (12). Bachmann gets a pass for hers; anybody can make a verbal slip, but is there a better way to scare independent voters like myself than to pooh-pooh evolution (Perry, 13) or link homosexuality with the failing economy (Santorum)? And in the most disquieting story of them all, the Washington Monthly reveals how an ex-Marine who pushed the deployment of armored personnel carriers in Iraq paid for it with his professional career (14). (If you're as outraged by that as I am, checking out The Pentagon Labyrinth (15) will really get your blood boiling.)

Coincidentally enough, one of the opinion pieces got its own blog post on Tisdel's Tirades, my mouthiness outlet to the Internet, the other day. The POLITICO op-ed, about the storage of nuclear waste, is here (16) and my take on it is here (17).

A few .pdfs for the road: The Progressive Policy Institute has published a study illustrating that it's easier to be an ideological nutcase than a moderate if you're running for office. It actually cost moderate House Democrats about twice as much as liberal Democrats to run their respective campaigns in 2010, as just one rather shocking example (18). In the "I'm Glad To Know Somebody Out There Is Thinking About This" department, a serious scenario analysis has been published on possible contact scenarios with extraterrestrial life (I haven't read all this yet, but by God I'm gonna) (19). And the 192-page snoozefest sure to interest only me, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future's draft report to the Department of Energy, is also something I'm working my way through (20).

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Nuclear Waste Storage: An Intermediate Option

Robert Bryce, a successful author on energy policy, recently wrote an op-ed in Politico encouraging the U.S. to store nuclear waste on government land.

His thesis is that, given the post-Fukushima Daiichi danger of storing spent nuclear fuel (SNF) on the grounds of reactors, the federal government should move it to regional collection centers on federal land, which is what people in the nuclear industry have been saying for awhile. This gets rid of the problems of moving the waste long-distance to Yucca Mountain (in the middle of the desert), which is a bad idea anyway, and would save the federal government billions of dollars in lawsuits.

I don't disagree with Bryce, but I want to clarify a couple of key points. First of all, the meltdown at Fukushima Daiici was exacerbated by spent nuclear fuel storage, yes. But there are two kinds of fuel storage. After being removed from the reactor core, nuclear fuel rods typically spend around five years in a pool of water, called the spent fuel pool, cooling off. After they're cool enough to handle, they're packed into giant casks and kept on the grounds of the plant from whence they came. Bryce's plan would fix the problem with the casks, which definitely needs fixing, but the pools are what went wrong at Fukushima and they're non-negotiable. There's not another practical way to cool down the waste, and there's not really another place to put it for the five years it needs to cool off. In this sense, his plan would lessen, but not remove, the danger of having waste on the grounds of each reactor.

Secondly, regional waste collection centers reduce the dangers of transporting waste by reducing the distance each cask has to travel, but they do not eliminate it. Any plan to relocate the waste from its current scattered state (at all 104 currently operating reactors, plus several other sites) has to take that into account. The casks are tested against falls, fires and floods, but they are not invulnerable (particularly to periods of extended heat; a truck crashing and catching on fire in a tunnel, for example) and should not be treated as such in the planning process.

Finally, waste collection centers are a first step, not a longest-term solution. The next step should be the construction of reprocessing plants to turn SNF into mixed-oxide fuels, which can be fed back into nuclear reactors and used to generate power. Because of the low price of uranium, there is little financial incentive to do this right now, but a reprocessing plant is the only known way to get rid of nuclear waste permanently. They will be expensive and hard to fund while the price of uranium remains low, but if nuclear power is still a part of the U.S.'s energy generation when the price rises, we will definitely need reprocessing technology. The time to make a start on that is now.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Andy's Random Going-To-College Fact of the Day

Here's a bit of free advice: Don't wait until you get to the College to buy your textbooks. If you have your class schedule (I can't remember when in the freshman orientation process you get them), buy everything now. If you don't, I strongly recommend buying everything off of Amazon as soon as you do get them.

(I apologize in advance if you already know this and I'm just being pedantic.) Here's what you do: go to the Current Students tab on the Wooster website and click Bookstore. Go to Books and select your department and course numbers. For each individual course, it'll give you the new and used prices. (Never buy new, of course.) Order those books on Amazon instead and it's a lead-pipe cinch you will save a ton of money. I saved $102.75 this semester alone like this.

Textbooks are basically one enormous scam. It used to be that colleges didn't have to post the class reading lists online before students arrived for school, so they just kept it to themselves. Students arriving at school either had to pay the inflated prices for the books the school had on hand, or order online and miss a week or more of class readings while the books percolated through the mail. It was bad enough that the colleges are now required under federal law to make their textbook lists available a certain time before students arrive, so you can order now and avoid exactly that situation.

Textbook buy-back is a whole 'nother kettle of fish, but suffice to say, it is much better to NOT sell your books back at the end of the semester because there will be a huge glut of textbooks on the market and no one will give you fair value. Instead, wait until the beginning of next semester when everybody's buying.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Things I Have Learned By Learning How To Juggle

-Juggling balls are expensive. I thought the sign said “4 for $6.50”, but it’s actually $6.50 for each ball. Yikes.

-It is incredibly addictive. As soon as you get a good one, your brain goes into overdrive and starts yelping “Do it again! Do it again!” Next thing you know, it’s an hour later and you’re sweaty and disgusting from chasing flying balls.

-That’s another thing. For a beginning juggler, it’s actually kind of a workout, because you’re constantly running around the room tracking down wayward flying balls, or making ridiculous dives to the ground to grab them just in time. Zoom!

-Remove anything and everything fragile from the room before you start juggling, because if you keep at it for like an hour, you will lose balls in every possible way and direction. Seriously, you’ll be playing out the “sum-over-paths” solution for an electron in real life by following every possible path the ball could ever take. So far, I’ve hit glasses, dishes, windows, the TV, a stack of breakable floor tiles and the cat. Move everything.

-The three most frustrating things in the world are, in order: 1. Balls knocking into each other in mid-air and falling to the ground. 2. The soft thump of yet another ball hitting the floor (this will happen literally hundreds of times). 3. Your body’s instinct to catch everything and not let it go.

-The three most satisfying things in the world: Getting a good rally. Getting a good rally. Making a stumbling, impossible catch of the ball that was flying into the kitchen at Mach 8 before it breaks glassware.

-Testicle jokes will get old really, really quickly.

-For some reason, every time you juggle, the balls end up carrying you forward instead of just being in an up-and-down plane. This will often, but not always, result in you crashing into the nearest wall.

-Juggle with friends! It’s that much more fun, and you learn a lot from watching the other person (mutual screw-up watch x10). Also, it means you’re less likely to get discouraged when you somehow manage to drop all three balls in .14 seconds, if the other person does something even worse a minute later.

-Despite all appearances, literally anyone under the age of 60 can learn to juggle. All you need is a ridiculous amount of practice. It took me about a week. Grab some tennis balls and try it yourself!

(P.S. 'How to juggle' books are a total waste of money. Here's how you learn to juggle: Try juggling. Repeat a thousand times. Results: 1) you now know how to juggle. 2) carpal tunnel syndrome in your poor, ravaged shoulders.)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Babylon 5: The Final Verdict

If you somehow missed the Babylon 5 rumpus that's been taking place around here for the past week, fear not: all the links can be found right exactly here. Last Friday, I did an overview of the show. Monday was the show's best characters, Tuesday was its worst, Wednesday was its best aspects and Thursday and Friday covered its worst aspects. Today, we wrap up the whole thing.

It occurred to me while I was writing the 'worst things' posts that I might be grading Babylon 5 on an unfair metric. Comparing B5 to the three best sci-fi shows of the 2000s--Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who and Firefly) inevitably puts it at a disadvantage, and there are all kinds of mitigating circumstances relating to why it stinks at times. Its first four seasons aired on a network (PTEN) that was relatively unknown and probably doomed from its inception, its budget was poor, it was in an era of TV sci-fi that didn't have all that many standout shows, and so on. The best sci-fi shows of the 2000s benefited from ample budgets, well-known networks and better actors than B5 could muster.

I'm not so sure that's an excuse, though. Less than two decades after its release, Babylon 5 looks extremely dated. The bad CGI, the heavily made-up cast contribute to it and the pre-HD cameras contribute to it, but there's a certain look to the footage, sets and in the directing that just stamps the show as old-fashioned. (The camera basically remains at shoulder height for the entire series.) It gained a large cult following and is remembered fondly by many sci-fi fans, but against sleeker, more modern shows it just doesn't measure up.

Ultimately, it's hard to pin the show's faults on J. Michael Straczynski or on extenuating circumstances. The actors are wooden, the directing is ordinary and the dialogue is poor: is that Straczynski's fault, or was it the fault of the era? It's hard to prove one way or the other. Ultimately, though, the only real criteria upon which I can evaluate Babylon 5 is how it looks to me, a fan of sci-fi that came of age in the 2000s.

Viewed purely on its own merits, then, Babylon 5 falls short in most ways. As I've been saying throughout this weeklong review, the show is consistently mediocre. Straczynski often likened his creation to a novel, but it's not an exciting one if that's the case. Bad writing, a lot of bad acting, bad casting, bad set design and stories that took forever to tell drag this show down, and good acting, some good universe-building and a pair of good seasons resuscitate it. I think some of the show's appeal originally lay in its serialization and consistent mediocrity: you could turn on the TV every week and know what you were getting. It wasn't going to be more than occasionally good, but it wasn't going to be horribly bad either, perhaps because there was so little at stake.

If you're a fan of the shows I mentioned at the start of this post, Babylon 5 is probably not for you. It's not remotely in their league. If your standards are lower or you're a fan of '90s sci-fi, then give it a try.

More Or Less Arbitrary Grading Scale
Acting: B-
Set Design: D
Character Development: A-
Average Episode Quality Relative to Itself: C
Imagination: B
Writing: D+
Universe-Building: A-
Good Villains: C- (good in seasons 2 and 3, terrible in 4 and 5)
Good Heroes: D-
Good Characters Who Are Both: A
Series Ending: F
Arc Continuity: A
Character Continuity: D+


Friday, August 12, 2011

The Worst Aspects of Babylon 5 (Part 2)

We're nearing the end of the Babylon 5 blitz. In case you missed the deluge of B5-related posts over the past week, here are some links: last Friday's overview of the show, Monday's rundown of the best characters, Tuesday's rundown of the worst characters, Wednesday's 'Best Aspects of B5' and Thursday's 'Worst of B5, Part 1'. Today I'll have Part 2 of the Worst Things, and then we'll wrap everything up on Saturday.
The Writing Stinks
I’ve been dancing around this for awhile, but I’ll just say it: The writing, done almost entirely by J. Michael Straczynski, is consistently bad. It is full of clichés, the dialogue isn’t clever (there’s a fascination with light bulb jokes that goes on for way too long), it’s fairly humorless and it doesn’t make you feel for the characters. The best thing you can say about the writing is that it gets the job done and tells you what you need to know in a given episode. The worst thing you can say is that’s all it does. The writing isn’t My Immortal-bad, but it’s serviceable at best. Compare it to Battlestar or Doctor Who or Firefly or even Star Trek and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a handicap to the actors rather than a help.

Consequence: Moral Superiority and Lousy Villains
I wrote the following halfway through Season 4:

“The thing that makes the current B5 conflict so uninteresting to watch is the absolute moral battle lines that have been drawn. Sheridan is what they call a paragon of virtue, a perfect ideal. He stands for Truth, Justice and the American Way, all in capital letters. ______'s side stands for nothing but fucking up other peoples’ shit. There’s no moral conflict because it’s been spelled out in the most explicit terms. Plus, there’s no documentation of what ______ does, how he does it or why. We don’t know how he got to be a police state-type of fellow, we’ve barely met him. We don’t know how he keeps everyone in line, other than through misinformation.

“There’s just such absolute ideological superiority from Sheridan, who sounds like a horse’s ass every time he draws upon it. There are very few moral choices or ambiguities to be found in B5.”

This is part of what I was saying about Sheridan, Zack Allan and Dr. Franklin in the Bad Characters post. They are so morally upright and the villain (in this case especially) is so poorly defined, it makes them unbelievable. There are very few moral conflicts on this show, and most of them feel manufactured (like the one near the end of Season 4 with the telepaths). The only convincing one comes at the end of Season 3, where Sheridan holds Morden against his will. For the rest, nothing. Sheridan and Co. are always right and the other guy is always wrong, period, end of line. This is especially true of the Season 4 villain, an evil cardboard cutout that we almost never see on-screen.

I’m Sorry… You Do What Now?
B5 relentlessly hammers home the theme that its characters are special people. There’s an entire Season 2 episode devoted to making sure that Sheridan and Delenn are the right people in the right place at the right time. But on the level of their jobs, they never seem to have much expertise. This is a minor quibble, but what does Garibaldi do exactly? He’s a good shot and he knows how to ask questions, but he doesn’t possess any skills specific to being a Security Chief. Dr. Franklin lets machines do all the work for him, is rarely seen in surgery and operates as a glorified diagnostician. Everything from mission-critical research to flying starfighters is handled by omnipresent computers.
picture unrelated.
The point here is that nobody really seems like an expert at their job, the way Chief Tyrol is an expert Viper repairman (Battlestar) or the way Wash is a special pilot (Firefly). They don’t have to say ‘I’m competent at my job’, we see them demonstrate their competence. In B5, nobody seems to be that skilled at any job. The emphasis is on having the right people and the right personalities, not their skills, which I find strange.

You Had A Problem? Since When?!
Here’s a fairly typical scenario:

Something traumatic happens to Garibaldi in Episode A. The episode ends, the threat is dealt with and Garibaldi goes back to work. Several episodes go by, during which Garibaldi seems unchanged. Then in episode H, Garibaldi has a nervous breakdown and goes “I’ve been haunted by the vision of my wife’s buttocks ever since Episode A!!”
Seconds before bursting into incoherent rage.
This happens ALL THE TIME. A character has a crisis, then seems totally fine, then tells us that they haven’t been fine all this time, even though they’ve been acting totally fine. I don’t know what to attribute it to, but it’s really lousy continuity between episodes. It feels like the show wants to have the emotional continuity of a Battlestar Galactica, but doesn’t really know how to go about it. This results in a lot of unintentional comedy, as characters have massive freakouts over something they were totally okay with just last episode.

In The Conversation:
-The music isn’t very good or very memorable, and it’s kind of used as a blunt instrument. You know exactly how you’re supposed to be feeling because the violins tell you it’s an emotional moment.

-Straczynski’s enormous plot arcs move maddeningly slowly, although this shouldn’t be unfamiliar for recovering Lost fans like myself.

-Because we rarely leave the station in the first two seasons, it’s hard to get a sense of the greater outside universe. This does change in seasons 3-5, as more of the characters venture outside, but it’s a little off-putting early on.

- B5 tells, it doesn’t show, particularly with regard to characters’ emotions. Straczynski doesn’t let the actors show you how the character is feeling, he writes in huge info-dumps where the character tells you exactly how he feels today.

Not Bad, Just Weird:
For some reason, whenever a character has a minor wardrobe change, it’s made into a big honking deal in the show itself. Sheridan’s beard, Delenn’s hair, the new B5 uniforms, Security uniforms, G’Kar’s eye color, etc. are all played up much more than you’d imagine them being. It’s not a bad thing, just a quirk.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mayhem Week: The Worst Things About Babylon 5 (Part 1)

Welcome to the week-long review of the TV show called Babylon 5! In case you missed 'em, here are links to last Friday's introduction to the show, Monday's 'Best Characters', Tuesday's 'Worst Characters' and Wednesday's 'Best Aspects of B5' posts. Tomorrow we'll have Part II of 'Worst Aspects', and then I'll wrap everything up in Saturday's post.

That Confounded Bad Acting
Kindly check Tuesday's post for a discussion of said bad acting.
Humans in Suits
Early in the show’s run, creator J. Michael Straczynski made the decision to eschew CGI aliens in favor of human-looking aliens. The choice was a sensible one, because the CGI of the mid-1990s looks awful, especially on a Prime-Time Entertainment Network budget. There’s some sort of Centauri-world bloodsucking thing in Season 1 that proves this particular point. Putting guys in makeup, therefore, was a logical decision.
The problem with this is twofold. One, nobody ever gives any reasons why the Minbari have bony heads, or why the Narn are orange, or why the pak’ma’ra have facial tentacles. They don’t serve any obvious function, so right from the start they feel like semi-random ornamentation. Two, even if the actors look like humans wearing makeup, there’s always the possibility that their bodies are more alien than they look, but this idea is systematically stamped out over the course of the series. 

It’s established that the majority of the ‘aliens’ speak English without trouble, have five fingers, four limbs, bipedal movement, two eyes that see in the human visual spectrum, breathe a nitrogen-oxygen mix, have approximately the same physical strength and vulnerabilities that humans do, think the same way that humans do, and are comfortable with Earth ‘standard’ gravity. This strains one’s credulity a bit far, don’t you think? (The First Ones that we meet are all nonhuman, but they are seen far less often than the human-esque races, probably due to budget constraints.)
I Mentioned the CGI…
I feel kinda bad putting this on here, because it’s really not the fault of the creators. They had in mind a very CGI-heavy show, with lots of space battles and expeditions, and mid-1990s CGI was both expensive and godawful. YouTube videos are better nowadays. But they went ahead with it anyway, and so while the CGI is worse than anything else you will ever see on TV, it’s also a testament to the show’s creative spirit. Hey, I guess that sort of turned into a good thing, huh?
Even the Real Sets Stink
Chalk another one up to a presumable PTEN budget crunch. It seems like a weird thing to criticize, but you know how in Firefly, the characters had a real connection and identification with the ship? How in Battlestar Galactica, the ship is a prison, a symbol and a source of hope all in one? How both ships really have personality and feel like home for their characters? 

B5 doesn’t have that. It sounds picky, but the sets are clunky and featureless and boring. There’s really not much effort to sell the station as someone’s home, as opposed to ‘where alien races meet to hang out’. This holds for all the sets, whether they’re on Mars or on Minbar or on the bridge of some ship somewhere. They don’t look remotely real, and more importantly, they don’t feel real. The actors don’t treat them like they’re real places. It’s like they took one of the worst lessons from Star Trek. (Small exception: the Drazi homeworld, which we visit in Season 5, is incredibly compelling.) 
I Saw That Coming
If someone on B5 mentions that Garibaldi must be having a great time on vacation on Zogblog VII, you can take it to the bank that the next shot will be of a bloody, bruised Garibaldi gasping for air. It’s a fairly predictable show. I’m not going to give away anything, but there’s a particular event in early Season 4 that is meant to be a huge surprise, but it’s just completely unsurprising. Even Season 5 is guilty of this. The viewer can predict B5 without too much effort, and the show doesn’t really make you think. That, to me, is pretty damning.
Speaking of S5…
I like Season 5 the best of all of the Babylon 5 seasons. Like I said before, they get decent acting out of Jeff Conaway and Patricia Tallman, introduce some good guest-stars and have some really great universe-building episodes. But the season itself was spectacularly mismanaged.
Due to a flash-forward in Season 3 and a brief scene at the end of Season 4, the viewer basically knows all the important points about one of the major threats of season 5. I was waiting around for eighteen episodes while the characters stumbled around with this threat, going “I know this! I know this one, dammit! Figure it out!” And when they finally do catch on to what the viewer could see eighteen episodes ago, is there a showdown? Is the evil defeated? No! That storyline and a half-dozen others are intentionally punted, left to be resolved in made-for-TV movies and the spin-off series, replaced by four episodes’ worth of characters saying their goodbyes!

I think that’s a total waste of a season. Wikipedia revealed that there was a lot of confusion with the demise of PTEN and the creators not knowing whether their show would be picked up (it was, by TNT, for Season 5), which might be a root cause of the fractured season. I get that, I do, but surely they could have done better than that. It would be like Battlestar Galactica declining to reveal the fifth member of the Final Five Cylons, wagging its finger at the fans and saying “Uh-uh-uh! You have to watch Caprica to get your answers! C’mon, I’m gonna string you guys out for ALL of your attention span!”

Tune in tomorrow for more embarrassing flaws in the show!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Best Aspects of Babylon 5

Good afternoon! If you're just tuning in, we're midway through a weeklong super-review of the TV show Babylon 5. Last Friday's preview of the show can be found here, Monday's post on B5's best characters here, and Tuesday's description of the worst characters here. Today, we tackle the best things about the show. Thursday and Friday will be posts about the worst things, and then we'll wrap it all up on Saturday.
Good Acting
B5’s cast, while accomplished, can’t compare to the David Tennants and the Nathan Fillions and the Edward James Olmoses of the world. It’s full of duds, including some of their biggest ‘stars’, and a lot of those duds’ on-screen time is a total waste of your patronage. But, surprise surprise, they have a lot of good actors/actresses putting in time as well. Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas are golden whenever they’re on screen, and both get a ton of time and storylines in all five seasons.

Aside from Lennier, Ivanova and the frequent guest stars I just mentioned, B5 brings in dozens of outside names every season. I can’t think of an episode that didn’t feature at least one one-off or recurring guest star, and a lot of the time it’s pretty effective. Wayne Alexander, who plays several of these roles, was a recurring favorite of mine.

Racial Psychologies
This is primarily a Season 1 and 2 thing, but one of Straczynski’s better moves was giving each major species its own background and personality, and having them manifest through that species’ ambassador on B5. Londo dreams of the vanished days of his once-great Republic, and sets horrible plans in motion based on those dreams. G’Kar’s race was repressed by Londo’s, and his species is still looking for its place in the universe. That’s evident in Katsulas’s acting. A lot of the humans are veterans of the Minbari War, a war they only won when the Minbari surrendered (they were about to win), and they’re still visibly freaked out about it. It's good casting, acting and writing all together.

The Big Ones

Like I said in the beginning, the series is primarily composed of mediocre episodes,  but every now and again comes a spectacular one. Babylon 5 doesn’t futz around with time travel much, but those episodes are some of the best. The culmination of the Shadow War in Season 4 is a kick-ass episode, as are a number of episodes in Seasons 1 and 5 (the Jewish one in S1, the fighting one in S1, the one in S5 where Garibaldi and Lochley bonk heads, etc). If you have the patience to sift through the crap, there’s some gold underneath.

Season 1, Season 5
In fact, those might be the show’s two best seasons. Season 1 featured Michael O’Hare instead of the wooden Bruce Boxleitner, and Season 5 got a lot of things right that hadn’t worked previously. It expanded some characters’ roles and scaled back others, gave Lyta Alexander a personality and introduced Robin Atkin Downes (“Lord” Byron) and Tracy Scoggins (Elizabeth Lochley). It’s perhaps an indictment of Straczynski’s inflexible arcs that his show’s best seasons were largely free of the series’ two longest-running storylines, but what can you do? Babylon 5 was best when it was universe-building, and that made up the meat of S1 and S5.

The Offbeat Episodes
Most of the B5 episodes followed a pretty specific formula. Station is hanging out, outside force/person/technology enters the station, someone wants to capture/speak to/negotiate with said force/person/tech, mayhem ensues. According to Wikipedia, Straczynski’s ideal show differed from the Star Treks of the time by having the universe come to the station, not having the station go and explore the universe.

I’m fine with that formula. But once or twice a season, the creators would try something completely different. It could be a news report on the state of the station, or following around random maintenance workers we’d never seen before, or taking a snapshot a million years in the future. All of these episodes served as a welcome change of pace, and most of them were pretty darn good.

A Bigger, Older Universe
 This is my favorite of the good things, and just about the only thing B5 has that sets it apart from the rest of TV sci-fi. You know how in Doctor Who, there’s a sense of the future being wide-open and full of wonders and practically infinite? Babylon 5 does a similar thing with the past. It has a wonderfully pervasive sense of age, of ancient wonders and fallen species and a history that far predates human experience. Any show can say that there’s been civilization millions of years in the past, but Babylon 5 makes you feel that sense of age and the unknown, of ancient mysteries and hidden treasures. That, I feel, is B5’s most distinctive and best feature.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Worst Characters of Babylon 5

Brief introduction: this week I will be doing an extended review of the TV show, Babylon 5. For last Friday's preview/series basics, click here. For yesterday's overview of B5's best characters, click here.

John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner), Captain of Babylon 5

Yep. Their flagship actor, Bruce Boxleitner (fresh off a lead role in Tron), is just awful in B5. There’s nothing distinctive about him. He’s a leader, he’s able to build consensus and he’s irreplaceable in B5 politics, but the guy himself would fit comfortably into any good guy/leader role. In fact, you could probably swap out not just Boxleitner, but the entire character of John Sheridan with any other generic good guy/leader and not notice the difference.

Sheridan has no flaws. None. Seriously, go back and watch the series like I did, and tell me if you find one single character flaw. The worst thing he does is display loyalty to his dead wife. How exactly are viewers supposed to relate to a flawless character? Boxleitner’s acting is poor (he reminds me of George Washington’s face on Mount Rushmore) and the character is a total write-off. We are given countless opportunities to know, meet and understand Sheridan, and it’s not like they didn’t try to write in depth for him. We’re given insight into his minutest thoughts, quirks and habits, and given every opportunity to like both actor and character. It just doesn’t work at all.

Zack Allan (Jeff Conaway), Asst. Security Chief of Babylon 5
 A bit-part character in Season 2 who ascends to a starting role in seasons 3-5, Zack Allan probably should have stuck to occasional guest appearances. He's even less watchable than Sheridan, and Conaway's acting is worse even than Boxleitner's. Zack starts to show some emotion midway through Season 5, but that’s about all you can say for him. The guy is a featureless rock with a stupid accent who does nothing worthwhile on the show. Londo pegged him perfectly with the caustic line, “You have that vacant look that says, ‘Hold my head to your ear. You will hear the ocean.’”

Stephen Franklin (Richard Biggs), Chief Medical Officer of Babylon 5
 For the third entry in a row, the character is uninteresting and the actor is poor. Biggs, Conaway and Boxleitner are given different qualities of material to work with, but all of them stink up the joint. Biggs just doesn't bring anything to the party in terms of acting ability, and his character suffers as a result, despite being given all sorts of material to work with. I didn’t always think this of Franklin; he handles a difficult science-versus-religion episode well, and is featured in the series’ most Star Trek-esque episode early in Season 1. But his emotionless patter, terrible delivery and lack of depth do him in. There is honestly a whole sub-arc in Season 3 whose sole purpose is to give Franklin some personality. After it’s over, Franklin picks himself up, dusts himself off and goes right back to being the same dull, featureless person he was pre-arc.

(Note: These three are highly visible, often-seen members of the B5 command staff. A lot of the good characters, many though they be, are stuck in more seldom-seen roles. Lennier is a minor character, Bester and Morden are occasional guest stars, etc. So although there are fewer of these guys, their crappiness has a disproportionate effect on the show at large.)

Virini (Damian London), Chamberlain to the Centauri Court
You have never met a more annoying character than Chamberlain Virini. He is fluttery, he is flighty and he is unconscionably stupid. You know those characters in anime franchises who are constantly behind on the plot, rarely to never understand what’s happening around them and run around screeching like demented geese whenever anything changes? Damian London is the live-action version of that, and it’s somehow even more annoying in this medium. London does a little better when he’s asked to be creepy in Season 5 (a lot of things improve in Season 5), but the rest of the time he’s just awful. I guess that’s just the role he was asked to play, in which case, this is the only time you’ll hear me criticize an actor for doing his job too well.

In the conversation: 
 Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman), Emperor Cartagia (Wortham Krimmer), David Corwin (Joshua Cox), President Clark (Gary McGurk). Tallman was ordinary in three seasons before blossoming in Season 5, when she was given an expanded role and more screen time. Krimmer wasn’t bad; his presence here is because he served as a walking reminder that you were watching a TV show. “How did someone so brain-twistingly insane become Emperor anyway? Oh, because it's on TV and someone has to be the villain.” McGurk I’ll deal with in the “Bad Things” note. As for Corwin, he’s here more as an indictment of creator J. Michael Straczynski than anything else. The guy appeared in 34 episodes as a member of the bridge crew, and in only one does he have significant lines or a subplot of his own. They could’ve done a lot more with him.

Tomorrow, we move back to halcyon times and contemplate the best qualities of Babylon 5.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Best Characters in Babylon 5

Brief introduction: this week I will be reviewing the sci-fi TV show known as Babylon 5. For last Friday's brief round-up of the show and the schedule, please click here. Today's post (duh) will cover the best characters in B5; tomorrow will cover the worst. If you enjoy this post, keep comin' back! 

G’Kar (Andreas Katsulas), Narn Ambassador to Babylon 5* 
An ordinary actor made to wear red contact lenses, orange-and-black face paint and a ridiculous tunic, and wave his hands like a cat when he gets in a fight might turn in a shit performance. Katsulas turns in an excellent one. From the series’ opening TV movie to its final season, he is consistently one of its two best actors. In addition, G’Kar becomes one of the most deeply nuanced characters. He is a villain, a chef, a writer, a warrior, a religious person and a knight (literally, in one case). G’Kar is a focal point for his race’s rage against the Centauri, and Katsulas does an excellent job of expressing that.

Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik), Centauri Ambassador to Babylon 5
Peter Jurasik makes the absolute most of Londo Mollari. In succession, Londo is sympathetic, pitiable, villainous, unscrupulous and finally heroic. I think he’s my favorite, now that everything’s over, because in a world of moral purity (I’ll come back to this in the Worst Things post), Londo is flawed! He drinks, he screws, he cheats at cards, he’s petty and vain and selfish and power-hungry, but he’s a good guy underneath it all. That’s something the viewer finds out over a long period of time, and watching him evolve is really an amazing thing.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the splendid connection between Londo and G’Kar. Their complex relationship is the single strongest aspect of the series. The two have an extremely complicated dynamic, which shifts from worst enemies to close friends and back again over the series’ run. I think some of the best episodes of the series came when Straczynski put the two characters in a situation and just let them bounce off each other (the Season 1 episode where Londo denies G’Kar access to a sacred plant is a classic).

Lennier (Bill Mumy), Minbari Diplomatic Attaché
A quiet, well-spoken servant type, Lennier does his job and doesn’t screw up. Bill Mumy plays him as very restrained, but as someone who’s capable of deep feelings. When he falls in love in Season 3, it brings a whole new dimension to his character (then again, I’m an easy target for male characters in unrequited love, so this one is subjective).

Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian), Lt. Commander of Babylon 5

Ivanova probably wouldn’t work as a starring role, but she is a capable No. 2 for the commanders of Babylon 5. A deeply pessimistic Russian Jew, Christian’s character is sometimes fiery and sometimes depressed. She brings some much-needed punch to the B5 command staff, which can be bland at times. Ivanova’s Jewish-centered episode in Season 1 is in my top three of the whole series.

Zathras (Tim Choate)
He’s only in four episodes, but all of them are great ones. Zathras guides the characters through time and space with his own particular brand of broken English and backhanded wisdom. Definitely the funniest character in the series.

Alfred Bester (Walter Koenig), Psi Cop
Bester is a good villain because he does what he thinks is right, which often conflicts with the B5 crew's idea of right. Most of their conflicts come from this simple effect. Bester is calm, calculated and utterly devoted to the Psi Corps. If Koenig’s character has a weakness, it’s his general lack of emotion, but that usually serves to make him a bit more villain-esque. Every time he’s on screen is a good time.

Morden (Ed Wasser)
Ed Wasser is the best pure villain on the show, which isn’t saying much (Londo, G’Kar and even Bester all have their heroic moments). As emissary for the Shadow race, he gets plenty of chances to be dark and menacing and makes the most of them (he’s especially effective in season 2). Zero nuances to his character, but who really cares? His interrogation scene with Sheridan at the end of Season 3 is a classic.

Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle), Babylon 5 Security Chief
The best way to describe Garibaldi is sort of a poor man’s Bruce Willis, circa Die Hard crossed with Pulp Fiction. Doyle gives his character a hard-ass mentality and a penchant for sarcastic quips. He’s kind of an asshole, actually, but he’s extremely crafty and good at his job. Garibaldi generally isn't a very complex fellow; the one major change in his character turns out to have been caused by outside forces. At his best when he’s kickin’ ass. (Incidentally, a garibaldi is the state fish of California. #randomfacts)

In the conversation: 
Vir Kotto (Stephen Furst), Delenn (Mira Furlan, who played Danielle Rousseau on Lost), Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) and Elizabeth Lochley (Tracy Scoggins). Vir and Delenn have good acting and terrible acting in pretty much equal parts. Sinclair and Lochley are impressive, but neither gets as much time as they should have had. The eccentric Draal (Louis Turenne) was one of my favorites.)

Coming tomorrow: the worst of B5! Cover your ears and grab your popcorn, because this series has some awful performers on it.

*Many of the characters' job descriptions change as the show goes on, so for the sake of making sense, I'm listing the characters by the first jobs they hold on the show.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Check Me Out on Oak Creek Patch!

Good evening all, I won't keep you long. Just wanted to show off my new article! I'm working the Internet as a Green Bay Packers blogger on the Oak Creek Patch website. My first serious article just went up this morning! It's called "Aaron Rodgers Vs. Chicago", and it analyzes Rodgers' statistical record against the Bears (spoiler alert: he struggles against them, worse than he does most other places). If you're into that sort of thing, please have a look!



Religion Has No Sodding Place In Politics

Religion is irrational, no matter which one it is, strictly by definition. If rationality means 'based on reason', than faith-based religion is the exact opposite.

It seems to me that the politician best qualified to lead the country would be the one best able to apply his or her faculties of reason. It is, after all, difficult to pray away a budget deficit.

So why, exactly, would we want a Bible-thumper in the highest office in the land?

Good luck with that, Governor Perry.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Babylon 5 Mayhem Week Preview!

Hokay! So I'm back after three days and rarin' to go. Here's the plan. I'm going to do a comprehensive series review of the TV show called Babylon 5. I'm also going to be out of town/away from Internet access from tomorrow until Monday, so I'm posting this preview now as a brief introduction to the show. The tentative schedule next week will be as follows: 

Monday: The best characters in B5. 
Tuesday: The worst characters in B5. 
Wednesday: The best aspects of the show (production, acting, philosophy, writing, etc.)
Thursday: The worst aspects of the show. 
Friday: The worst aspects of the show, continued. (Based on the list I made, I doubt they're all going to fit into one reasonably sized post.)
Saturday: Sum up, final evaluation and grade.

Your Babylon 5 Basics

The best thing you can say about Babylon 5 is that it won’t break your heart. It won’t give you a terrible episode, it usually won’t resolve a storyline in an unsatisfying way, and the worst it gets will be ‘mediocre’. The worst thing about Babylon 5 is that it’s consistently mediocre. Occasionally there will be amazing episodes that transcend the usual tedium and rise to awesome heights, but these are extremely rare and it’s hard to guess when they’ll occur.

I recently finished watching the entire five-season run (110 episodes) of B5, in large part so I could do this review. I’m going to provide a brief summary of the series, talk about the good things, talk about the bad things and try to get a handle on what all of it means. I’ll also introduce you to the best and worst characters on the show.
Spoiler alert: one of the best.
Briefly, Babylon 5 was a TV show created by J. Michael Straczynski that aired 1994-1998. It depicted human-alien diplomatic relations, and occasional wars, on board an enormous space station named Babylon 5. The show takes place within a version of our galaxy that harbors dozens of alien races, who get around by “jumping” in and out of hyperspace. Earth has colonies on Mars, Io and elsewhere, and owns the B5 station. Everyone is in diplomatic contact with one another and most of the races trade with each other, when they’re not at war.

 At the beginning of the series, the five most powerful races are humanity, the Centauri (who have huge frilly hair and colonized the Narns in the past), the Narns (orange with black spots, who detest the Centauri for it), the Minbari (bald with bone on the outside of their heads; fought the humans 10 years prior to season 1 in the Earth-Minbari War) and the Vorlons (who wear encounter suits at all times; nobody knows a thing about them). A sixth race, the Shadows, appears in Season 2. Other, minor races are introduced and fleshed out a little as the series goes on.

The series was frequently described by Straczynski as TV’s version of a novel. B5 generally sticks to long, planned story arcs that can stretch over several seasons. Everything in the show was planned well in advance of its being aired; there’s not a lot of ‘made up on the fly’ stuff. Each season of the series corresponds exactly to one year in real time, with the season finale often being mentioned in-episode as New Year’s Eve.

The B5 franchise included five TV movies, one of which introduced the series in February 1993. A second was set between Seasons 4 and 5, and the rest followed after the series' run. The spin-off series Crusade ran for 13 episodes in 1999 and is essentially a continuation of story arcs from the original series (it includes Daniel Dae Kim of Lost fame). Some of Babylon 5's obscurity comes from its network. It was aired on the Prime Time Entertainment Network (PTEN), which began in 1993 and folded in 1997. TNT picked up the final season of Babylon 5, and also aired Crusade and three films. The Sci-Fi Channel aired the fifth movie, Babylon 5: Legend of the Rangers.

I hope you enjoy the forthcoming week-long review. If you have questions, insults or comments, please feel free to share them!