Sunday, September 15, 2013

Breaking Bad's Ozymandias is the Show's Climax

As a general rule, I don't watch TV. I don't own one - it's just not my thing. And I'm not being high and mighty on my "better than thou" horse here: the internet is nearly fatally distractive to me, and I guess I can only drown to one singing siren at a time.

Keeping that in mind, I sincerely hope that Television does not conjure anything that is as skillfully conceived and executed as Breaking Bad for some time yet to come. I don't think I could handle the responsibility.

(what follows is a response to the most recent episode "Ozymandias." Yes, this is something of a divergence from the usual stuff I like to talk about, yes, there are spoilers.)

Apparently this episode is the creator's (Vince Gilligan) favorite, and though I think it is risky to put out what you consider to be your best work two episodes before what should be a continuous build up to a bang of an end, but the very premise of the show dictates that the shows climax be at some point before the end, so I guess it is an unavoidable reality.

Every article written about the show has some necessary nod to the fact that it is unique in the way it portrays a changing character that deals with a long and increasingly disconcerting string of challenges to his sense of morality. Of course this is true, but a more accurate and nuanced take on what makes Breaking Bad so great is the combined forces of the writers' ability to come up with a logical succession of realistic situational conundrums for Walt to solve and Bryan Cranston's incredible ability to act out a reaction that balances his character's psychopathic need for greatness with his allegiance to family and his battered (but everpresent) moral compass.

You can see this principle in action every time he deals with the prospect of killing someone. His despair over the glass plate discovery when he realizes he has to kill Crazy 8, his first choice to try and disappear instead of kill Gus Fring, his reluctance to kill Jesse, giving himself up to Hank rather than harm him - these are my favorite moments in Breaking Bad. The question of whether or not Walt will take one more step towards his transition to Scarface or let his Mister Chips side speak is asked repeatedly throughout the Show's history, and it is these moments that drive the plot forward, keeping people both interested and invested.

Yes, Walt's orchestration of Fring's death is exhilarating, yes, we enjoy seeing the creativity with which he builds his meth empire, but those things are nothing more than smart plot points. Smart plot points exist on a lot of television shows and are not particularly unique, watching Walt grapple with the path he has taken every step of the way on the other hand, is unique.

Take that away and the show falls apart.

The final situational conundrum for this show is how Walt is going to exit the stage. It is very clear that this will be a dismal ending for everyone involved, particularly Walt, and there is certainly a good bit of rubbernecking about that fact, but we as viewers are truly invested in finding out which version of him will surface in response to the challenges his new reality face - the nuts and bolts of how he responds to that reality are certainly fun, but they will not be the feature of Breaking Bad that keeps people talking.

That question has been answered.

Walt's phone confession tonight was descriptive of the worst possible morality Walt could possibly reach. He feigned a diabolical willingness to kill and emotionally batter those he loves most, his family, if they stand in the way of his greatness. He gloated that personally murdering a family member (Hank) was completely justified in his quest for greatness and that he would not hesitate to do it again to his own wife if it became necessary. He used fear and threats rather than cunning manipulation to get his way.

Throughout the show, his loyalty to his family has been the one saving grace for his character. Without it there really would not be any debate as to whether or not he is a redeemable character and the sneering maniac his family and the eavesdropping police heard through that phone settled the debate in their minds once and for all. He is unapologetic and uncompromising. He is a monster in their eyes, and his confession ensures that that fact will be his legacy.

But it's more complicated than that - Walt sacrificed himself. There is no doubt that Walt has become a despicable person, but his final sacrificial act leaves the book wide open as to whether or not he is redeemable. What's more, it's up to Skyler and the Audience to decide. No one else is fully aware of what is going on and therefore the writers cant use the opinions of other characters to take sides. The debate could go on forever.

And that's why his final actions - returning Holly to Skyler and protecting his family through his phone confession - represent the show's climax. The final moral question has been answered. Vince Gilligan and Co have figured out a complex and ambiguous way to allow Walt's humanity to shine through and while they did it, they wrenched your heart out while they did it, and Bryan Cranston's ability to be a tearful and sympathetic monster who is dying not from cancer, but from the slow torment of being fully aware that he has personally destroyed everything he loves in life, was the spoon they used to dig it out.

That emotional journey will be the defining experience of Breaking Bad.

The two remaining episodes will play out. It will be fun, it will be smart, it will be grotesque, it will be shocking, it will be a great many things. But it will not be as significant and as climactic as what we saw tonight. The question has already been posed to us, much like in the eponymous poem: can anything valuable be found in those lone and level sands stretching far away.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

We Must Neuter the Quran Just Like We Did With the Bible

The fundamental difference between Islam and Christianity in terms of violence or vile ethical frameworks has absolutely nothing to do with the relative amounts of bloodshed, violent punishment or misogyny. There is so much backwards nonsense in both books that attempting to tally a score is as pointless and ineffective as it is impossible. How does Moses' advocation of stoning the sexually immoral stack up against Muhammad's evident view that women are less capable creatures? 

Who cares. Any book that contains such passages was not inspired by any deity I would trust with something as mundane as my 16 year old junker of a car, let alone something as complex and volatile as my personal morality and search for meaning.
And who cares, the various religious cultures have proven to be capable of remarkable feats of both suppression and amplification of these outdated historical relics. The specific content of a religious text matters less than the cultural environment and the motivations of those who use these books for instruction in their lives. 

But there is a structural difference, at least at present, that makes one tradition far more humane than the other. 

According to what one could describe as conventional or widely accepted Christian tradition, the Old Testament requirements have been nullified by Christ's success as the idealized sacrificial lamb. 

This provides Christians with an escape clause. This allows their moral compass to diverge from God's  commands somewhat. Mind you this was not an easy conclusion to reach and there was significant debate in the early church about the role of the Old Testament law. Things could have, and at various times have, gone the other way and in an alternate but plausible historical timeline out culture could much more beholden to Mosaic edicts. 

Islam does not have an equivalent. Indeed there is a majority of Muslims who live according to their moral compass and ignore various attributes and commands of Allah in order to exist as a progressed society, however this is entirely a result of either an ignorance or an ignoring of certain key aspects of Mohammedan ethics. There is no formalized structure that allows them to skimp on their application of this "absolute truth" as there is in Christianity. 

I hope they come up with one just like the Christians did. There is too much adherence to the Quran in the Muslim  world these days and formally nullifying significant chunks of it would benefit just about everyone. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

I Would be a Better God than God

One common theme I've come across in my discussions with Christians about things like the nature of God is this attempt to paint a picture of Him as beleaguered father, who has made the difficult but responsible decision to cut his children loose, allow them to make their mistakes, but still strive patiently with them and provide a way back to grace when they come and see my ways.

This metaphor of "God the father" of course is very well known, but I don't think people generally have an adequate appreciation of how literally this concept is understood. God the father has a relatable, emotional dilemma and is forced - just as you or I would - to do the right thing by us (his children) and just as anyone parent would understand, that right thing always comes with trade offs. 

This sort of personification possesses an incredible power. The sense of comradery and understanding from an all powerful being is one of the many tactics used from the pulpit that bring the ever malleable concept of the Judeo-Christian God to fit the emotional needs of a congregation. 

But it is a tactic that comes with baggage. 

Any time the notion of God made more accessible and is brought down from some abstract concept that is beyond our ability to perceive to a very human or physical basis, that concep is immediately brought down to a place where he can be scrutinized, questioned, criticized and yes, disproven.

If God didn't have an incorrect opinion on how the world began, or the timeline of certain historical milestones, then we would be oblivious to his failings on the matter. If God didn't behave exactly as you would expect the god of a violent Bronze Age tribe to behave, then maybe we would be more inclined to take him seriously in the 21st century. 

So how about fatherhood? What about the metaphor of God being a responsible father places his now relatable, human attributes under criticism. 

I was asked this question in a slightly different manner recently when a friend asked me how, as a hypothetical all powerful being, I would go about creating a world in which free will is possible and be loving at the same time? Clearly God, who is now brought down to relatable human terms, couldn't have possibly done anything different and his extension of free will is the only loving course of action for him. Right? 

So what would I do? It's simple really:

I would make it so that sin was not hereditary. 

As the creator of all living things and the rules we play by, God must have at some point decided to make it so that the sin of one man can render all of his descendants worthy of eternal damnation regardless of their personal decisions. 

Of course my main criticism against this is simply that it is unfair and very clearly not loving, but more importantly it is extremely unnecessary. I've asked a few theists this question, and no one hs ever even gandered a guess as to why it is either necessary or good. 

That is how I would be a more responsible God than God. I would not arbitrarily condemn every subsequent generation. I would respect free choice. 

How would you be a better God? 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

CNN Covers the Boston Marathon Bombings like a Football Game

Maybe it's the gimmicky hologram, or maybe it's the oddly enthusiastic presentation from the commentator, but cable news sure does feel like a spectator sport these days. It's mostly harmless, but it's definitely not the best way to handle a national tragedy. I fear that treating it like a spectator sport just gets in the way of properly approaching the issue with the gravity and respect it deserves. 

A Boston Marathon and a Common Humanity

If you can suffer through a half hour of international coverage on any of the major news networks, odds are you will encounter footage of some Muslim individuals angrily decrying US imperialism en masse. Whether by design or not, this footage typically has the effect of scaring us and just contributing to the general sense that the non-Western world is a very scary, and very different place with a whole lot more barbarism than us sensible Americans would ever allow in our civilized culture.

The most effective snippets from this genre actually display celebration. Showing a large group of people with brown skin and a foreign tongue jumping up and down in ecstasy over some inevitable mishap in US foreign policy - whether it is a downed helicopter, an imprisoned CIA agent, or a successful terrorist attack - the image of jubilee over the desecration of something that we hold dear is particularly horrifying to us and it adds considerably to our mistrust of all things Muslim.

After all, how could a culture that celebrates our deepest pains ever be an ally? How can the hate that drives a population to behave in such a manner ever allow for coexistence?

These are legitimate concerns and questions that reflect significant obstacles to progress. Perhaps the sub-human fanfare seen this footage is only marketable and does not represent a majority of the present population. Maybe it does reflect widespread sentiments, but cultural education and understanding will correct that fact.


But what if it is completely understandable? What if it is an extremely logical reaction to conditions on the ground? How would we react under similar circumstances?

Complete congruence is impossible, of course, but there are enough interesting parallels between your run of the mill successful-suicide-bombing party in Afghanistan or Iraq and the way we respond to events such as the killing Osama Bin Laden or, say, the capture of those responsible for the Boston Marathon Bombing to take notice.

Perhaps it is understandable to feel a sense of unity in the presence of a threat. Perhaps it is completely normal to celebrate when that threat has been dealt some justice. Maybe we get the occasional taste of what it is like to be a Muslim who is celebrating some violence against the United States.

Events such as the killing of Osama Bin Laden or the capture and killing of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, respectively, give a reasonable answer to these questions. Just as we can go on the internet or watch the news and come across footage of foreigners celebrating violence against us, so too can Muslims find footage of us celebrating violence against them. I suspect that such images elicit the same feelings of anger, vengeance and distance in certain populations that similar footage elicits in us here at home - and regardless of who is right, that is a bad thing.

Please understand that this is not a comparison between the actions of terrorists who strike on US soil and soldiers who protect US interests abroad. I am not trying to make that judgement call. I am just trying to point out that responses to these types of events are extremely visceral and that we are not better than anyone who participate in such moments.

More specifically, I am trying to point out that such events create a distance between the two cultures that does not reflect reality or necessity.

Maybe we'd be better off not celebrating the defeat of enemies in ways that could be perceived as disrespectful.

Maybe it is advantageous to minimize the number of reasons they have to celebrate our sufferings.

I'm just asking

Saturday, April 6, 2013

On Godzilla and Epistemological Certainty

To all my homies who tell me that I can't disprove God:

You are an a-godzilla-ist and that is entirely a practical concession to the fact that you can't really afford giant monster insurance considering recent statistics for giant lizard attacks and indeed going through life avoiding Tokyo at all costs is just kinda a bummer - imagine all the fresh sushi you could miss out on.

You can't actually prove that there never was a Godzilla or that there never will be a Godzilla and you can only assume (not demonstrate) that there is not a Godzilla planet orbiting one of the stars a few galaxies down the way.

All you can really say is that Tokyo is still standing and that all the various accounts of Godzilla's antics across the myriad of B-movies and hollywood blockbusters that feature him as a character seem to have no basis in reality for various reasons. You move on with your day, smile a bit and never really bother to duck for cover.

And that's all we're saying about God. To my knowledge, that is the bleeding edge of audacious claims being made by anyone who is even vaguely respected in the atheist community - simply that we can't take religious claims seriously any more, so we are going to move on with our lives, only dealing with religion directly when it decides to be a bit too influential for our tastes.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Religion at its Darkest

Priests and children; Osama Bin Laden and the Twin Towers; the Spanish Inquisition, Hitler, Stalin, and so on - these are all obviously terrible and claiming these events or individuals as evidence for the superiority of whichever world view did not happen to take part in the related atrocities is dumb for two obvious reasons. Firstly, individual interpretations of ideas have little bearing on the validity of ideas and secondly, these individual interpretations are generally complex and contradictory which makes it essentially impossible to draw relevant parallels to present approaches to similar questions.

But still, polemicists on all sides of every aisle make a living trying to claim the virtuous for their side and pin those that are evil on others. Any such discussion is boring at best, and misleading at its worst.

I prefer to limit my anti-theistic ramblings, therefore, to things that are necessary qualities of a particular world view. As an argument against a world view, it holds a bit more weight because even adherents are forced to advocate its implications, and furthermore as best as I can tell there are only a few such traits. I find that these two facts simplify the debate, somewhat.

As far as I can tell, every single religion ever conceived has one trait in common: that this physical world is somehow inferior to whatever theistic dimension is described by tha try stem of beliefs. In many traditions this is simply a matter of influence, where the higher dimension simply has authority over ours. Dissatisfaction with this reality doesn't really come into play here just because that other, authoritative dimension is simply inaccessible. Tradition does not indicate that any better options are available. I suppose there is less harm in this, though as science seems to indicate it is inaccurate.

Most of the prominent religions, however, have innovated on this point by adding a path of access. The superior dimension typically retains its authority over ours, but the carrot of a lucky few gaining access to the superior dimension is wagged in the face of us mere mortals.

Of course to convince those lucky few to care enough to dedicate their lives to acheiving whatever specifications are deemed necessary, that superior dimension inevitably takes on some form that increases the intensity of things we enjoy, eliminates things we don't, and frequently invents new things that we wish we could experience. It literally encompasses every imaginable improvement: Are you sick? well guess what, there is no sickness. Are you going to die? Well guess what, there is no death. Are you uncertain? Well guess what, there is absolute knowledge.

I'm trying to define these things as generally as possible to point out commonalities, and to create a picture that is agreeable to everyone. Of course the religiously minded individual would not agree with where I am going here, but more often than not he or she must agree that their religion states the existence of some superior dimension they would like to experience.

And this brings us to the most vile characteristic of religion: it seeds discontent. Everything in this experience is just a little less shiny, and at a young age children are forced to rely on escapism. Rather than take joy in the accomplishments of mankind, they pale in comparison to a hypothetical perfection we have no right to expect. Rather than to preserve and cherish the beauty of our precarious world, they take solace in the existence of a tidy world somewhere beyond that renders the richness around us as ash. Rather than being fascinated by and well prepared for the challenge of discovering a moral compass that functions well in society, the believer is driven towards a dark fear of such uncertainty and a hope for the false safety of edicts.

I'll be the first to admit that this world is confusing, uncertain, unfair and at times uncomfortable. But it is what we have and I'll do everything I can to make the best of it, to do my best within it. By definition, religion does not.

Monday, January 28, 2013

An Open Challenge to Gun Enthusiasts

Yes, there are many, many examples of responsible gun ownership. Nobody is questioning that, and I count many good friends as examples.

The problem is that our society does not just accept guns, it is obsessed with guns, it looks at guns with hungry eyes and it latches tenaciously to sense is security felt by unbridled ownership. It wants guns in more variety, with more capabilities and in larger quantities than any sane citizen could ever use.

And this has effects.

These excesses find use in Mexico. These excesses find use in gang warfare, school shootings, domestic disputes, armed robberies and at least on a more personally felt level, these excesses reflect a value system of fear, mistrust and isolation that I detest.

Give me one example of a high capacity magazine being both necessary and properly used in self defense. I want you to give me an example of one person unloading more than ten rounds against aggressors, and doing so in a situation that legally warrants it and was necessitated by circumstance (freaking out and shooting rounds indiscriminately does not count).

Give me one example of government over-reach being suppressed primarily by personal firearms. I'll even let you look around the world and as far back as the early 20th century for examples - I think you'll find that armed internal conflicts tend to sway with the military's whims or with external support.

For each instance of high capacity magazine use, I will give you ten instances of mass shootings made possible in part by their existence.

For each instance of successful armed civic insubordination, I will give you a hundred examples of change being accomplished with nothing more than a pen, a voice or a peaceful action.

The problem here is that though gun owners are frequently responsible on an individual basis, their overall view on the relative utility of these tools in our society is completely out of line with the reality of a modern world, and there are consequences to that. This is what gun control should be about: diluting these fantasies.