I had the chance to rewatch Looper the other day. My first viewing was less than ideal as it was just on my small computer screen, and this viewing was at the dollar show so not much bigger of screen. Still, it’s a pleasure to pick apart what makes this film so enjoyable. Watching a film for a second time always gives you a few gems, and here the shiniest are: love, visions, and entitlement. Note that I’ll be referring to JGL’s character as Joe and Bruce Willis’ as the Loop.

This whole film hinges on love, as explained in the outro voiceover, “I saw a man willing to kill to protect the woman he loves. I saw a mother willing to die for the child she loved.” Starting with the loop’s love for his wife, we see that this is all that drives him. His desire to save her drives him to risk everything because he feels that he has nothing left to lose having lost her. So he goes back in time and murders children, a task that clearly disgusts him. This incredibly morally repellent act is motivated by love, which makes for a fitting paradox. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and we are led to believe that the loop’s murder of the mom is exactly what leads to the future hell.

More important is mother’s love, and the film offers Joe and his absent mom and Cid and Sara as our two examples. Young Joe was sold by his mother at such a young age that he cannot remember her face. To try to recapture lost love, he asks his favorite whore to run her fingers through his hair, as that is all he can remember of her. Interestingly, the closing shot shows Sara, Cid’s mom, running her fingers through his hair, as if Joe in death finally has found the closure he sought. Just moments earlier, we saw how Sara used the words, “Mommy loves you,” to calm Cid from his murderous rage. This calming effect coupled with Cid’s remorse at frightening Sara earlier leads us to believe that Sara’s love will be enough to prevent the horrible Rainmaker future.

However, how likely is that future to occur? Joe’s vision of Cid brooding over the murder of his mother while nursing his wound on the train is shown to us to convince us that that is exactly what will happen. It’s like when you watch a crime drama, and they reconstruct just how the crime occurred. However, as with all reconstructions, the interpretation of the reconstructor twists the truth. Joe’s vision is more of a projection than anything else. While hiding in the tunnel, Joe reveals to Cid that after his mother sold him, he rode the train and plotted his revenge. Joe’s foresight is more of a projection of his past self than a prophetic vision. Nevertheless, Joe’s certainty that his ‘vision’ will come to pass is what makes him turn his blunderbuss on himself.

Similarly, you have to wonder if this is the same quality of ‘vision’ that Abe had of Joe going down the bad road before Abe cleaned him up and put a gun in his hand. Did a future gangster save Abe just as he saved Joe? In the dialog where Joe is persuaded to give up Seth, we sense how Abe is a father figure. Joe gives Seth up partly to avoid disappointing Abe, but he more importantly to keep his silver.

Which brings us to selfishness. In the best dialog of the film, the Loop chews out his younger self for being so selfish and entitled. Playing Judas to his friend, having no qualms murdering men, and the alternate reality where Joe kills his loop show us just how shallow Joe is. Yet in the end, Joe decides to sacrifice himself. Why the sudden change of heart? We’re led to believe that Joe sees a way to prevent the horrible Rainmaker future, but Joe couldn’t care less about saving lives. Rather, it is Joe’s desire to prevent Cid from being deprived of his mother’s love that leads him to turn his gun on himself.

Other than those three thoughts, I had time to take apart how this movie improves on Rian Johnson’s first film Brick (2005). The dialog of Brick was far too stylized for me to ever get into the film. However, Johnson was good about embracing the premise and just rolling through with it, giving enough touches to make us accept the premise. Thus, in Brick we have the wonderful incongruity of a high school drug kingpin operating out of a dumpy suburban home. Here we have time travel with its thorny mechanics being dismissed by the characters to make us just focus on the big picture and accept that time travel happens.

One touch I found particularly effective is the introduction of TK early on and then exploiting it at the very end. Joe’s friend Seth floats the quarter and specifically talks about how chicks dig it, while Sara mentions that she would keep guy’s quarters down. It’s this confidence in the viewer’s ability to make this connection that makes this “intelligent sci-fi”, but really we should simply demand that our films expect us to watch them. I’m glad this director trusted his audience enough to not bore us with a flashback and similarly trusted that we wouldn’t get too bogged down in the problems of time travel to simply sit back and enjoy a story well told.

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What’s In a Name?

May 19, 2012

Names are powerful. Simply changing the name of something can have drastic effects. A name is something concrete that we can latch onto in our thoughts. Without a name, we fumble around. Without a name, a concept blurs. We can sharpen that concept by adding more and more descriptors.  Yet, this becomes cumbersome as the descriptors mount. A name embeds all of these descriptors and brings clarity to our thoughts. Consider this exchange:

Your friend: I just saw the weirdest car!

You: Weird how?

Your friend: It was real low down.

You: So?

Your friend: It was a super low, classic car. But, get this, it could hop up and down too!

You: Ah, man. That’s just a lowrider!

You can’t picture a weird car as you’ve seen plenty of weird cars, so the concept is initially very fuzzy. As you get more and more details, the image starts to take form. Once you name it, you have a solid image of it. But you have to be careful. The word “lowrider” not only describes that car, but the driver. It’s a whole culture, and maybe that car and driver are not part of that culture. Using “lowrider” means that you are on one level or another buying into all the assumptions implicit in that term.

This is exploited all the time. To name one easy example, take the “pro-life” moniker. Instead of calling themselves anti-abortionists, the pro-life group has linked themselves to all of human life by embeding the word “life” in their name. They force you think of their cause as defending all of the sanctity of life, which is a very just, noble cause.

Advertising loves to do this. By linking a product name with good traits, whenever you think of that product you associate it with those traits. Will beer really get you into a group sex? Of course it won’t! But if you are exposed to the commercial enough, you’ll link the two on some level. Next time you think of beer, you may think about how it will help you get laid.

Fittingly, if you are aware of this effect you can counteract it and use it for your own ends. In reading, “Universal Principles of Design” I realized just how much advertising uses these design principles. Nearly all of the principles have citations in psychology literature, so by learning these principles you can influence the thoughts of others and be on guard for those trying to do the same to you.

Recognition over Recall

The whole concept of brand recognition is founded on this.

The picture above helps explain why companies seek to expose you countless times to their logo and name. I always thought it was silly that companies would print their name on a pen. A pen? Really, would just putting your name on a pen make me buy a product from you? This principle suggests that it would. Especially when you learn about the exposure effect, which is that subjects exposed to a neutral stimuli will grow to like the stimuli. So by simply exposing us to a corporate logo over and over again, we grow to like that logo. And for good measure, throw in some classical conditioning, where a stimulus is associated with an unconscious physical or emotional response. The aforementioned commercial conditions us to like the beer by associated it with fantastic sex. These three principles make it so that when we walk down the beer aisle, we recognize the brand, we unconsciously like it, and then we buy it. These principles go a longways towards explaining why our lives are so saturated with ads.

I would encourage you to check out the book. It’s really gorgeous and well done. There are a hundred concepts, and I only knew maybe fifteen of them by name. I knew about half of them on some vague level, but now that I have a name for them I can exploit them and be on guard.

I’d like to finish this with one last example on the power of names and their baggage. In my lab group, we come up with models that we name. We usual name them on the day they are finished. So when we finished a model on the fifth of November, it was christened Guy Fawkes. Clearly, we should have thought a bit harder as our British sponsors are less than amused!

Aside

Visibility

An excellent summary of 3 Mile Island.

Sorry, but as a chemical engineer, I wanted to share the above spread. In one of my classes, someone presented on 3 Mile Island. He did a terrible job, and I had forever been confused. This nicely summarizes the events of that day and explains how visibility could have prevented the near disaster. The book also includes factor of safety as a principle and cites the Challenger disaster as an example of what not to do. Clearly, a little bit of good design can stave off serious problems.

Mediocre Modernity

May 13, 2012

I’m a sucker for zombies. The first movie I can ever remember seeing is Tom Savini’s color remake of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. Maybe this has indelibly imprinted my tastes, but whatever the reason zombies pique my interest. Now, I’m not the only one. Zombies are something of a fad at the moment. This piece is from 2010, but I think it still holds as “The Walking Dead” marches on accompanied by a horde of movies and books.

Initially my love of zombies grew into a love for all things horror. I watched far too many horror movies as a kid. I remember being terrified by Chucky, Puppet Master, Jason, and Freddy. However, my tastes have matured. I now prize characters above extraneous action. So that meant when I read a review of Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One” that said it would disappoint zombie fans due to its focus on thoughts and life rather than braining corpses, I knew I had to read it.

This post will contain “spoilers”, but if a work of art can be spoiled it isn’t very good now is it? Anyway, I will be discussing matters that are not revealed until the end of the book, so caveat lector!

While this is indeed a zombie book, it is a zombie book in the vein of the comic series “The Walking Dead” in that the zombie apocalypse is a backdrop allowing the protagonist to examine life more clearly. The lens for our examination is Mark Spitz, who is self-admittedly mediocre. Mark Spitz is on a team of sweepers who have been assigned to Zone One in what was New York City. The marines have already cleared out the active zombies, and all that remain are stragglers. These stragglers are harmlessly catatonic skels. The sweepers simply drop ’em, bag ’em, and drag ’em outside for disposal to take care of. This is the day-to-day grind for Mark Spitz and his team, and as they go about their work Mark Spitz thinks about his life and the stragglers.

There are so many things I would love to talk about. The recurring image of the Uncle’s building, why the lieutenant opted out, the ruminations on the stragglers, corporate-sponsorship for the recovery, PR branding of recovery (the American Phoenix), the beautiful imagery of the ash, the pacing, etc. This goes to show how excellent the book is. I’ll limit myself to the themes of mediocrity and race.

The strongest theme in the book is how Mark Spitz’s resilient mediocrity makes him an ideal survivalist in this zombie-infested world. This taps into what zombie-ism is all about. Zombies are all equal. No matter their former station in life, every zombie is just as weak, stupid, and ravenous as every other zombie. This point is hammered home when we see the ocean of skels pressing against the wall. We see people from all walks of life, and they are now indistinguishable drops of water in this undead ocean. Interestingly, all of the survivors independently start referring to the undead in terms of weather.  This shows how the undead are a backdrop, allowing the story to focus on the living and life.

In a world that is now dominated by the zombie natural force of mediocrity, Mark Spitz has the strongest advantage as he is and has always been hopelessly mediocre. Mediocre grades (straight B’s), mediocre job (online PR for Starbucks), mediocre life (no girlfriend and still living with his parents). So despite his lack of survival talents, Mark Spitz makes it through Last Night and outlasts many companions.

In listening to survivors’ tales, what you hear the most about is what they were thinking and feeling. How they kept things together. So while Mark Spitz does not possess an edge in survival skills or physical ability, his mediocre mentality keeps him alive. Whereas the brave and daring risk too much, whereas the cowardly and meek risk too little, Mark Spitz risks just enough. Furthermore, as he has always been mediocre, he is actually comfortable among the dead, unlike some of his companions who snap or commit suicide.

The idea that mediocrity is a benefit in this undead world is unique. It makes you wonder how mediocrity pervades modern life. Mark Spitz does a totally worthless job. He meets someone who has a similarly worthless job, scripting the cut scenes for video games. Most of the character’s former jobs are worthless. The world could easily be rid of them without a problem. How many people waste their time on a worthless job today?

The other interesting theme I want to talk about is race. When you are nearly done with the book, you find out that Mark Spitz is black. This stopped me. And then made me ask myself why I stopped. Why does it make such a difference? I can easily point to how it changes the dynamic of the sweeper team he is on, as Mark Spitz is paired with a presumably racist redneck. I can also say how it shifts other survivors’ views of him and affects their decision to welcome or to avoid him. No matter what I say, I still cannot put my finger on how it permeates the novel. It’s something I will continue to think about.

In a larger context, our society is still very racially divided. In the apocalyptic world of “Zone One”,  people from all different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds work together against a common enemy. I hope that the author doesn’t think we need such a drastic measure to unite. Although, given the recent issues of Trayvon Martin and Rue in “The Hunger Games” we may need something so earth shaking.

While I highlighted the two themes that resonated most with me, the novel is multifaceted. I think it portrays a depressingly realistic view of what the undead world would be like. To lighten the mood, I want to leave you with a humorous quote from it. Mark Spitz is ruminating about his old job, where he haunted social media for any chance to hawk Starbucks. When people posted things like “I’m exhuasted,” he would reply back, “Sounds like you need a hearty cup of Iced Number Seven!” He thinks how that job would be in this new world. “Nothing cures the Just Got Exsanguinated Blues like a foam mustache, IMHO.”

Cooking Culture

April 23, 2012

For our first graduate engineering math class, our professor had us introduce ourselves. We stated our name, undergraduate institution, and an interesting fact. As the introductions wended about the room, it became apparent that we are either all have the same interest or we cannot think on our feet. “I like to cook,” or “… and I guess I also like cooking,” kept being repeated. Why do so many people think this is an interesting fact? Is cooking really a hobby now?

This “cooking as a hobby” phenomena has to be linked to foodie culture and the Food Network nightly programming. Like an evil twins, these have transformed cooking from a ho-hum everyday experience into a hobby or art. Granted cooking can be an art that transcends the everyday experience, but I think that few people are capable of this wonder.

Hold on. Wait. Since when did cooking immediately conjure  thoughts of exquisitely refined food art? Whenever I think of cooking, I think of simple meals that my mother made. Rice, broccoli, and cheese casserole. Spaghetti and meatballs. BLT sandwiches. I believe that the Food Network is particularly to blame for making cooking seem out of reach to people.

It is now a fact that the average American spends more time watching someone cook than actually cooking. The rise of Food Network has led to people watching, no ogling chefs and fetishizing food. Or maybe the two events coincided. Either way, cooking as an everyday activity is dying out. You may be thinking that Food Network would be slowing this decline, but their prime time programming is all entertainment. Trying to learn cooking from Chopped, Iron Chef, Cupcake Wars, etc is like trying to learn driving from watching Nascar.

Actually, the best way to learn how to cook is to learn from someone else. Sadly, parents neglect cooking the skill lapses in our current generation. Without this handing down of customs, we risk cooking dying out. People should be alarmed as this is culturally equivalent to saying that music is dying out.

That seems sensational, but think about how much custom and culture surrounds food. We go out for drinks with friends. We have dinner, hold a potluck, grill out, do coffee, hell even going to a movie usually involves food. I’ve been cooking from different cultures, and many of the cook books tie the cuisine back to the history of the culture. I’d hate for a future cookbook to say something extremely lame like, “Macaroni and Cheese became a real hit when Kraft introduced individual microwaveable bowls.”

Equally culpable is the foodie culture. “Foodie”. What an ugly word. Foodie culture seems needlessly pretentious and snobbish. Rather than reconnecting people to simple cooking, it is needlessly distancing people from cooking. In this groundbreaking clip, Tim Allen (who hosts “Chopped”) mocks the movement. Clearly, I am not alone in thinking foodie culture is annoying.

Some food blogs counteract these evil twins of Food Network and foodie pretentiousness. Food blogs are usually run by amateurs who are cooking to enjoy cooking. They efface the food as unreachable art by showing photos of cooking in progress. Often a narrative is interwoven with the recipe, effectively recombining the food and culture. For this reason, I applaud food blogs.

So to end this shambling post, cooking should not be relegated to hobby status like photography or numismatics. Rather, it should be just another everyday activity that we take for granted. People think cooking is a hobby or an interesting fact because cooking has become a rarity. Foodie culture and Food Network have done their fair share of discouraging cooking while food blogs have encouraged cooking. Cooking is very culturally significant, and we should enjoy it for its history. Annnd for the delicious food.

Mr. Squishy

January 22, 2012

I didn’t mean to pick up an other collection of short stories. I went to the library to study for qualifiers three weeks ago, and when I got up to leave I figured I couldn’t leave the library empty handed. I walked up and down the aisles searching for something. I tried to think of author names and unsuccessfully looked for a few. Then I found it. A David Foster Wallace book! Huzzah! Ever since I read his “Consider the Lobster” review of the Maine lobster festival a year ago, I have wanted to read more. I left with my copy of “Oblivion”.

Now, I did mention I was studying for qualifiers, so I have only read the first story. Thing is, I read it twice it was so interesting. His writing style fits the subject matter. I don’t want to summarize the story here. I want to write down what I have thought about it. Reader be warned that the following assumes you are familiar with the story.

“Mr. Squishy” is loaded with details. In typical DFW style, there are excessively drawn out asides and sentences. This fits the story as our protagonist Terrence Schmidt works for Team Delta y, a market research firm. Their job is to sift through the mounds of data generated from their TFG (targeted focus groups) and properly weight the data to give it significance. I feel that this is exactly what the reader needs to do with this story.

After mulling things over for a few runs in the gym, I have decided that the story is about dehumanization. Terry often views the people in his focus groups as being simply data points. The executives view the workers as being confounding variables in their studies. The urban daredevil draws a crowd due to his free spirit and individuality, but ultimately its a sham as he really is just a marketing stunt.

At the center of the story, we have Terry Schmidt leading a focus group on autopilot [Terry, that is]. We are treated to what he is actually thinking about as he gives them the 20 minute spiel. Slowly, we learn that he has been doing the same thing for 8 years, that he loves a co-worker Darlene but is too cowardly to pick up the phone and call her. He simply agonizes over it each night before masturbating himself to sleep. We learn that he feels utterly stuck in life, a cog in a machine. Even worse is that the machine is meaningless. Team Delta y works on snack foods. Terry realizes that all the data they collect is simply finagled into supporting the marketing plan already being inexorably rolled out. How depressing and true. I really empathize with Terry, and I must admit that that is a fear of mine to work endlessly on something that is devoid of significance. (Hence my goal of a PhD.)

Through the sheer number of details and asides, Terry becomes so vividly real. I started to really hope that he would go through with his plan to destroy the snack cake industry by poisoning. However, we know that his elaborate preparations will never come to fruition. Just as he can never pick up the phone to call Darlene, he will never go through with the poisoning. What is heartbreaking is that Terry himself is aware of this on some level and this is why he berates himself and insulting refers to himself as “Mr. Squishy”. He knows that he will simply keep on keeping on, just a reluctant cog.

Now, Terry is the protagonist, but there are another couple of major characters. Scott Laleman joined Team Delta y a mere two and a half years ago and already he has outpaced Terry. Laleman is in with the executives and tends to hobnob with them outside of work. Little does Laleman know that his executive friend, Alan Britton, is manipulating him just as one manipulates a variable in the lab. (In a paranoid turn, Britton is also being manipulated by another executive.) It’s interesting that while Terry is horribly depressed over how meaningless the data they collect is, Britton is determined to eliminate every last variable to ensure the data is as unadulterated as possible. To that end Britton okayed an experiment to stress the TFG leaders. He had male supervisor sexually harass Darlene, Terry’s secret love.

What lousy ethics! To make someone’s life hellacious to simply extract data! However, we cannot overlook the fact that both Terry and Darlene did exactly that for a study on laundry detergent. They selected women who felt inadequate as mothers and then subjected them to a questionnaire designed to specifically heighten that feeling so much so that many of the women were weeping and visibly distraught. Thus, we must look at the whole system as being rotten and dehumanizing all those involved.

We are given a viewpoint outside of the system. Literally, as on the outside of the skyscraper where Team Delta y toils, an urban daredevil is free climbing. Up and up he goes in a specially made suit. After a while, he pauses and puts a costume on. He places an automatic rifle across his back. The whole time he is climbing, a crowd is speculating below that it is a media stunt, or that he is planning to spray them with bullets. This would seem to be a definitive free-spirited gesture. Climbing up a building in total disregard of the laws of physics, personal safety, and the criminal system. However, as we stand with the crowd and look way up we see  the daredevil transform into a giant Mr. Squishy. Thus, our one hope of a person untouched by the corrupting forces of market research for snack cake is dashed as it is revealed that the daredevil is simply a publicity stunt.

In short, “Mr. Squishy” is short story that illustrates how people can lose track of what is moral in their day-to-day machinations. While we can judge them all and find them to be reprehensible, we really must examine our own lives and see if we are falling into the trap of looking at people as mere data points. Particularly in this election season, where everyone is put into a box and their probability of voting this way and that is measured and predicted by all sorts of survey teams.

Hodge Podge

December 4, 2011

It is now the last week of classes. This semester has absolutely flown by me. Easily the most difficult aspects have been breaking out of my old mental habits. For instance, I did undergraduate research. My mindset as an undergrad was classwork first and research second. So there were some weeks where I would barely touch my research due to exams or projects. Graduate school is not like this. My first priority is no longer classes but research. Or rather, that is what it will be once I pass my qualifying exams.

For those of you unfamiliar, the quals (as they are affectionately called) are exams that all graduate students take to prove that they are ready to begin studying for a PhD. The quals prove that you are qualified, by which I mean that you learned everything you needed to learn in your undergrad. Well, the kicker is that what your undergraduate institution thought was important may not be thought of as important by your graduate institution. In studying for the qualifiers, I realize how rusty I have become at some problems. My thermodynamics was particularly poor thanks to a totally non-standard course I received. In order to shore up my deficiencies, I have been reading and working problems. I never thought of myself as an autodidact, and I still think that it is a poor learning method. But sometimes you only have yourself and your books to teach yourself from. This can be particularly frustrating when you become “stuck”. Now that quals are getting nearer, I have formed a group of people to study with and this is proving very helpful.

Another mental habit that I had to kick was turning off my brain after a day of class for about an hour. I’d just watch something and while it was relaxing, it was not really rewarding. In order to break this habit, I simply put in the time to make good, rewarding content readily available. If you follow my twitter (logisticmiasma), you’ve been seeing some of the articles I read. Well, I’m going to just make this post ramble even more by doing a bit of a link round-up. My browser tabs slowly build up with interesting articles that I want to talk about but never get a chance to.

  • How a collapsing scientific hypothesis led to a lawsuit and arrest This article should help demystify science for people. There are often high stakes riding on a theory, and that is why every one tries to disprove theories. This article shows just how messy this process can be especially when someone becomes wedded to a theory. Then that person feels personally attacked when their theory comes under fire. Divisions can form and relationships and careers can get ruined. If you think I am exaggerating, Dr. Dan Shectman, who won the Nobel prize in chemistry this year, faced huge opposition to the idea of quasicrystals. (For more watch this video. Cut to around 6:05 for the ridicule he faced. Shectman was mocked, called a disgrace, and forced out of the lab.)
  • We are running out of time to prevent drastic climate change! Two interesting studies looked at this: one focused on California, the other was global in scope. Both reached the same conclusion that there are huge, but not insurmountable obstacles to dealing with climate change. The problem is that the more we delay, the more we will have to pay. “For every $1 of investment in the power sector avoided before 2020,” the IEA concludes, “an additional $4.3 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the higher emissions.”

Getting Busy

October 8, 2011

Inevitably, as the semester progresses, I become busier and busier. All my time starts to shift towards doing classwork. A typical day over the summer would have me exercising for an hour and a half, practicing piano for thirty minutes, cooking, reading, and simply playing games. At the beginning of the semester, a typical day would have me in class for two and a half hours, home work for a couple of hours tops, add in an hour for meetings and one more for exercise, and I still had time to practice piano and cook and relax.

Now the semester has started in earnest. The vicious cycle of exams is how I like to think of it. I fall behind in one class as I make a push to solidify my knowledge for another class’s exam. Sure, you can fault me for not starting my studying soon enough. You can say that I should have been reviewing all along. Well, I want to say that I certainly have tried all of that. Obviously my study techniques are good enough, but I am always looking to refine them. By refine them, I mean working smarter not harder.

Enough of that though; this post is about what happens when I get busy. As you can tell, I pour all my time into my studies when I get busy. I let everything else slide in my effort to know everything I need to know. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. What I have come to realize is that it is important to spend time on the big wins. The best saying I have ever heard from a professor is, “Do not let perfection get in the way of good enough.”

In light of this, I have been really consciously tracking my time. I keep my Google calendar updated to accurately reflect what I studied, when I went to the gym, cooked, bused about, and all sorts of other things. When you are consciously counting the minutes in every day, you really think about whether you really need to check Facebook or not. The small things fall away in light of the more important matters. I’m going to reflect on how I spend my time tomorrow, and try to come up with a more effective system. When I get busy, I want to not have to let anything slide in order to excel.

The Walking Dead

August 16, 2011

This post has been brewing for quite some time. As anyone who knows me in person would know: I love zombies. One of the first films I distinctly remember seeing is George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead on VHS. I must have been only eight years old, so it has basically been a lifelong fascination with zombies. Recently, more and more people are identifying with zombies. In an attempt to explain the popularity of AMC’s The Walking Dead (TWD) TV series, a NY Times article linked zombies to our lifestyle. A zombie is simple in its relentlessly pursuit to eat flesh. Furthermore, it does so for no discernible reason. Today, many of us feel like zombies as we go about our daily grind. Often we don’t quiet know why we are doing what we do. I know I have felt that way when I spend hours upon hours sending out job applications only to never hear back from anywhere. Romero’s films have also linked modern consumerism to zombies insatiable desire to feed, and I feel that this is also valid.

In this post, I do not want to talk about the zombies. Or the post-apocalyptic landscape that is the world of TWD. Rather, I want to talk about the still living characters and the acts they perform in order to survive. TWD draws our attention to the always pressing moral question of what is right.

To clarify, I am talking about the comic book series The Walking Dead (TWD), not the AMC TV series. As you’ve guessed by now, TWD is about a band of survivors trying to persist in a world overrun by the undead. It was created by Robert Kirkman who wanted to show what would happen in the long term to the characters in a zombie film. The series has been running for eight years, and the series covers over a year in the characters’ lives. The core of the group of survivors is Rick Grimes, his wife Lori, and their son Carl. Rick is the leader and makes life-or-death decisions every day. What complicates his decisions is that often he must weigh people’s lives against other people. How can one person decide who should live or die? What is the “right” thing to do in those cases?

For Rick, the right thing to do is protect his family. Around issue #14, he is talking to his wife and says, “I’d kill every single one of the people here if I thought it’d keep you safe.” Rick states how detached he is from everyone else and how he catches himself ranking them. He asks her if this all makes him evil. Neither his wife nor he himself knows the answer. I venture that he is not evil.

Let’s be clear. Rick does horrible things. He kills many people, cuts off a woman’s hand, and mutilates unarmed men to name a few. Rick also does very heroic things. He saves his group countless times, stops a wife and child abuser, and bears the responsibility of leadership. In addition to questioning his moral alignment, Rick questions his very humanity at one point proclaiming that the survivors are the walking dead (issue #24). I believe that we are forced to agree with both the tar baby principle and the entanglement of the great and the terrible. In order to protect his group from killers, Rick must become a killer. In order to be a great leader, Rick must do terrible things.

Thus, even though Rick does horrible things and is only looking out for his family, he is not evil. To return to the overarching point of this blog post, Rick is in fact doing the right thing. His zeal to protect his family leads him to protect the group with almost as much zeal. However, when Rick is forced to chose between his family or others, he does pick his family. In issue #82, with his group split up and cowering, Rick is forced flee. In an effort to convince people to come with him he says, “The thing to keep in mind about other people’s children they’re not our children.” It is clear that Rick hates this move, but he thinks it is the only way out. Later on, Rick realizes that in the long term a community is needed to ensure the protection of all, including his son. He rejects his previous misgivings about large groups and feels terrible for having decided to flee. Thus, we see how Rick’s very selfish motive to protect his family is broadly interpreted by him and leads him righteousness.

One last thing I want to address briefly is the comic book format. People think comics are for kids, and for this reason they may be tempted to call all comics rubbish. They would be mistaken. The comic book format works with the material by showing us the horrors and forcing us to confront them with the characters. A paragraph about a group of zombies feasting on a man can be gruesome, but the picture is stomach-turning. The comic makes the most of its format by showing us people’s faces so we can see their emotions and by using interesting panels to create visually striking stories. Notably, the creators of TWD have caught quite a bit of flack for showing some horrible things, but by showing these things you know they are not pulling any punches. No characters are protected by the author and truly anything can happen. I’m interested to see what will cost Rick his life and where the series will go afterwards.

P.S. The first season of the TV series was disappointing, and in spite of the lauds it received. Robert Kirkman, the comic book writer, is much more heavily involved in the second season. I am thus cautiously optimistic.

Laumeier Sculpture Park

August 1, 2011

I was going to simply write an entry saying that the Walking Dead entry was forthcoming, but that is too lame. So, instead I’ll talk briefly about my trip to Laumeier Sculpture Park. The place has a really well done website, which reflects the well laid out park. How well done you ask? Why, so well done that all of the artwork is cataloged and photographed! See it for yourself here.

However, as anyone who has been to an art museum before knows: seeing a photo is no replacement for seeing the work in person. This particularly applies for sculpture. The photos give no sense of the scale of the pieces. The feeling of the artwork overshadowing you or you interacting with the artwork is amazing. I really liked walking through this one, which is right next to a sculpture of tree roots above ground. The roots seem to be walking, which is creepy and fascinating. I could go on, but I will leave you with the idea that you should go out and experience some sculpture.

Hate Crime

August 18, 2009

I ran across this article a while back. It talks about adding homeless people to the list of those protected by hate crime laws.

This struck me as odd. What separates a hate crime from a non-hate crime? It seems that a hate crime is motivated by a hatred for some aspect of the victim that is shared by a group. Creating a new class of crime with heightened punishments is justified because this attack is an attack not just on the individual but on the community that shares the hated aspect. Thus, it is particularly harmful.

Obviously, this is a gray area. It seems to me, that this would be best left up to judges, who can consider the individual factors of each case. A hate motivated killing will ripple through the targeted community, causing distress. However, a non-hate motivated murder will too.

Let’s say a mugging goes bad. A person is killed. That person’s family and friends are affected. If that person belongs to a worship group, they are affected. Coworkers, neighbors, and more are affected.

The difference between the two is that in hate case, the targeted group feels threatened more than the non-targeted groups and the groups in the non-hate case. This feeling of fear is stressful and detrimental to the targeted group. Thus, the hate crime does do more damage by assaulting not just an individual but a group. Therefore, it should be punished accordingly.

That said, the question of motive is a thorny one. Few of us know what our motives are day to day. Who is to say that he can accurately judge the motives of someone else?

Hate crimes should be on the books, but they should be thoughtfully applied. There must be a community that feels threatened by the crime, and the crime must have been hate-motivated. For the case of crimes against the homeless, I don’t know if there is a genuine community of homeless. Expansion of hate law in this case seems to be blurring the line further.