Friday, February 24, 2006

Looking for serenity in unlikely places

And they say you can maybe find forgiveness after
Maybe find a place to stand alone...

If y'all will forgive me another Firefly themed post, I promise to make this more meaningful than some of my previous bordering-on-fanboy enthusiasm.

Last night, I was watching the episode Out Of Gas. If you want a full plot summary, you can go here. Basically, what happens is: the ship is dead in space after part of the engine explodes. Because the engine isn't turning, the life support has shut down, so there's not enough oxygen to keep nine people alive for more than about three hours. Mal orders the rest of the crew off in the two shuttles to search for help. He stays with the ship in case anyone gets the distress beacon that was fired off.

There is a subtly powerful sequence as the crew leaves the ship. Inara begs Mal to leave with her, telling him he doesn't have to die alone; Mal responds "Everyone dies alone." Jayne informs Mal that he made a spacesuit ready for him--the assumption being that Mal is going to run out of air and could use whatever oxygen is left in the suit's tanks. However, Mal interrupts him with "I won't be needing it. But thanks."

And then comes the most moving part of the episode. The flashback sequences intespersed throughout the story are meant to show how Mal sees his ship: how it was "love-at-first-sight" between him and the Firefly that would become Serenity, how he saw it as a way to remain free after the Alliance won the war, and how it became the only thing he had left to hold onto. After losing everything at Serenity Valley, this Firefly was perhaps the only thing left in the 'Verse that he could put his love and trust in. We get some idea of this during the flashbacks as Mal waxes eloquent (and a tad grandiose) about how the ship means "freedom" to whoever is on board. It is only as the crew leaves Mal, though, that we get a real sense of what Mal was saying but couldn't put forth in words. As the crew files somberly into the two shuttles, Mal turns his back and walks towards the bow of the ship. A slowly building piano and violin instrumental--combined with guitar work reminiscent of Mark Knopfler--accompanies him as he seals the doors to the bridge (to preserve air), wraps himself in a blanket, and gazes out at the stars. The camera cuts away and we see Serenity adrift in space.

Why is this scene important? Because there are those things in life which we hold onto without knowing why. We hold onto them because sometimes, they're all we have left to hang onto, because holding onto them is a worthy end unto itself. Even when the engine blew and the air was slowly but surely running out, Mal opted to stay with his ship. Not, I expect, merely as a captain staying out an ancient sense of loyalty to his vessel; but, because as Zoƫ remarks in one of the deleted scenes from the pilot episode, "Once you've been in Serenity, you never leave. You just learn to live there." We choose the places we live, whether they're physical or mental; for Mal, staying on Serenity was both a physical act, of remaining on board, and a mental act, of remaining with the one thing left in his life that truly gave him hope.

I would ask this: where do we live? What places do we find and never leave? And would having it be enough to let us to watch everyone who trusts and loves us leave, perhaps never to return?

Everyone has a ship they're not willing to leave. If we're lucky (and smart), we choose one like Serenity.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

I found this over at Sci Fi Wire:

"Underhill said that he wants to acquire the rights to produce a second season of Firefly and has gone on the Web to solicit fan's support, though not their money. "We're looking at actually doing a direct pay-per-view model for this series, where the consumer could choose, if they wanted to, [to] view it on their computer, on their iPod, on direct-to-DVD sent to their house or on demand through their cable or satellite operator," Underhill said in a telephone interview."


"Firefly/Serenity fans, who call themselves Browncoats, are suspicious of Underhill's motives and methods, and the entrepreneur has gone on a Browncoat fan forum to answer questions. Underhill admitted that his effort is a long shot: He even revealed that a bookmaker had contacted him to gauge the odds of his success for purposes of wagering. (He had no idea.) "Anything can be a long shot, and projects can be shut down at any time," he said."

Hmmm. I'm not sure what to think of this. On the one hand, I'd most likely pay on a episode-by-episode basis, provided there was some way to save them and maybe burn them to DVD if I was lucky. On the other hand, if this guy actually does buy the rights to Firefly (anybody have any idea what the ballpark figure for that would be?), it could potentially be twisted and mutiliated until it's just another mediocre shoot-'em-up sci-fi show. He also doesn't seem to have gotten in touch with any of the original cast ("He acknowledged that he had not yet heard from Firefly/Serenity star Nathan Fillion"), something that makes me a tad nervous about his ambitious vision.

I want more Firefly, but not at the cost of the vitality and energy that permeated each of the fifteen original episodes. To that end, it would probably be best to reserve judgement on this guy until he gives us an idea of what he's capable of producing.
Today in my Middle Eastern Archaeology class the professor talked about the origins of agriculture from two points of view: the natural forces hypothesis and the cultural change hypothesis. Put simply, these two notions cover the fundamental question of what man is: a creature of action or reaction? A creature who shapes his life or is shaped by it? The natural forces theory holds that man is controlled by his surroundings, a puppet jerked around by the strings of climactic change and environmental factors that are beyond him to predict or explain. On the other hand, the cultural change theory tends to look more at the synthetic aspects of man's existence, and how man-made things--agriculture, industry, and so forth--shape him, just as they were shaped by him.

I'm not sure if this is an already-posited theory, but it seems to me that man is no less a product of the environment than the environment is a product of man. For lack of a better word, I'm going to call this the Inflection Point Hypothesis. Imagine this: a lowland river valley in a fairly temperate zone, with mountains sloping up from both banks of the river. The fishing is good, and the land is suitable for subsistance crops of various sorts. The people of this valley survive mainly on rudimentary agriculture: wheat, barley, maybe rice if it's wet enough. Perhaps there's limited domestication of pigs, dogs, and goats. However, the flood plain is fairly wide during the colder, rainier seasons, and there's already been significant erosion of the villages around the river, to the extent that the people are moving farther and farther up the slopes of the valley. Now, here's the eponymous "inflection point": the people can either attempt to dam the river and alter its course and flooding pattern, or they move away from the valley floor, into the mountains. If they dam the river successfully, they've set the stage for continued settlement in the valley, which I believe would significantly affect the course of history in that area. If there's continued settlement, there is the possibility of an enlarged cultural sphere, perhaps even the foundation for a civilization. A continued settlement will build walls, establish trade routes, and serve as a nexus point for travel, warfare, and other forms of human interaction. However, if they move into the mountains and beyond, the people will come into contact with other groups. Maybe they will assimilate these groups, or be swallowed up by them; maybe they will fight and conquer, or be conquered. The point is: in either damming the river or moving away, they have already set into motion things both within and beyond their control. There is no one governing factor above all others in the course of these events. There are actions under our control, and there are things that follow from human actions that shape both what we do and how we do it.

There seems to be one critical mistake with both the cultural change and the natural forces hypothesis. They both give the impression of accounting for fluidity in human action, but stay rooted in the static mindset that seems to accompany ancient historical study. There is nothing static about human interaction with the environment. Every action brings new change, and every new change brings newer action. We cannot shape our world without it shaping us...and it cannot shape us without being itself shaped. Heisenberg, I think, would not disagree.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

You'd have a wonderful day
If you could see how lucky you are
-The Wallflowers

Some random things:

This weekend has been good so far. My Firefly DVD set came, no thanks to the W & M postal service (motto: "Service With A Snarl!"). They gave me two packages in return for three package slips. The math didn't seem right to me, so I went back and asked the angry man to check for another package for me, after explaining what had happened. He literally stared at me belligerently without speaking until the nice lady next to him finally asked me what my box number was. I told her and she got the package for me.

Don't get me wrong. I like getting packages. But the jerk at the P.O. seems intent on keeping them.

Anyways. Charter Day is/was this weekend. I went with my friend Becky, and it was really nice, although we didn't stay for that long. We ended up going back to my room around 10:30 or so and watching some of the Firefly episodes before she left--it's supposed to snow (has snowed, by now? I'm not sure) in Charlottesville, and she wanted to beat it back so she didn't have to drive in it on her way back this afternoon.

I got Dr. Orwoll, my PChem I and Chemical Research professor, as my advisor. I'm really relieved--he seems willing to go to bat for me over the honors thesis thing, and I think I might actually have a chance of getting into the program.

And, I have a wonderful lab partner this semester. I ended up screwing up our last lab by turning the wrong dial on our electric dipole meter and screwed up all our subsequent measurements, meaning we had to spend an extra two hours redoing the lab--and she was an amazingly good sport about it. When I told her it was my fault, she looked at me reprovingly and said, "Will, we're lab partners. That means it's either both our faults or no one's fault."

I hope my (apparently) good luck holds.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

WARNING: The following is a misogynistic rant. May not be suitable for easily offended readers, or people without a sense of humor.

Here at William & Mary, we have a little shindig called the Charter Day Gala. It's a celebration of the grant of a charter by the King and Queen of England to the College, and there's a dance and speeches (this year's is by the Hon. Tim Kaine), etc. So, basically, an alumni fundraiser and an excuse to break out a dark suit and power tie. I asked a friend of mine to said dance, after the girl I was originaly going with realized she had to work on that evening. This morning, upon returning from P-Chem, I found the following IM waiting for me:

"Look, I know we'd just be going [to the dance] as friends, but I don't think it's a good idea. The guy I dated last semester just told me (last night) that he still really likes me, and I'm trying to work things out with him and be sensitive towards him, and I don't think going to a dance with another guy, even a non-romantic interest, would be beneficial to the situation."

Now, a bunch of you know that I harbor some various woman-hating tendencies among the rather large quantity of regard I have for the fairer sex. I'm going to do my best to shelve those for the following post, but I make no promises.

I can't decide whether it's just here at W & M or if it's like this everywhere--but girls seem to take male attention waaaaay too seriously. Ladies, if a guy asks you to a dance, it doesn't necessarily mean he wants to marry you. Now, it's a fair bet that if he asks you to a dance, he might welcome some affection--but that doesn't mean he's going to force himself on you either. And when he asks you to a dance, with a simple "Hey, want to go to the Charter Day thing with me," the polite thing to do is NOT to give him your life story but merely answer with a cordial "yes" or "no." Imagine if I asked a girl to a dance this way:

"Look, I just recently got out of a six-month relationship with a girl who was probably the first person I've ever really loved. I'm still broken up about it but I really want to go to the Gala, even if I'm less interested in you as a person than I am in the fact that you're a reasonably attractive female with whom I'd like to spend some time. So, want to go to the dance with me?"

Assuming this girl isn't a frothing lunatic, she'd be moving in the general direction of away by this point. And I wouldn't blame her. So here's the double standard: the girl is allowed not only to give you way more information about her personal life than you ever wanted in the first place, but if you display any sign of annoyance, displeasure, confusion, etc., with her verbose refusal, you're being a chauvinist pig who isn't respecting her feelings.

So, my advice to girls (for the little that it's worth ) is: if you really want men to respect your feelings, as you so strongly assert, assume that we have them as well. We may not show it outright, but that's because we've been conned into believing that the woman is always right and to express any form of disapproval with the system above is emblematic of a typical patriarchal mode of oppression.

(As an aside: what this girl didn't know, because I had the sense not to tell her, is that the dissolution of my own relationship has given me more emotional issues to deal with than ever. I didn't inflict those issues on her because they had nothing to do with her. I wish she'd done the same.)

To wrap up: I don't have anything against women in particular. What bugs me is this assault-defense tactic of a girl telling a guy that 1) she's not interested in him but that 2) she has some emotional/mental reason for not doing so, so she's really not responsible for the pain caused by cutting him off at the knees. It leaves the guy in the natural bind of wondering what the right response is. Do I get angry or express sympathy? My gut feeling on this is: neither. The guy should leave her alone until she can figure out her own issues--of which the only one affecting him is her severe defensiveness at merely being asked to a fargin' dance.