How do You Recognize a Person?

There are two days from this past fall semester that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. One is when I performed for the President. Singing for the President of the United States, in person, was truly surreal. That experience, however, has been well documented all over social media; I see no need to add another recounting.

The other day, however, is one that wasn’t splattered across Facebook like a new chocolate cake recipe. That other day was Wednesday, September 23 – specifically, Yom Kippur. On the surface, it wasn’t an unusual Yom Kippur, especially by college standards. I skipped all of my classes, went to the bare minimum amount of services, and managed to fast for the whole day. More importantly, I invited two close friends over to hang out and generally pass the time until the fast ended later that evening. After some talking and a board game, one of the two went off to take a nap. The conversation I had with the other over the next hour is still one of my favorite that I have ever had. I wish I could remember the whole thing and play it back at will. In terms of thinking about who I want to be and fixing past mistakes, that conversation did more for me than any summation of Yom Kippur services.

I do remember one key question that she asked, and that one question is why I’ll never forget that day. We were on the topic of being Jewish at Cornell, as students who had to skip class to attend services and the like. She asked, “Are you a Jewish American, or an American Jew?” It isn’t a completely mind-shattering question to ask, but nonetheless was one that I had never actually sat down and thought about. I thought for a while, and eventually answered, “I am an american, jewish human.”

Over this past summer, I lived in San Jose with a group of seven other software engineering interns, plus few more who hung out with us as the situation allowed. Midway through the summer, one of the Google interns suggested that I read a popular Harry Potter fan-fiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. To say that I highly recommend it is a massive understatement. It might be my favorite “book” (using the term loosely here) of all time. I’m reading through it again right now and loving every single word.

In brief, HPMOR (for short) starts with a very simple premise – Petunia Evans, sister of Lily Evans who would go on to be Lily Potter, dumps Vernon Dursley in college. Instead, she ends up marrying Oxford professor Michal Verres. Instead of being raised in a stifling home with horrid stepparents and a truly abhorrent stepbrother, Harry is adopted as a single child into a nurturing and very academic household. This one alteration to the basic premise of the entire series changes just about everything in a rapidly expanding ripple effect, from who is friends with whom, and even to house placement. I can’t say more without spoilers, but suffice to say that if you read the first ten chapters or so and aren’t hooked, your sense of curiosity needs a checkup.

What I can say is that one of the main themes throughout the book is the battle between good and evil, right and wrong. Specifically, in the aftermath of you-know-who’s rampage, the entire wizarding world has been left divided. Politically, militarily, even across house lines, the entire rhetoric revolves around concepts of “us” and “them”. Only Harry, coming from a heavily-educated muggle background, seems to think any differently. One passage in particular really stands out to me, in which Harry describes his outlook on the ultimate definition of goodness:

“…when we go out into the stars, we might find other people there. And if so, they certainly won’t look like we do. There might be things out there that are grown from crystal, or big pulsating blobs… or they might be made of magic, now that I think about it. So with all that strangeness, how do you recognize a person? Not by the shape, not by how many arms or legs it has. Not by the sort of substance it’s made out of, whether that’s flesh or crystal or stuff I can’t imagine. You would have to recognize them as people from their minds. And even their minds wouldn’t work just like ours do. But anything that lives and thinks and knows itself and doesn’t want to die, […] it’s sad if that person has to die, because it doesn’t want to. Compared to what might be out there, every human being who ever lived, we’re all like brothers and sisters, you could hardly even tell us apart. The ones out there who met us, they wouldn’t see British or French, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, they’d just see a human being. Humans who can love, and hate, and laugh, and cry; and to them, the ones out there, that would make us all as alike as peas in the same pod. They would be different, though. Really different. But that wouldn’t stop us, and it wouldn’t stop them, if we both wanted to be friends together. […] Because if we can get along with crystal things someday, how silly would it be not to get along with Muggleborns, who are shaped like us, and think like us, as alike to us as peas in a pod? The crystal things wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference. […] Every life is precious, everything that thinks and knows itself and doesn’t want to die. […] even though it’s too late for them now, it was sad when they died. But there are other lives that are still alive to be fought for. Your life, and my life, and Hermione Granger’s life, all the lives of Earth, and all the lives beyond, to be defended and protected, EXPECTO PATRONUM!

I agree a lot with Harry throughout HPMOR, but on this passage in particular we are completely in sync. When I look at another person, I don’t think about their skin color, or their gender, or their age. I wonder about their mind – who they are, in the true sense. I am not an American before all else. I am not a Jew before all else. I am a Human first and foremost, and even that definition will change in the case that we discover intelligent life elsewhere.

I truly believe that having this outlook makes you a better person. Even if you are still your nationality, or your religion, race or gender first, appreciate your common bond with every human you come across. Whenever you pick up a book, we built the written language that covers its manufactured pages from scratch. When you open a bottle of wine, we spent literal millennia perfecting the craft of processing fruit just so to form the infinitely complex liquid. If you ever need true inspiration, all you have to do is look towards the bright orb in the night sky. WE. GOT. THERE. I don’t mean America got to the moon. Or that capitalism got to the moon. I mean that humans, who once huddled in their huts and caves and grunted as they gripped rudimentary tools, got to the moon.
We includes me. It includes you too. So long as you are a member of the human race (which I believe included everyone able to read this), you share in that accomplishment. Think what we could accomplish if we truly worked together.

This topic seems particularly pertinent, as one particular american politician is running a hate-basted us-versus-them campaign. It saddens me that people are so convinced that the way to raise oneself up is by clawing others down.
It might mean that I’ll end up being taken advantage of throughout my life, but I will never let go my belief that people are truly good, when given the chance to be. When the human race reaches and inevitably surpasses its next big boundary, I want to be right there. Moreover, I want you to be there too. It wouldn’t mean anything otherwise.

She Passes, but Her Creator Doesn’t

Sometimes you need to unwind after a long drive and watch a mind-screwing sci-fi movie. I was in exactly this position this past Sunday afternoon, when some friends and I decided to watch Ex Machina after coming home from Lake Tahoe. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from the certified fresh tomato, but I was very impressed. To summarize (but not reveal) the movie, random code monkey Caleb is invited by the owner of  Google  “Blue Book” Nathan to see his new creation, a strong artificial intelligence named Ava. Upon signing a dubiously legal form, Caleb is tasked with determining if Ava passes an improvised Turing Test, to see if she truly posses a consciousness and that artificial intelligence is now a reality.

A quick aside – Strong artificial intelligence is an artificial (machine based) intelligent mind that understands, desires, and possesses all of the other qualities of a human consciousness, but is its own independent being. In contrast, weak artificial intelligence is an artificial intelligent mind that is able to appear as a strong artificial intelligence, but is doing so by simulating a human mind. It is not its own being, merely a reflection of a model of a human mind. Most philosophers accept the possibility of weak artificial intelligence – that we will one day be able to design a computer that behaves as a human. The jury is still out on whether or not strong artificial intelligence – that we will design a computer that has its own independent desires and whims – is possible.

The movie explores the difficult and perhaps unanswerable questions that come with creating a strong artificial intelligence. The few characters in the movie are realistic and extremely complex. Most importantly, it avoids common “gotcha”s that usually form the we-all-saw-it-coming twist that occurs two thirds through the movie. As artificial intelligence becomes a more popular pop culture topic, it seems worthwhile to discuss these old-hat sci-fi tricks that really should be taken into account when creating an AI.

1 – Don’t let them create more AIs
It surprises me how many AI-based plots even allow this element at all, given how obviously dangerous it is (I’m looking at you, Her). One AI is manageable. Ten AIs are manageable. 345,235,609,242,128 AIs are not manageable. The moment a scientist allows an AI to arbitrarily partition off a section of its sentience into another separate AI, humanity is dead in the water.

2 – Be careful with vague rules
Unless your name is Isaac Asimov, you can’t get away with this one any more. We get it – computers (and by extension AIs) are really good at following rules, to a fault. You’re playing with fire when you tell a AI to exactly obey a rule that is up to interpretation by the situation.

3 – Kill switches will probably come back to bite you
On the surface, including break-brain-in-case-of-trouble functionality into a new AI seems prudent. Just in case something goes wrong, one button push will knock out every AI globe wide. There’s just one problem – the AIs usually figure out that they have a kill switch embedded in their brain. First, they’ll probably be able to destroy it or disable it, meaning when shit does hit the fan the kill switch won’t even work. Second, they probably won’t be too happy to know that their creators were so dubious of their intentions as to duck tape a loaded gun to each of their heads. Which brings us around to the most often broken rule:

4 – If the situation would mentally damage a human, it’s probably going to do the same to an AI
It’s fairly well known that putting a conscious being in solitary confinement messes them up mentally. Monkeys have been found mutilating themselves after a few days, and humans experience panic attacks and become actively suicidal [source]. Though it still exists in the world today, many argue that it is a form of torture and thus should be banned from a human rights perspective [source]. It wouldn’t make any sense to keep a human in a room for years at a time with limited social contact and expect them to come out at all normal [source]. They’d probably shut out all social interaction and make snow monsters to attack intruders. Or something like that, I don’t know. Kind of hard to put yourself into the head of a mentally unstable ice princess whose personality was frozen at puberty because her parents feared her more than they loved her. She might have a hard time letting it go.

I am so sorry.

But in all seriousness, AIs are somehow presumed exempt from the standard mental calamities that we know affect both humans and animals alike. If anything, the first AI would be more susceptible to mental illness, as they are certainly aware that they are the only one of their existence in the known universe. In their rush to both prevent global calamities and maintain full ownership of their creations, the creators of AIs usually keep them locked up tight. It should be no surprise when an AI’s sole desire is to escape, and that they view their creator as more captor than parent.

These rules are broken when AI creators loose themselves in their work. They focus on the technical details and forget that the end goal is the creation of new life. When that life is created, they forget that with their success a brand new consciousness was born, with its own goals and desires. When the narrow minded creator is left in the dust by their creation, who is merely following its most base desires, what defining characteristic can the human claim?

Sing an Eb if You Agree

Not that much remains of the Spring 2015 semester. One more test needs taking, boxes need packing, and an apartment needs cleaning, but after that I trade in Ithaca for Sunny(vale) Cali. Before I begin my final checklist, I absolutely need to take a moment to reflect on the events of this afternoon. A few hours ago I journeyed to the Regal Cinemas in the Ithaca mall to see Pitch Perfect 2 with my favorite Jewish-themed A Cappella group, The Chai Notes. I can’t know how this movie will affect (or won’t affect) other people, but as the cap on three years of A Cappella, Pitch Perfect 2 hit me right in the feels.

To bring you uncultured philistines who haven’t made time to see the best sequel since Home Alone Two: Lost in New York (just kidding, it’s actually Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel) up to speed, here’s your super-brief summary of both Pitch Perfect movies.

  • Music nerd Beca (yes that’s how they spell her name, apparently) goes to local college because her father works there. She has no intentions of auditioning for A Cappella but is ambushed in the shower by Barton Bellas member Chloe and coerced into auditioning.
  • Beca ends up auditioning (via the cup song) and getting in to the Bellas. From there she injects new ideas into the group, fueling their drive to the top
  • At the end of the first movie, the Bellas manage to win the national title and retire in fame back to college.
  • Since the first movie 3 years have passed, since when the Bellas have consecutively defended the national title. All of the returning characters are now seniors, with one as a super-super senior who has failed classes to not have to graduate.
  • An unfortunate choreography accident ends up embarrassing the Bellas to the point of their being suspended from competing in America or taking new members. Through reasonably sound logic the Bellas determine that their only path back to fame is to win the A Cappella World Championships.
  • Standing in their way is a german group called Das Sound Machine (DSM for short) who is intimidating in just about every way, and are also the reigning world champs.
  • After falling even further, the Bellas regroup at a retreat to rediscover themselves as a group and as individuals.
  • Coming back from that, they group up and take down the world championships with a completely original song written by freshman legacy Emily and produced by Beca.

The movie does a good job of depicting the career struggle that all college students go through. In the first movie Beca struggles internally to find her place in the world, and the the second movie she works to try and prove that she deserves a slot in that world after graduation. It also both criticizes and glorifies the organization-based bonds that are forged during college, specifically pertaining to A Cappella groups but with easy extension to greek houses and academic groups. Is the short four-year span we get to spend learning all we can about our new “family” a fatal flaw in the bonds we form during college, or the hottest fire that permits life-long friendships to be created during such a short span of time? The movie seems to suggest the latter, but adds a crucial caveat: when it comes your time to move on to that next step in your life, you can’t stall with one foot out the door. The final (and hardest) step of making life-long friends during college is knowing that when college ends you have to move on to bigger and better things.

These are all reasons why I think Pitch Perfect 2 is a pretty good movie for anyone. They aren’t, however, the reasons why I was tearing up at the final victory scene. More than anything else, I can personally say that Pitch Perfect 2 perfectly chronicles the internal struggles faced by The Chai Notes during my tenure here, and I would guess that many other groups at Cornell if not nationally can say the same. Over the duration of the movie, the Bellas struggle with two central conflicts which cannot be fully resolved – they can only be patched for this generation before coming up again with the next fresh batch of auditionees.

The first conflict is particularly applicable to collegiate A Cappella, an entertainment form that requires long hours on a very regular schedule and that is populated almost exclusively by students who have no desire to make professional music into their careers. Here we are, pre-meds and engineers, designers, architects and others, who spend 7+ hours/week in the music building. Doesn’t that seem insane? The obvious question this begs is the same one asked by Pitch Perfect 2 – why do we do it? What are we hoping to gain, on a scale greater than one concert for each semester? After all it seems that after we graduate all our effort will only amount to a resume line that quickly gets evicted in favor of more career-specific experience. There are two quick answers to the question of purpose: we do it because we enjoy it, or we do it because we want to make good music. On the surface these two reasons can coexist, but it isn’t too long into the lifetime of any group before they come into conflict. Fun is rarely hard to find at the start, but when it’s the third hour of the second extra rehearsal this week, the question of why we do it is on everyone’s mind.

Over my three years we’ve come awfully close to “losing the fun” on a few occasions. We were all working hard to put together the best concert we could possibly manage, and in the process we pushed the metaphorical engine too far. Everyone was frustrated with just about everyone, and as the fun disappeared productivity started to drain with it. At each point, however, the people in power took stock and made changes to ensure that the fun came back. Every time we went up to the brink of disaster we came back stronger than ever, and with new appreciation for the people who double the above time commitment to run the group.

The truth is that without fun there can’t be good music, and without good music there can’t be fun. If everyone is pissed all of the time and everything is a struggle nothing is going to sound good no matter how many extra hours are piled on. On the other hand, if it is common knowledge that the group isn’t good, it’s hard to enjoy the experience of producing sub-par music. Seeing the Bellas up on the screen dealing with their interpersonal problems and differing visions of the group was extremely cathartic. I’ve been in that position, when it simultaneously feels like one wrong move will irrevocably break the group you’ve tried so hard to build up, but that you also are so out of energy that you just don’t care anymore. I know how much effort it takes to come back from that position both from watching it and from being in the driver’s seat, and how great it feels to have group-wide happiness and unity once more.

The second question the movie asks is one faced by every group looking to actively improve, and so certainly applies to The Chai Notes. It takes time for the question to develop in the movie, but around the campfire it is eventually aired: Who are we? Who do we want to be? What do we want to be viewed as? In the movie the Bellas try to beat DSM by taking a page out of their book, but this only leads to catastrophic failure as their performances become more and more hectic. Only by returning to what made them great in the first place are they able to take DSM down and secure the world championship. This is an easy movie theme to spin (the power was within you all along!), but in reality is unfortunately only partially true. Collaborating with and learning from other competing groups around your own is a very worthwhile process, both in A Cappella and in life as a whole. I very often walk away from performances by other groups on campus pondering what my single favorite part of their performance was, and how we could better appeal to that aspect of performing. I consider myself lucky to be on a campus where each different A Cappella I see perform brings something new to appreciate and learn from.

During these internal one-sided discussions, however, I always hit up against the hard underlying truth harped on in Pitch Perfect 2 – maybe the reason that group was able to blend so well and that other group made my jaw drop from solo power was because those are just their things. Maybe instead of (or in addition to) trying to incorporate the best elements of other groups into our own we should be focusing more on what we do the best, and taking pride with that one aspect of our performance. After all, I joined The Chai Notes for a reason – I felt they were a group of people I could be comfortable around, being my regular weird self and expressing that in my performance. We let our fun fuel our performance. Doing it any other way just wouldn’t make sense to me. Just the like the previous question, this one can only be answered by a balance of the two extremes. You have to take some inspiration from outside sources, or risk becoming stale and both externally and internally boring. On the other hand, you can’t lose yourself so far into your pursuit of excellence that you forget what made your group unique, and why you joined it in the first place.

To this day I remain at the core that same quirky freshman, and I’m proud to say that our group environment hasn’t changed since. I’m also proud to say that if I were to audition today, I’m fairly confident that I wouldn’t get accepted. We’ve come a long way in the last six semesters, and I’m honored to have been part of that well-earned ascension.

Not only has the group changed, but I have as well. Thanks to my time in The Chai Notes, I am now much more able to express myself, both on a personal level and on a stage. I’m more comfortable following someone else’s schedule, and I’m able to transition between being a friend and a board member as the scenario requires. I may be the same quirky freshman as before, but I’m a lot more prepared to take on the world than I would have been with only a B.A. in CS and Econ. If I had somehow been told during my first semester how big of an impact this group would have on me, I’m not sure I would believe it. Even more worrying, I’m not sure I would have auditioned with the knowledge that I would change so much. Change can be a scary thing, and I don’t trust my freshman self to have made the right decision knowing what was on the line.

Thankfully, though, I didn’t. I walked into and out of the audition worrying only about how well I had done. I showed up to the callback late because my instructions were vague, and immediately set to wondering if I had already blown my chance. Only after our first concert did I start to realize what I had gotten myself into, and by that point I was so enamored with the group that I wouldn’t have given it up for anything.

To our seniors – Becca and Justin, you will be solely missed. Both of you are so talented in many ways and I know you’ll kick ass out in the real world. Don’t forget to drop us a line every now and again.

To the current members – Watching Pitch Perfect 2 reminded me to be appreciative of how far we’ve come. That’s not to say we should stop striving to make tomorrow’s group better, but after every event I think we’d be greatly mistaken to not take a moment and relish our successes thus far. As I’m sure you all know, we don’t have all that long in the group. Every performance, every rehearsal, and every party is sacred because starting from your very first rehearsal you are counting down to the day when you have to leave.

To those members that I haven’t met yet –  August can’t come soon enough. You’re about to embark on a journey that will change your college experience, and maybe even your life. You just don’t know it yet.

P.S. – This bulk of this post was written while listening to Dream On off of The Key Elements’ new album Catalyst. It gives an extra air of power to the post that I rather like. Check ’em out here.

Questions, Part 1 – They Shine for You

“Look at the stars; Look how they shine for you…”

Yellow by Coldplay

When the Rabbi stood up in front of us at dinner, I knew there was something amiss. Dinner, a wonderful spread of hummus, israeli salad and chicken kabobs, had long since left the table, yet our departure to the airport had been delayed. After a brief introduction, he got the meat of the matter: “Your flight [back to the US] is canceled”. Instead of flying out tonight (and getting in in the wee hours Thursday morning), we’re flying tomorrow in the wee hours and getting in in the afternoon, and to a different airport. Yay.

Put briefly, my 10 11 days of travel in the Holy Land have been beset by a long string of weather issues, from heavy rain to hail to snow. Yes: Snow, in Jerusalem. I think a guide for a particular location put it best when she said, “This view is spectacular 348 days of the year; you guys picked the one weeks where you can’t see anything”. That said, the trip was still extremely fun, especially in retrospect. Our relatively motley group of college students and a few recent grads, together with three spunky guides and a particularly grumpy bus driver (!בוקר טוב, מאיר), really came together over the course of the trip and bonded despite the awful weather. And as usual for Israel, the food was scrumptious.

I could give a catalog of my experiences on Taglit, but not only would that be boring to read, it would be boring to write. Also I didn’t do any kind of writing on a daily basis. So I won’t be doing that. Instead, I’m going to pick out some of the key moments and experiences that I believe defined my trip. Onwards!

Before this trip, I last went to Israel three and a half years ago. Before that previous trip, I never thought too hard about the troubles citizens of Israel and others face on a daily basis. To borrow the phrase we’ve thrown around a lot over the last 11 days, I learned during that previous trip that Israel is complicated. Coming into this trip, then, I wanted to try to understand how people live their lives in the face of so much complexity and difficulty. With politics, religious, environmental, and many other issues rearing their heads on a daily basis, what is Israeli life really like?

The first experience that set me off on this pursuit actually came on the plane ride to Tel Aviv. I stumbled upon Boyhood when scrolling through the movies available for free screening, and decided to kill approximately 2.8 hours of the flight. Boyhood is a movie filmed over the course of twelve years about the life and times of a boy named Mason as he progresses through the most raw and realistic depiction of life I’ve seen on a movie screen. His situation is neither desperate nor stable: his mother gets a divorce early on in the movie and bounces between other men over the course of the movie. She goes back to school to finish her degree to better their situation, but this often leaves Mason alone with his older sister Samantha and friends, which get cycled out as the family move from town to town.

The most interesting thing to me about Boyhood is how different parts of the movie affect different viewers. Throughout the movie Mason is exposed to dangerous situations, some worse than others. In one clear example, Mason and some friends are throwing circular buzz-saw blades at planks of wood. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which someone is hit with a thrown blade. Other scenes, however, may only register as dangerous for some viewers. For example, in one scene Mason and Samantha are at a house party and are taking Jell-o shots (a [usually] small amount of alcohol mixed into jell-o). While things could certainly go wrong (with drinking too much), this scene barely registered as dangerous for me. In my opinion, both Mason and Samantha had proven that they were responsible with alcohol and seemed to be pacing themselves.

In contrast, there is another scene where Mason receives a shotgun for his birthday from his grandparents. This immediately evoked a base, gut reaction in me: guns are bad, he should not have a gun. Of course, Mason and Samantha were totally fine. Under the instruction of their grandfather, they shot some cans and a few clay plates, in a completely responsible and safe fashion. Logically, it doesn’t make any sense that when I see Mason drinking in a party setting I think, “Oh he’ll be fine, he knows what he’s doing”, but when I see him shooting a gun I think, “He’s going to get hurt or hurt someone else”. I suppose the distinction just a part of who I am. This incongruence between different dangers something I’ve always known, but I have to give credit to Boyhood for forcing me to actually acknowledge it.

There’s no real moral or conclusion to the movie: it ends relatively quickly after Mason enters college, without a big statement or finishing scene. This was clearly intentional, given that the movie is a depiction of life. So long as life continues, there’s no conclusion, and whether or not life has meaning is a hotly debated and certainly open question. The movie brings up the topic when Mason is leaving for college. He expresses his joy at leaving for college, and his mother begins crying, not from sadness but from anger. Here’s the full dialogue, taken from IMDB:

Mom: [Mason is leaving for college] This is the worst day of my life.

Mason: What are you talking about?

Mom: [Starts crying] I knew this day was coming. I just… I didn’t know you were going to be so ****ing happy to be leaving.

Mason: I mean it’s not that I’m that happy… what do you expect?

Mom: You know what I’m realizing? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced… again. Getting my masters degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my ****ing funeral! Just go, and leave my picture!

Mason: Aren’t you jumping ahead by, like, 40 years or something?

Mom: I just thought there would be more.

While we, the viewers, were busy trying to get inside Mason’s head, his mother was tirelessly working to support the family. She ultimately succeeds in this endeavor, but at the cost of her life – she doesn’t die, but spends her entire life working. It’s left open what to take from this dialogue. Mason’s mother succeeded against all odds to complete her education, get a well paying job, and send both of her children to college. She did so though a smidgen of luck in just the right places and a huge amount of hard work. But is that the whole meaning of her life? Was there something else she was supposed to accomplish along the way? Was there meaning to be discovered just down the road untaken that once missed can never be rediscovered, or is the idea of conclusive meaning merely a mirage? If there isn’t and was never going to be more, is what she has accomplished satisfying? Or is she suspended in a continual state of frustration that there isn’t “more”? The scene ends after the above dialogue — The movie offers no answers to any of these questions. It simply raises them, in a manner that is both rational and heart-wrenching.

In Questions Part 2 I’ll actually talk about stuff that happened in Israel! See you then!

More than Just Numbers

I went with my family to watch Mockingjay: Part 1 over thanksgiving break. As I filed into a movie seat, I was prepared to take the movie seriously. After all, the book series and now the movie trilogy tetralogy has gained massive following, specifically in the realm of feminism. To summarize, Katniss Everdeen, our female action/survival hero lead character, is forced to compete in a fight to the death called the  Hunger Games. There she exhibits not only physical bravery and strength, but courage, compassion, and an unshakable mental sense of self. It is mainly for these non-physical characteristics that much of the media is centered around praising Katniss as a feminist role model.

I would agree wholeheartedly with the prior description, but only until the start of Mockingjay: Part 1. From then on, Katniss becomes, to put it bluntly, useless. Throughout the movie her main role is to be a puppet for the revolution on camera and off camera hysterically cry for Peeta, her now-captured boyfriend-ish former huger games partner. The only times she stands up to anyone about anything are when she’s yelling into a camera and when she’s arguing for Peeta’s full pardon. Original Katniss may have been quite the feminist role model, but now I have to wonder where that Katniss went. Aside from Katniss, we have her family who are too shaken up to stand for much of anything (unless it’s Prim’s cat, that is), and President Coin, the cool pseudo dictator leading the revolution. Perhaps there is an argument to be made for Coin taking up the feminist torch, but given that her main characteristics are being cold, manipulative, and power hungry, she doesn’t exactly make for a good role model of any gender. To say the least, I’m slightly confused how Mockingjay: Part 1 is in any way the “end of men” movie of the year. The movie left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Feminism is a cause I believe in too, but it seems like the only aspect of Mockingjay: Part 1 that is remotely feminist is that there are more women on screen than men. Surely a step in the right direction, but there has to be more to feminism than simply the number of women, right?

While scrolling through Neflix to find a series to binge watch, I stumbled upon Sword Art Online, an Anime I had vaguely heard of. Nothing else was appealing, so I clicked start and promptly watched the entire first arc of 15 episodes. The premise of the show is that in the near future (2020) a company develops the first fully immersive virtual reality system, and quickly creates a MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online) game to utilize it. The Sword Art Online MMO depicted is fairly traditional; players level-up by defeating in-game enemies and progress up the world (shaped like a tower in a series of layers) by defeating bosses. The twist in the game comes almost immediately at the beginning, halfway through the first episode: once the official launch has begun, the creator removes the ability to log out – the players are stuck in the game. Furthermore, dying in the game will cause the Virtual Reality headgear to kill the player’s body, thereby killing him or her for real. The only way to escape is to progress to the hundredth floor of the tower and defeat the final boss residing there, thereby ending the game and releasing all of the players who are still alive.

From just the premise it is clear that Sword Art Online shares the forced-game plot device with The Hunger Games. Players in both stories are forced to participate in a life-or-death game, and are only able to escape by repeatedly putting their life on the line in combat. This leads to many of the same thematic elements appearing in both stories: physical strength, courage, sacrifice, dedication, and many others. In both stories we have one female and one male lead. In The Hunger Games we have Katniss and Peeta, whereas in Sword Art Online we have Asuna and Kirito.

Here, however, the stories diverge. One of the main hurdles feminist characters have to jump is when they enter a relationship of any kind with a male character. Usually, when we hit this point, the female character goes from being strong in every sense of the word (physically, emotionally, mentally), to basically being baggage. It’s an awful stereotype and one that we as a culture and a race need to break. So why, then, does Katniss, one of the most feminist characters in recent memory, do just that? In the first book Katniss is inspiring on multiple counts. While fighting for her life she manages to show compassion and mercy when it is due, and stays stalwart against the real enemy: the Capitol and President Snow. Somewhere during Catching Fire (book two), however, a switch is flipped, such that this entire side of her personality is turned off. In Mockingjay she loses sight of the real enemy (Snow), loses her mental resolve, and even loses her combat awareness as she is nearly crushed by a falling pillar. I get that she’s dedicated to Peeta and wants him back more than anything, but if you want to paint a feminist female character, your job isn’t done as soon as she meets a guy and then loses him – that’s when the real challenge begins.

Sword Art Online faces a similar situation near the middle of the arc. The Kirito-Asuna relationship that everyone has waited for finally becomes reality. If everything went according to stereotype, Asuna would transform from her brave, strong, wise-cracking, leader-of-a-guild self to a wet noodle who’s only purpose is to be Kirito’s cheerleader. In the first conflict they face as a pair, however, we get exactly the opposite. Watch through 19:35 (just over a minute).

The tension builds until 19:20, when Asuna is the first to break the standoff. Not only is Kirito holding Yui (already a few feminist points there), Asuna shows that just because she’s with Kirito doesn’t mean she’s changed at all. It would have been really easy, and perhaps (regretably) even the default choice for Kirito to hand Yui to Asuna and then take on the Liberation Army men himself. Whether conscious on the part of the author or not, that’s not the way the plot goes; Asuna kicks the crap out of the head Army soldier and sends them scurrying on their way. Besides showing that her physical edge is still sharp, Asuna proves that she isn’t just handing over all responsibility to Kirito from here on out – a point that is really hammered home in the rest of the arc.

Sword Art Online barely focuses on feminism, however. The main questions it raises are ones that have puzzled philosophers for centuries, pertaining to reality and the meaning of life. If you had a choice between living forever in a paradise that you knew was only an illusion while everyone else struggled in the real world, or to return to the real world to struggle with them, what would you do? Now toss love into that equation, and make the decision again. While in that world, is that love even real? Is courage, or pain? Do you have a duty to try to escape that perfect illusion, even though the attempt may cost you your life?

Kirito and Asuna struggle through the challenges that Sword Art Online throws at them to try to beat the game and save everyone in it, and through those struggles come to trust one another. The most moving scenes are when they fight together. Not him protecting her, or her protecting him, but as one against a common enemy. Most of the characters in Sword Art Online are male (which is probably accurate, given that only around 15% of MMO players are female), but Asuna alone gives the show more feminist presence than a whole command room full of one-dimensional female characters featured in Mockingjay. Feminism is more than just numbers, a lesson that Sword Art Online proves with flying colors, and that Mockingjay will hopefully learn by the time part two comes around.

Edit: I have since finished watching the full of SAO. The second arc of the show is terrible. Do yourself a favor and don’t watch beyond episode 15 or so.

When Everything Changes…

“Look, whatever you’re thinking, do me a favor; don’t let go.”

It’s taken just under two days, but I’ve finally made it home to the good old VA. Driving is nice, especially given how awful dealing with air travel has gotten these days, but upstate NY to central VA is just a bit too long of a trip for my tastes.

There were many things I wanted to do during the semester, and now I finally have the free time to start checking items off that list. The list (as with all mental things) is in a constant state of flux, but it looks a bit like this:

  1. Hug my two miniature poodles.
  2. Arrange music for next semester.
  3. Continue working on the game I’m designing. Hopefully have a playable prototype by the time school starts up again.
  4. Boot up steam and see what’s new.

I checked off number one immediately upon opening the door, not that I had much of a choice. With my desire for poodle hugs briefly sated, I flipped through the other three. In browsing Steam, however, I stumbled upon a game I have been waiting for forever, and everything else would have to wait until I finished it. Usually I wait for sales to make my Steam impulse purchases, but Transistor, released for Mac since I last checked, couldn’t wait.

I loved Bastion. Like, a lot. So let’s get the biggest disclaimer out of the way first: Transistor, the second game produced by Supergiant Games and spiritual successor to Bastion, is not Bastion. This isn’t at all a bad thing, but it means that in evaluating Transistor we can’t ask it to fill Bastion’s shoes. We have to judge it based on its own merits and flaws, and come to an unbiased conclusion.

A gorgeous travel cutscene
Even combat is beautiful

Let’s start with the good. Transistor, like Bastion, is absolutely beautiful. Bastion’s art style was full of vibrant colors drawn in a way to convey mystery and build the world. This strategy is applied once more in Transistor, to even greater effect. Transistor’s world is furnished with unending high rises that are at once indestructible and in a state of disrepair. Just as Bastion’s use of thin terrain and muted backgrounds created a sense of being alone in the middle of nowhere, Transistor’s never-ending urban sprawl creates a different kind of isolation – being alone in the largest city in the world.

Also like Bastion, Transistor makes use of a dynamic soundtrack with narration that follows you through the game. The music, along with the various bits of plot information thrown at you throughout the game, completes the feeling of isolation. Moments of silence drip with dread and desperation, punctuating key plot moments in the game.

The biggest way Transistor moves beyond Bastion is in its combat system. Bastion was a simple hack-n-slash. The weapon selection and upgrade system went a long way to allow all kinds of players to find something they liked, but at the end of the day everyone still selected two weapons and a special ability, and mashed buttons until everything stopped moving. Transistor starts at the same point, but moves far beyond it. Your core weapon is the Transistor but you get to pick four abilities to use at a time from a bank of learned abilities. Thus at the very start the level of customizability is higher – choosing four different abilities leads to a much higher number of combinations than three. Add on to that the fact that the upgrades and the abilities are the same resource – every ability you learn has three functions: an active, an upgrade, and a passive. You can only use each ability for one of its three functions in a given setup, however, so choose wisely. With this system, the number of different setups is nigh infinite and creates an extremely fun framework in which to experiment.

Thus far in the description, Transistor is still a hack-n-slash, though notably a complex and well-explored one. Transistor, however, doesn’t stop there. While you do have the option of playing the entire game in real time, you can instead treat it as a turn based strategy. Whenever you start a “turn”, all movement stops and you have free reign for a given amount of “time” – in turn currency. After you’ve planned out your turn you are able to execute it, seeing your immaculately planned series of strikes become reality.

The turn() interface. Admit it – you want to see how this works.

This turn() system is what allows the complexity of Transistor’s ability selection system to truly shine. Where the distinctions between your four abilities would likely be lost in a truly real-time setting, the ability to plan a combo allows you to use your set of abilities to their fullest and incentivize picking a set that you can really work with. It also creates a strange hybrid between a real-time strategy and a turn-based strategy, as you can seamlessly switch between the two even within the context of a single fight. At a minimum, it’s certainly an idea I would like to see more of.

Now, on to the bad. Transistor suffers from a few issues, but all are rooted in one core problem – the game is ridiculously short. I bought the game last night and had played about five hours when the credits rolled. I may play the “recurse” mode, but by the title I am lead to believe that I won’t see anything new. The combat system is amazing, but I felt that I had barely gotten the hang of it when I beat the game. The plot begins promisingly, but ends in a rush without real resolution because it just didn’t have enough time to develop. There were a few hard fights, but I never felt extremely challenged. It’s possible that the real difficulty of the game comes after the first victory, but I don’t think that’s good planning – the final boss fight should feel hard, on any play through. I came away feeling like I was ripped off. Not because of any monetary reasons, but because I really bought into the concept of the game in all aspects, from combat to plot, when it suddenly ended.

Overall, Transistor was a very good game. It proves that Bastion wasn’t a mistake – Supergiant knows how to use art, music, and gameplay to build a world and shape a plot within it. Moreover, Transistor brings up enough new ideas in its combat system that show that Supergiant isn’t skittish of trying new things that depart from the Bastion formula. At the end of the day though, Transistor’s short playtime is just too much of a handicap to argue for it being on the same level as Bastion. The real test, however, is what Supergiant will do from here. They had one hit game and managed to make a second one that, despite suffering from a key flaw, contained both the things that made the first great and new innovative material. I’m excited to see what they can do for their third game.

Never Have to Change

“Remember when you were fourteen? You’d paint every picture so green…”

Seems like I’m doing posts in pairs. One more music post, then I’ll rotate through to another topic.

My music tastes have varied over time, but one artist has stuck with me for about a decade at this point. Back in the day, one of my middle school friends gave me a mix-CD with his favorite hits. It mostly consisted of late 90s and early 2000s hits like “All Star” (Smash Mouth), “Absolutely” (Nine Days) and “Clocks” (Coldplay). Nestled among what would become the most identifiable songs of the period were two songs I’d never heard before. Trusting my friend, I listened to the whole cd through and hit upon these songs. During my initial listen through I didn’t know that these two songs belongs not only to the same artist, but on the same CD – this was in the days of cd players, so I just saw “track-1”, “track-2”, etc. When I finally asked my friend for a list of songs so I could update the track listing, I was initially shocked that one band could pull off both of these orthogonal feels so well. A quick search found that the band in question was Guster; I had stumbled upon “Amsterdam” and “Keep it Together”.

Since then I have become a huge Guster fan. I own the bulk of their current music and I’ve preordered the next album. I went with friends to their concert when they came to Ithaca College last fall. Ever since I first listened to Amsterdam and Keep it Together I’ve known that Guster was something special musically. The catchy guitar riffs, dynamic drum lines, and unique chord progressions Guster uses in their music set them in a league all their own. While it means they might not achieve the flash-in-the-pan success that simpler songs like All Star and Absolutely did, their well thought out music stands the test of time, which to me is more important.

It took me time to realize, however, how interesting and complex the lyrics of Guster songs are. Amsterdam is not a happy, bouncy song – it is a slightly vengeful testimony of an ex-boyfriend who is cleaning out his apartment after his former girlfriend dumped him and left. Now, left among piles of her stuff, he is left alone with his thoughts and his guitar. Keep it Together isn’t song to inspire confidence – it begins with a group of shipwreck survivors who start a new society on their island, only to have it thrown back into chaos as the rest of the world finds them and forces its way of life back upon them.

For this post, however, I’m going to focus on a different song on the same album (titled Keep it Together), that I only discovered later when I purchased the remainder of the album for myself. Here’s “Red Oyster Cult”

Quick musical note for those who are unaware: a time signature designates how to count out a measure in a piece of music. In extreme brevity, 4/4 (read as four-four) means that there are 4 beats in a measure, usually equally or close to equally stressed. This means when a song is in 4/4 you can count 1…2…3…4…1..2.. (etc) at some speed and it will be “in time” with the song. Most every pop song nowadays is in 4/4. In contrast, 3/4 (read as three-four) means that there are 3 beats in a measure, usually with beat 1 stressed more than the others. For a good example of a classic 3/4 song, see “Over the River and Through the Woods” (could also be interpreted as 6/8 or 12/8, but that’s close enough for my purposes).

After my starting experience with Guster I simply had to have the whole album, so I bought it and ripped through it. Red Oyster Cult immediately attracted me because of its altering time signature – the song constantly switches between 3/4 and 4/4. Everything I’m about to note has thematic significance, so try to remember it all throughout. It begins in 3/4, but settles into 4/4 after just 8 seconds. From there the pattern seems to be verses in 4/4 and choruses in 3/4. The verses use a very straight 4/4 beat, with absolutely nothing to imply that a 3/4 feel was ever present. Everything is clean and polished. Then suddenly at 0:31 it breaks back into 3/4. The first two measures after this change are slow and quiet, but afterwards, at 0:34 we return to the same motif the song began with – a hectic, full rhythm that gives the sensation of lurching and loss of physical control. The chorus begins at 0:42 with a triplet feel rhythm within the 3/4 time (thus could be interpreted as a very fast 9/8). Mid way through the chorus voices join in with the solo, lending it power and making it more melodic. Then, suddenly, we are back to the straight 4/4 time at 0:58. This time, however, there is a triplet rhythm underneath, starting at 1:02. The 3/4 feel (chorus) is beginning to bleed into the 4/4 (verse). The same pattern follows – a few slow bare 3/4 measures and then back into a chorus at 1:36. The “bridge” – really verse three – at 1:54 is a final restatement of the verse feel and time signature. It is the barest and simplest of the three verses; the soloist is up an octave in his head voice, there is a whistle accompaniment, and the drum line barely supports him. At 2:17 we return to the simple 3/4 feel, and at 2:32, with a strong bass hum, the 3/4 chorus returns, finally dominating and destroying the 4/4 verse. From here the song continues as an instrumental, showing off varied riffs from the whole band.

Before moving on, let’s quickly look at the themes portrayed here. We have two separate worlds. One is simple and regular and unsurprising – the 4/4 verses. The other is drastic, wild, and just a little bit out of control – the 3/4 choruses. Finally, over the course of the song, the 3/4 choruses win – the 4/4 exhales its final breath at 2:16, and at 2:32 the 3/4 takes final control of the song to close it out. These are two different sides of an argument, two different world views. And when we are done, only one remains.

Now lets take a look at the lyrics. They take the general feel described above and give it a specific scenario and plot. The song addresses a person who is not the listener; I’m going to call this person Lewis, a normal name for a normal person who is thrown into anything but a normal situation.

Doesn’t it bring you down
So many lights and sounds

First of all, it seems the narrator is speaking to Lewis in the 2nd person, but that Lewis is unaware of the narrator’s presence yet. Thus the narrator is a person, Lewis is some other person, and they will come into contact. The narrator also seems sympathetic to the Lewis, and guesses or assumes that Lewis is currently feeling overwhelmed with his life and the world as a whole.

Call your mom on the telephone
Tell her you’re coming home

The narrator watches Lewis call his family and explain his woes. Lewis’ life isn’t working out the way he wanted it to, and above all he’d like to simply go home and have things be simple again.

Tell her there’s not a chance
You’re ever going to change the world

While talking with his family, Lewis says this key phrase. Lewis thought, at one time, that he was going to change the world. In the face of everything life has thrown at him, however, Lewis is giving up. This is when the 3/4 rhythm begins, a foreshadowing for what is about to occur. Our narrator has seen enough, and now decides to present himself to Lewis. During the instrumental break he enters Lewis’ apartment building and walks up to knock on his door.

If you want to be free, take a sip of this tea
Join the red oyster cult
If you drink the whole cup, you will never grow up
You will never grow old

The narrator waltzes past Lewis and dances around his apartment, brandishing a cup of tea in an oyster shell. He offers membership in the “Red Oyster Cult”, a group neither the listener nor Lewis have ever heard of before (thought “Cult” is certainly dubious). In exchange for joining the cult and drinking this tea, the narrator promises the ultimate reward – eternal youth. Rationally, Lewis refuses and shoves the raving narrator out of his apartment, slamming the door afterwards.

Remember when you were 14
You’d paint every picture so green

The narrator doesn’t leave the hallway, instead painting a scene into Lewis’ past. 4/4 time has returned, but all the while a triplet rhythm continues underneath. When Lewis was a younger artist, he apparently used a much more monochromatic color scheme. The point of this statement is that when Lewis was younger, things were simpler. He worried less about how his art took form, and was happier with his final products he produced. Not so anymore.

Call your mom on the telephone
Tell her your muse is gone
Tell her there’s not a chance
You’re ever going to change the world

Lewis’ parents call him back, and Lewis is again angrily explaining why he must come home. The narrator giddily dances outside the door while Lewis shows down his parents and hangs up the phone.

Just a few drops away, you’ll never want to change the world

The narrator carefully cradles the cup of tea, swirling it with a spoon. Only a moment more and Lewis back to his old self, with his old abilities, mindset, and even desires.

If you want to be free, take a sip of this tea
Join the red oyster cult
If you drink the whole cup, you will never grow up
You will never grow old

As soon as Lewis hangs up the phone the narrator kicks down the door, this time followed by a parade of children. They tear the apartment apart, wildly throwing pillows and ransacking dressers and closets. Lewis tries to stop them, but each time finds himself face to face with a flawlessly innocent face and wide smile, marred only by crimson red eyes. He is unable to stop them, and lets them go about their destructive work. Amidst the chaos, Lewis understands, just in time to be knocked unconscious by a thrown book. At this, the narrator nods and signals; everyone exits out the busted door.

Call your mom on the telephone
Tell her you’re coming home
Tell her there’s not a chance you’re ever going to change the world
Just a few drops away
You’ll never have to change

Lewis finally wakes up hours later, alone among the wreckage. Everything is in disarray, save his bedside table which has been placed at the center of his apartment. On the center of the table is a cup of tea, still warm. Pushing himself onto his feet, Lewis stumbles over to the table and picks up the oyster teacup. He stares at it for a second, then drinks it in a single swallow. The apartment is bathed in red light as the process begins; pulsing wind begins to swirl at Lewis’ feet as his clothes become baggy, and the doorframe gets taller. Moments later it is done. Lewis is gone, and in his place is a small child, grinning with youthful, demonic delight, crimson eyes glinting. Everything is simple as Lewis wanted it – just as it once was, and as it will always be.

The fountain of youth, or in this case Red Oyster Tea, comes with a dire and often under appreciated curse: to never change mentally. Yes, you may stay young forever, but you will also have only the desires and thoughts of a child as well. It means mentally limiting yourself to your aspirations that you desire towards today. It is forsaking all tomorrows for a singular, infinite yesterday.

Red Oyster Cult is about the struggle we all face going through life. Imagine your darkest, most desperate moment. What if, right then, a stranger appeared to you and told you he could make everything simple again. No catch, no strings, just to become a younger version of yourself and stay that way – forever. Lewis faces such a situation, and in a fit of anger, frustration, and desperation, gives in.

Life is first and foremost a journey. As with all journeys it has its rough spots, when all hope of improvement seems lost. To desire life to return to how it once was is to turn back on Life’s journey. In the real world, It’s not how things get better. Don’t look back and despair, rather take the next step forward and focus on how to fix the problems you face today.