Thursday, April 30, 2015

A New, Old Way to "Judge" Art: Accessible vs. Inaccessible; Conventional vs. Unconventional

Artistic endeavors are difficult, if not impossible, to honestly judge. It's easy to criticize the latest film, show, book, music, etc., made for a mass audience as "bad art." It's just as easy to defend popular media as "good art" because a lot of people "like it." For example, an easy example: Does Nickelback make bad music because the band plays formulaic pop rock? Does Nickelback make good music because the band has sold millions of dollars in recordings, tickets, and merchandise?

I think that the terms "bad" and "good" are problematic when describing artistic endeavors, whether commercial or not. Art is subjective, with subjective judgments, and therefore, "bad" and "good" aren't clear enough to communicate the quality of a piece of art, from one person to another.

(This is the part where it starts to turn into math.) I think it would be more complete, more honest, and more coherent to judge art on (at least) two dimensions: Accessibility and Conventionality. I'd like you to imagine an X-Y graph. The X-axis (horizontal) goes from Inaccessible to Accessible:


Having "Inaccessible" on the left doesn't mean that it is a bad thing; having "Accessible" on the right doesn't mean that it is a good thing. This continuum is meant to compare a piece of art with its potential/actual audience. There are actually several dimensions to this one-dimensional line. Art made for niche audiences could be considered less accessible than art made for wider audiences. Art that is commercially successful, whether intended to be niche or not, could be considered more accessible than a formulaic commercial failure. A piece of art, like a specific song, might be accessible to a teenage audience, but inaccessible to an elderly audience, and vice versa. A melody using the Do-Re-Mi major scale, or its modes, will probably be more accessible to Western audiences than a melody using a more complex, perhaps "exotic" scale. A Do-Re-Mi melody played out of tune will be less accessible than a Do-Re-Mi melody played in tune. Rating accessibility is to compare art with audience.

The Y-axis (vertical) goes from Conventional to Unconventional:


Having "Unconventional" on top doesn't make it better than "Conventional," or vice versa. For this scale, we are comparing a piece of art with its intended genre, as well as the circumstances of the time period of the work. Rock music played with vocals, guitar, bass, and drums is conventional. Rock music played with no guitars, for instance, is relatively unconventional. This is where you can compare an action movie with several other action movies: Is it the same as the rest, or does it turn a cliche on its head? Does a book written in 1994, for instance, go with or against the popular sentiment of the time, in the region where it was written/published/distributed? Rating conventionality is to compare art with similar art.

Now we have a two-dimensional graph to evaluate, judge, and critique artistic things:


I must confess that my own personal biases have placed "Accessible" on the positive side of the X-axis, "Unconventional" on the positive side of the Y-axis, and arbitrarily putting Accessibility on the horizontal and Conventionality on the vertical. Personally, I am more inclined to enjoy books/TV/film/music/painting/sculpture/etc. that is relatively easy to understand (Accessible) but is not a repeat of previous work from others (Unconventional). Most popular media tends to be accessible and conventional, any way you cut it. Most amateurish attempts at art tend to be inaccessible (poor form, poor technique, etc.) and conventional (attempting to be trendy and popular). On the other hand, potentially brilliant, underrated art tends to be inaccessible (does not pander to an audience, or does not want an audience) and unconventional (does not adhere to genre or zeitgeist).

Perhaps we'll need a third continuum (Z-axis) to differentiate the trial-and-error beginners from the misunderstood geniuses ... but is there really a difference, from the end-user's (audience) point of view?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Dogs Should Inherit the Earth After Humanity

Civilization isn't hurting the Earth. Global warming and climate change, anthropomorphic or cyclical, aren't going to end the world. The Earth isn't going anywhere. The Earth has a good couple of billion years before the Sun expands and consumes the Earth. No, in all likelihood, civilized humans are gradually making the Earth uninhabitable for humanity and several other species. It's not really up for political debate, and the only realistic solutions seem to address delaying the inevitable: Extinction.

We, with our factories and machines, are poisoning the sky and the water, killing living things in the sky and the water, and killing those who breathe sky and drink water. Our extinction might be by suicide, or it might be a mercy killing from the Earth itself -- a super-volcano eruption, perhaps? Alternatively, the execution might come in the form of cosmic justice, an asteroid or comet like one that ended the Age of the Reptiles. If we can anthropomorphize and mythologize the extinction of the dinosaurs: What crimes did the dinosaurs do to deserve their fate? Did they fart too much? What crimes did human beings do to deserve our fate? Do we fart too much?

As mentioned earlier, in all likelihood, humans will make the Earth uninhabitable for humans, as well as their domesticated animals, and thousands upon thousands of known and unknown species. In this vacuum of life, several species will prosper in the Earth, eventually giving birth to newer and better-adapted species, and at least one species might possibly "eat the forbidden fruit" and assume "control" over the entire planet, like the civilized humans before them.

If it is possible, I want (the successor species to) dogs to escape the inevitable anthropomorphically-caused mass extinction. After all, they deserve a place at the top of the food chain, after having a been a junior partner in the rise of humanity for the past tens of thousands of years, since the first man and the first wolf hunted cooperatively. Future dog-kind can experiment with the Earth all they want, probably digging holes everywhere and having a canine Olympics that revolve around retrieving and fetching things. In any case, dogs might be better stewards of various forms of life on Earth than human beings are right now.

If I have any say in the perceived "succession" of Earth, which I really don't have any say, I want to give the Earth to dogs, as a birthday present to my dog Kate. She's turning four, or twenty-eight dog years, sometime near the end of this month. Kate is spayed (not to be confused with the brand Kate Spade), so her genes will not somehow filter into the future of canine-dom ... unless I do something foolish, like clone my dog.

Let us hope that dogs will inherit the Earth, after humanity. With no humans around, dogs will have to be loyal to and unconditionally love the Earth itself, and that is a comforting thought. Maybe the goodness of dogs would convince the Sun to never expand into the Earth's orbit ... maybe.

Speaking of the Sun, my other, more tangible birthday gift to Kate is a "Sol" dog ball by Planet Dog. Just don't tell her; it'll ruin the surprise.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Nine Possible (But Unlikely) Afterlifes ... Afterlives?

In a Facebook group called "Stuff you should have learned in school," I kind of derailed a somber thread to muse about possible, alternate afterlife scenarios for people and pets and all life. I hope my tone was clear that I was (and am) only about 11% or so serious about my silly hypotheses.

In the back of my head, I had a feeling that I mused about this subject -- alternate afterlives -- on this very blog. And lo, and behold! I wrote something way more silly and vague about four and a half years ago.

Anyhow, here is my revised, pseudo-theological, quasi-cosmology of the soul. For our purposes, the soul is defined as the "electricity" that runs up and down a person's nervous system (etc.), quickening all voluntary and involuntary movements, accessing memories and thoughts from brain cells, and giving that person a point of view. A disembodied soul might look like an electric flying spaghetti monster. Because it is neuron-less and hormone-less, a disembodied soul can neither feel pain, pleasure, fear, etc., unless it is incarnated, re-embodied, given a meat suit, given a vessel, some sort of animal machine -- in other words, a soul needs a body to feel. A disembodied soul cannot remember anything because it does not have any storage medium like brain cells. A resurrected body might not remember anything, unless this new/refurbished vessel downloads previous memories from ... the cloud? In any case:

PARADISE. The first possible afterlife is Heaven. Without getting into the religion-specific (denomination-specific, even) dogma, paradise is a place of no stress (peace) and good stress (pleasure), but little to no bad stress (pain). Food is easy to acquire, and friends are always available. In fact, if you're not trying to make your current life, on Earth, in the mortal realm, a bit like my aforementioned description of paradise, then you're really wasting your life. Here's the plan that won't guarantee heaven on earth, but it certainly looks good on paper: Be kind, be mellow (until you cannot be either), don't buy crap (things and ideas) that you don't need, and acquire food and shelter.

PERDITION. The second possible afterlife is Hell. This has always been a confusing bit of theology. Is it a place to punish the wicked? Is it a place to create a powerful demonic army from the wicked, to subsequently invade all realms of paradise? Seriously. What the hell (pun intended)? I hear the music's good down there, though. In any case, kind people can neither be punished by hellfire, nor be transformed into an unkind demon soldier. Hopefully.

ANNIHILATION. The third possible afterlife is none at all. Your time, my time, and everyone's lifetimes are all mayflies in the grand, multi-billion year scheme of things. It's short, beautiful, and every moment must count. The gods are jealous, and so are the elves, et cetera, et cetera. Alternatively, some non-mainstream versions of Christian eschatology give an eternal paradise to the redeemed, but for the damned -- they also get resurrected, only to get their asses handed back to them in the Battle of Armageddon, and then the wicked no longer exist. Annihilation for everyone, or annihilation for the wicked, seems to be a cosmically just fate, either way ... I suppose.

REINCARNATION. The fourth one, traditionally, involves being reborn as one person, then another person, then perhaps another life form, going up and down some sort of hierarchy of existence. If you're good in one life, you get a promotion. If you're bad in one life, you get a demotion. Then, upon discovering the true meaning of the universe, one breaks the cycle and ... stops existing? Or exists everywhere? I'm not sure. It seems to me that this kind of afterlife, can also be applied to a civilization to create a (theoretically) stable social order: If you're born rich, you deserve it because you were good in the previous life. If you're born poor, you deserve it because you were bad in a previous life. How can one be good in this life? Don't rock the boat, and don't mess with the stable social order. How convenient ...

I either stumbled upon, or synthesized the following non-traditional afterlives:

THE FINAL MOMENT. The fifth afterlife is an eternal dream of Heaven or Hell, or both, or none of the above. You know when the alarm sounds, you hit snooze, then dream a dream that feels longer than the five minutes before the next alarm sounds? I think we're able to perceive time differently while asleep. Perhaps, at the moment of death, a person will dream one final dream that lasts ... forever. Hopefully it's a good one.

QUANTUM IMMORTALITY. The sixth afterlife might be worse than Hell. I must've picked up the concept reading Wikipedia years ago. As I interpret it, there are an infinite number of possibilities for every moment of time. If there is a possibility for death, there is a also possibility for survival. One's subjective point of view will always experience the moments of survival, and never the moments of death. In effect, this immortality essentially provides a solipsist universe for every individual. It's a lonely eternity in an aging body. Everyone eventually becomes a trillion-year-old tree stump in their own separate reality. I can think of no greater Hell. (It must suck to be the Face of Boe.)

THE TIME LOOP. The seventh afterlife recognizes that one's lifetime is but a speck in the wibbly, wobbly expanse of space-time. It also recognizes that one's lifetime exists and cannot be undone. When a sentient organism dies, its consciousness will travel back in time, back to the mammal womb or reptile egg or fruit seed -- the moment when the "lights" turn on. Since you can't take anything with you when you die, not even memories, you'll re-live the same life, as if everything were brand new. For example, when I die, my "point-of-view" goes back to some moment in utero, I get born on the same birthday, and I make the same mistakes in life, without realizing I've done this before. Wash, rinse, repeat. It's kind of a comical fate, come to think of it. At least, it can be a comedic for ethereal outsiders who observe this time loop for all the mortals, or perhaps reruns might get a bit boring.

EXTREME REINCARNATION. The eighth afterlife takes the fourth afterlife, reincarnation, to its most absurd and logical conclusion. I picked this up reading the weird part of the Web (i.e., parts of Tumblr). Basically, you have lived, and will live, every life possible in the universe, regardless of chronological order. If you were MLK in a past life, then you'll be James Earl Ray in a future life -- and you won't even know it at the time. You'll be the hunter and Bambi's mother ... and Bambi, and Thumper, too. For those who actually adhere to this belief, it makes the Golden Rule a literal thing. Anyhow, I wonder if that is actually a valid afterlife in an actual religion. Traditional reincarnation has an out, i.e., Nirvana. This one does not. Well, at the end of it, so the Tumblr story goes, you have a conversation with the God of the Universe, who gives you the keys to your very own universe, so you get to play god.

THE SAME PLACE.  The ninth and final afterlife might be the most blasphemous to most flavors of Christianity, and perhaps most mainstream religions as well. Various hymns, as well as the verse in the book of Romans (“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God”) tell of a Heaven where the redeemed sing "Holy, Holy, Holy," in the warmth of God's love. Conversely, similar sources imply of a Hell where the condemned scream "Holy, Holy, Holy" in the heat of God's wrath. If souls have no memories, there is no difference between this version heaven and hell. A soul would have to be given either a "happy body" or a "sad body" to tell the difference.

As for me, I'd like to believe in good fates, happy endings, and cosmic justice. However, in lieu of that, I try to live my life, as if it'll loop ad infinitum. The year 1995 has happened, and will always exist in this universe, so hopefully I made it a good year ... I just might re-live 1995 the same exact way, without even knowing it.

The same goes for 2015.

POSTSCRIPT. Highlighted in bold above, here are my three obvious suggestions to live well in an infinite loop:

1. Be kind and be mellow, until you can be neither kind nor mellow. Then kick some ass.

2. Don't buy crap you don't need. Don't consume stuff you don't need. Don't believe ideas you don't need.

3. Acquire food and shelter ... for yourself and those under your care. (Duh.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Streaming Device Shootout: Roku vs. Apple TV vs. Google Chromecast vs. Amazon Fire TV (Stick)

This post is in honor of Tax Day in the USA. If you're going to receive a tax refund this year, you're possibly going to spend it on stuff you don't need. That said, let me try to sell you stuff you don't need by comparing four major options for streaming Internet video onto your TV screen.

We will compare the Roku box, the Apple TV box, the Google Chromecast stick, and the Amazon Fire TV Stick. Personally, the ideal streaming device will be compatible with my current subscriptions (Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and HBO Now), my purchased digital media (iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Video/MP3), free network streaming (Watch ABC, the History Channel, etc.), as well as relatively obscure media sources. Of course, the ideal streaming device (of our four options), short of being a personal computer, does not exist.

ROKU

If I recall correctly, Roku's lineup of streaming boxes became popular as Netflix began its Internet video streaming service. I bought one of the first Roku models right before I started my Netflix subscription, about five years ago. My most recent Roku purchase was back in 2012, so maybe the most current box model (or stick model) has more functionality. In any case, with my Roku box(es), I can watch Netflix, Amazon Video (purchased and Prime), the History Channel (for Vikings), and relatively obscure, niche media, like denomination-specific religious programming. I've recently read that Google Play is available for the latest Roku products, but I haven't tried it out yet. I don't know if there is a Watch ABC app for Roku (for ABC's Marvel Cinematic Universe shows, of course).

Currently, HBO Now is only available for Apple iOS devices and personal computers (via browser, after having signed up on an iOS device), so Roku does not have HBO Now. Without the use of an external personal computer, and some fancy know-how, I don't think the Roku has immediate access to my iTunes account, either. These are a small amount of negatives for an otherwise solid line of products. Right now, the HBO and Apple stuff can be covered by ...

APPLE TV

In October of 2014, I mistakenly purchased a $25 Apple Store gift card, thinking it was an iTunes gift card. It was a silly lesson learned, with an otherwise useless, nice-looking gift card as a reminder of the silly lesson learned. Earlier this year, when Apple announced the Apple Watch and various upgraded products, they also lowered the price of the Apple TV to $69. When HBO announced the HBO Now service would be initially available to iOS devices and the Apple TV, I decided to take the plunge, use that pretty gift card, and spend an additional $44 on an Apple TV box. I am currently enjoying my first month (free) of HBO Now, with the latest season of Game of Thrones and other cool TV/film surprises.

Being an Apple product, the Apple TV can access all my iTunes purchases, videos and music, in the cloud. Admittedly, my past purchases of episodes of Lost and Supernatural are available on Netflix. I recently watched Up again, and it was as sad and funny as ever. Listening to music through TV speakers isn't ideal, so half of Apple TV's iTunes capability is a bit of a novelty.

Speaking of Netflix, like the Roku, Apple TV can stream Netflix. On the Roku, or at least my obsolete models, you have to search for various channel apps, then "install" them to the device. On Apple TV, it seems that all approved apps are already available to access from the get-go. In effect, Netflix, HBO Now, History, and Watch ABC are all available, and everything is awesome. Almost.

Apple TV doesn't seem to have either Amazon Video or Google Play, let alone any niche media. Most of these issues can be immediately rectified if one has an iOS (or latest Mac) device with AirPlay. I tried AirPlay with an iPad and Apple TV, and they pair beautifully. The potential for big screen TV Skype and/or FaceTime is fantastic.

With an old Roku box and a brand-new Apple TV, I have all my preferences covered, basically. Well, I'll have to see if the Google Play on Roku is a real option for me. If so, it seems the next two devices, both streaming sticks, are varying degrees of redundant.

GOOGLE CHROMECAST

I arbitrarily purchased the $35 Google Chromecast in early 2014. It's a curious device that requires a smartphone or tablet with the Chromecast app. For instance, a smartphone with the Netflix and Chromecast apps can "cast" the movie onto a TV with a Chromecast stick. The stick will do most of the processing, preserving the phone's battery life. As long as a smartphone/tablet app is compatible with the Chromecast app, you should, in theory, be able to stream that bit of media onto your TV. I haven't tested it yet, but Amazon Video might possibly be finally available for Android smartphones/tablets and therefore potentially Chromecast-able. Both Amazon Video and Chromecast apps are available for iOS devices, but whether they can play well together is unknown (to me, at least).

I think the Chromecast shines best as a YouTube-on-TV device. Both Roku and Apple TV have YouTube, but it is a pain to search for YouTube videos with a remote control. It's as slow as typing out a password on a game controller for an old school Nintendo game, like Simon's Quest. The smartphone/Chromecast combo will allow the viewer to search quickly on the smartphone's virtual keyboard, then shoot the streaming video over to the TV. It's fast, and it's fun.

As stated earlier, Roku and Apple TV cover my media consumption preferences. The Chromecast, while a bit redundant, is icing on the cake with its smarphone-plus-YouTube ease of use. This renders our final device as the odd one out.

AMAZON FIRE TV (STICK)

For a short period of time in late 2014, Amazon sold the Amazon Fire TV Stick for $20, 50% off its usual price. I knew this device would be redundant, but at that price, I had to buy it, just to try it. Because it was a redundant device, I finally got around to opening it a couple of months ago, in early 2015.

If Amazon developed this device years earlier, perhaps it would have been as good as the Roku. History is on Roku's side, especially when it comes to niche media channels. Perhaps Amazon Fire TV might catch up one day. I really haven't explored the Fire TV as much as I should, but it definitely covers the basics -- Netflix and Amazon Video. Of course, much of the interface's real estate is dedicated to Amazon Video. Netflix is an app that you have to find and install. My Amazon Music library (purchased and Prime) is also available for streaming via Fire TV. My Roku has that capability, in theory, but its lack of RAM or some hardware deficiency defeats the potential. Then again, music through tiny TV speakers is not ideal. Amazon Echo does a better job with Amazon Music.

I can't say for sure, but there's probably a good chance that free network streaming apps, like History and Watch ABC, are available for Fire TV. I'm sure that iTunes isn't a possibility, since Fire TV is not an Apple product. You'd have to be an tech wizard to have Google Play on Fire TV, in some sort of roundabout way.

Amazon Fire TV has a "casting" function similar to the Chromecast and Apple's AirPlay. It's called Miracast, and it is available for Fire smartphones/Kindle HDX tablets, as well as Android tablets/smartphones. I tried to pair a late 2013 Kindle Fire HDX with a Fire TV Stick, and it worked ... eventually. It was a slow pairing process; perhaps an up-to-date Kindle and a Fire TV box might have done a faster job. An Android smartphone pairs with a Chromecast more quickly, as does the combination of an iPad with Apple TV.

CONCLUSION

All of the four streaming devices are Netflix-ready. None of the devices have all the functions I want. Depending on your own streaming media preferences, one device could be enough, and that one device is a toss-up between Roku and Apple TV. If you just want to stream Netflix, then it's a toss-up among all four options, as long as you have a smartphone/tablet for Chromecast. If you don't have a tablet or smartphone, then Chromecast is not for you.

For me, both the Roku and Apple TV are necessary, with Chromecast as a fun addition. Alternatively, an iOS device combined with Apple TV would render the Chromecast redundant. Amazon Fire TV can't compete with Roku's niche channels, Apple TV's HBO Now, or Chromecast's smartphone-required simplicity. If your media consumption tastes are similar to mine, then you'll need at least two streaming devices, possibly including a smartphone/tablet, for your streaming needs. Here's the TL;DR (too long; didn't read) rundown:

(Keep in mind that the Google Chromecast requires a smartphone or tablet with the Chromecast app installed, to actually stream media.)

Roku + Apple TV = Better than good enough.
Roku + Apple TV + Google Chromecast = Ideal.
Roku + Apple TV + iOS device to AirPlay YouTube, etc. = Ideal, fewer devices required.
Roku + Apple TV + iOS device to AirPlay + Google Chromecast = Ideal, but a bit redundant.
Roku + Apple TV + Amazon Fire TV + Amazon Kindle Fire HDX or Android device = Almost ideal, but Miracast seems slow.
Roku + Google Chromecast = No HBO Now (but perhaps in the future), no iTunes.
Roku + Amazon Fire TV = Redundant, no HBO How, no iTunes.

Apple TV + Google Chromecast = If Amazon Video is Chromecast-able, then almost good enough.
Apple TV + iOS device to AirPlay Amazon Video = Good enough.
Apple TV + iOS device to AirPlay Amazon Video + Chromecast = A bit redundant.
Apple TV + Amazon Fire TV = Almost good enough.
Apple TV + iOS device to AirPlay Amazon Video + Amazon Fire TV = A bit redundant.
Apple TV + Amazon Fire TV + Amazon Kindle Fire HDX or Android device = Almost good enough, but Miracast seems slow.

Google Chromecast + Amazon Fire TV = Not enough features, and redundant.

Amazon Fire TV + Amazon Kindle Fire HDX = No HBO Now, no iTunes, mysterious status of Google Play, and fewer niche channel options.

That pretty much covers as much as I can cover, as confusingly as possible. If you have a tax refund, remember that you overpaid your taxes at the beginning of the year. Since you have your money back, go ahead and buy stuff you don't need. Or food and shelter. Whatever you choose.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Netflix's 'Derek' Is Either an Unintentional Christian Allegory by an Atheist / Humanist, or a Lost Series of 'Doctor Who'

I've been binge-watching shows on Netflix recently. It's to make up for lost ground; for several months in the past, I paid the $7.99 monthly fee without even watching one show or movie. Last month, I watched all of Parks and Recreation in a couple of weeks. This past week, I watched all 13 episodes (two series and one special) of a Ricky Gervais mockumentary-style comedy-drama called Derek.

Set in an English retirement home, this show is about kindness in a world full of sadness and cruelty. The main character is Derek Noakes, whose physical quirks and tics imply an ambiguous disability. But any diagnosis of disability is irrelevant for Derek, whose purpose in life is to create happiness for those around him -- his saint of a boss Hannah, the elderly residents of the retirement home, and his equally quirky friends. You could say that Derek actually has a superhuman capacity for empathy.

I liked the show. I liked the quirkiness and the overbearing moments of sadness and the fleeting bits of joy ... and some, okay most, of the crude humor. I've read that some critics and viewers don't share my approval of the show. I can imagine how frustrating it could be to watch Derek one episode per week, over the course of six weeks per season, for two years, with a Christmas special at the end of the third year. Derek is definitely a show for binge-watching, not for traditional must-see-TV-type viewing.

In any case, there are two major criticisms for the show. The first is a negative response to Ricky Gervais' depiction of Derek Noakes. On the surface, in trailers and commercials and photos, it seems like Derek is a cruel parody of people with disabilities. The solution to that criticism would be to watch any episode of the show. Derek is good and kind and true -- and a hero that's totally out of place in the television zeitgeist of anti-heroes.

The major second criticism is that the show is emotionally manipulative: The elderly characters die, Derek gets sad, there's a lot of crying, and the sad piano score gets heavy-handed -- and there's actually one instance of Coldplay's "Fix You" as the soundtrack for a sad scene in the show. Yes, the sadness of the show can get overwhelming -- the (spoiler!) fate of Derek's favorite dog Ivor comes to mind -- but is this show emotionally manipulative?


Yes. Derek is as emotionally manipulative as any other story told properly. Storytelling is, by definition, emotionally manipulative. You root for the hero, and hate the bad guy, because the storyteller wants you to root for the hero and hate the bad guy. If you root for the bad guy and hate the hero, then the storyteller either wanted to be ironic or told the story poorly. If a story is not emotionally manipulative, you're probably dealing with a geometric proof of some sort.

The first part of this post's title is "Netflix's Derek Is ... an Unintentional Christian Allegory by an Atheist / Humanist." The overall tone of the show is bits of joy in an environment of sadness. Derek and mostly everyone else in the home are like family, and they try to be kind to one another, which brings much joy in the retirement home. Because it is a retirement home, however, the residents will eventually die, and there is this overall tone of melancholy for the show.

Derek is basically Limbo in Dante's Inferno. If I recall correctly, Dante's Limbo is a happy place, full of virtuous pagans and unbaptized babies, with a nagging bit of sadness -- the fact that Limbo isn't Heaven. The retirement home in Derek is a mostly happy place, with a nagging bit of sadness, due to the inevitability of death.

We just had Easter last weekend, and I guess I'm obsessed with the theological-mythological (depending on your denomination or belief system) story of the Harrowing of Hell. Basically, on Holy Saturday, the eve of Easter Sunday, Jesus rescued the souls in the Limbo part of Hell. Those non-damned souls were able to leave Hell and enter Heaven.

I usually imagine the Harrowing to be an action movie, with fire and demons and Jesus with a sword, but perhaps the story could be told better with goodness and kindness instead. Virtually all the characters in Derek love Derek Noakes for his kindness and goodness. If you mash up Derek and Dante, it seems that Derek Noakes is Jesus in Limbo on Holy Saturday. It's a metaphor, of course, but perhaps not the one that atheist/humanist creator Ricky Gervais intended.

The second part of this post's title is "Netflix's Derek Is ... a Lost Series of Doctor Who." The character Dougie, the caretaker/Jack of all trades for the retirement home, has a Northern English accent with a moderately baritone pitch. Karl Pilkington's (Dougie) voice reminded me of Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor, who also spoke with a Northern baritone. So that got me thinking -- headcanon time! -- that a freshly-regenerated Ninth Doctor suffered from so much depression due to the destruction/disappearance of Gallifrey, that he could bear to live anymore. He didn't want to kill himself -- that would have only triggered a premature regeneration -- so he used a chameleon arch pocket watch to stop being a Time Lord.

This chameleon arch was special because it had a chameleon circuit. The Ninth Doctor kept his voice (approximately) but his cropped hair became bald with too much hair on the sides, and his eyesight got worse. And so, for a time, the Ninth Doctor hid from the Time War by being a curmudgeonly caretaker of an English retirement home, named Dougie. Dougie ... Doctie ... Doctor?

Dougie could fix almost anything, with a regular screwdriver. Eventually, with the kindness of Derek, Dougie started to realize there was something more to his mundane existence. Being overwhelmed by the stresses of the home, and being electrocuted at the beginning of the second series of Derek, Dougie remembered about the chameleon arch pocket watch.

Dougie quit his job and was never seen again. He resumed being the Doctor, with a more aesthetically pleasing haircut (and hairline), which made his ears a bit more conspicuous. The Doctor then knew he had to clean up the fallout of the Time War, starting with the Autons in 2005 London.

If I edited a series of screen shots for Tumblr, perhaps this Dougie/Doctor headcanon would find an audience. In any case, I must figure out what to binge-watch next. No, who am I kidding? The fifth season of Game of Thrones premieres on Sunday! I'll have to take that show one week at a time ...

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Storywise, Solving the Judas Iscariot Problem: Judas Was a Robot. Happy Easter!

One of the major characters of the Christian Easter story is Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. From a storytelling stance, Judas' character arc is a bit problematic. Most of the issues stem from the implication that the Son of God obviously saw the betrayal from a mile away, as noted in the Last Supper dialogue, but let it happen regardless, because life-death-rebirth was the mission, after all.

The traditional reading of Judas Iscariot is that he betrayed Jesus -- no ifs, not buts, no asterisks. He accepted 30 pieces of silver to tell the Pharisees where to arrest Jesus, thus setting into motion the events of Thursday night's trial(s), the Good Friday crucifixion, as well as the possible Harrowing of Hell on Saturday, and the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday.

Many say the motivation of Judas' betrayal was to force Jesus into unleashing God's power on the Romans, to be King of Israel on Earth. This was not unlike Satan's proposal/temptation to Jesus, to be a vassal King of the World under Satan's high kingship. The Gospel of John says that Judas was possessed by Satan at some point during the Last Supper. Anyhow, after Judas' plan fell through, his guilt drove him to return the blood money and commit suicide -- or did the Devil make him do it?

The writers of the Gospels didn't give Judas any real character arc. In fact, when they introduce him, they spoil the betrayal part from the get-go. He was kind of a bully disciple in other parts of his story. It was like Judas was fated to betray Jesus, fated to commit suicide, fated to be almost-universally hated among Christians, and had no chance to choose otherwise.

It was like Judas was part of a plan. "The Plan," as it were.

A non-traditional reading of Judas Iscariot is that he co-conspired the crucifixion with Christ. Jesus knew the plan involved being executed, and apparently Judas was the most trustworthy disciple.
Judas set into motion the events of Easter weekend because the other 11 would not, and could not, do this for Jesus. After everything played out like a heist film, the Harrowing of Hell is a bit of a heist with souls, Judas used the 30 pieces of silver to buy a nice plot of retirement property.

Of course, the Devil, being screwed out of most of the souls in Limbo, as well as the very soul of the Son of God, had to find revenge somewhere. Literally, there was Hell to pay. So, Judas spontaneously exploded in his retirement home, and Satan made damn sure Judas' reputation was sullied as the betrayer. Forever, and ever.

For me, the Judas-good-guy interpretation is somewhat more palatable than the Judas-bad-guy one, but there is a giant problem: In terms of historical reputation, Judas kind of made a slightly bigger sacrifice than Jesus. Let's break it down:

Jesus' body was tortured and hanged on a cross. Physically, Jesus died like any other victim of crucifixion. Mentally, but mostly spiritually, Christ had to bear whatever metaphysical substance sin is, for the entire human race -- that is why Christianity praises the sacrifice of the Savior. Keep in mind that the soul of Jesus is basically God, and therefore can handle the weight of all sin. As a reward for dying a cruel death, Jesus kicked ass in Hell (depending on your denomination's theology), was triumphantly resurrected to realm of the living (Happy Easter!), and has since become the founder of a major world religion. Jesus is usually seen as a hero in the eyes of other religions, too: As Gandhi is quoted to have said, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

Judas, on the other hand, died by either the noose or by explosion, or both. If he betrayed Christ, then he was damned by popular opinion, and deservedly so. If he conspired with Christ, then he was damned by mistake, and really got the short end of the stick as far as popular opinion goes.

Then again, maybe Judas was the type of person who didn't care what others thought of him, and so he continues to drink Mai Tais in an isolated part of Heaven, a fishing spot by a lake, and nobody visits him. Only Jesus. But rarely. Maybe that's Judas' reward for co-conspiring with Christ: Peace, quiet, good booze, and the same exact delicious fish that is caught, cooked, and consumed, every day. For all of eternity. With a Heaven like that, who cares if all of Christianity hates you, right?

I'd like to propose a third interpretation of Judas Iscariot, one where it's still okay that he's the bad guy who betrayed Jesus. I'll have to borrow from Roman Catholic theology and cosmology, and spin it to be a bit heretical. They say that Adam and Eve passed down a hereditary trait called Original Sin to all but two of their descendants:  Jesus and his mother Mary. Mary didn't have Original Sin, so that she could give birth to Jesus. Jesus didn't have Original Sin, so that he could do all that God stuff.

We can certainly mythologize what exactly Original Sin, as a substance, is supposed to be. And if it is a substance, matter or energy, it had to go somewhere. Perhaps the accumulation of Mary's and Jesus' discarded Original Sin, combined with the dust of the Holy Land, created a human-like being: Judas Iscariot.

Baby Judas was a foundling of unknown origin, adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Simon Iscariot. Being made of the discarded Original Sin, Judas was supernaturally attracted to the intended owners of that Original Sin, namely, Jesus and Mary. He was probably creepy around Mary, so Jesus hired Judas as to be part of the 12 main disciples, partly because Jesus knew what Judas really was, but mostly to get him away from Mom. Jesus was a good son.

Satan could easily use this quasi-human Judas as a vessel. And so the Devil did, during the Last Supper, to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. After the deed was done, the Devil left Judas. So Judas, who would have been part of both Mary and Jesus if they had Original Sin, felt all kinds of emotions for betraying those who should have been a part of him, and he of them. Needless to say, Judas hanged himself. Because he was made out of Original Sin, with dust and theological magic, Judas exploded. Comically and tragically. The soul of Judas -- he either gained one by spending time with Jesus or the Original Sin of two people became one viable soul -- went directly to Hell.

In most versions of the Harrowing of Hell, Jesus only went to Limbo, to redeem the imprisoned souls of otherwise good pre-Christian people. Now, in this new interpretation, we have Judas, who felt a connection to both Jesus and Mary, because he was created by their rejected Original Sin. Inversely, perhaps Jesus (and Mary) also felt a connection to the Original Sin that was supposed to be theirs. Who knows? I just made up this heretical interpretation, so I probably have lots of plot holes.

In any case, Jesus needed an inside man, err soul, in Hell Proper, and that inside soul was Judas. Being a soul of not-quite-human origin, I can imagine all kinds of trouble this version of Judas would have been stirring, literally raising Hell in Hell, for the past 2000 years. With this third interpretation of Judas Iscariot, he was destined to be evil on Earth for the greater good, and do good in Hell for the Hell of it. What would happen if this Judas stole the throne of Hell from the Devil? It would make sense that a legitimate representative of God would punish the sinners in Hell, rather than have the enemy of God train an army of evil souls for thousands of years, would it not? Original Sin Judas would make a bit of sense as the ruler of Hell.

These are complicated issues, that I might discuss in the future. Or not.

In conclusion, Judas was either an evil traitor, a misunderstood co-conspirator, or a homunculus of Original Sin robot. On this Easter, and this Easter only, let's say that Judas was a robot.

Happy Easter!