Archive for December, 2014

Hiding the Youtube Comments: What free-speech means and why we must protect it

December 23, 2014

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – First Amendment to the United States Constitution

There is no question about the generalized nature of internet discourse. In particular, YouTube’s rickety comment system is broken, inconsistent, unrepresentative and usually stagnant. Certain channels (though the minority) actually break the mold and encourage community building, education, and compassion. For example, the annual charity fundraiser hosted by the Vlogbrothers called “Project for Awesome” would not exist without YouTube’s platform. This year alone, the P4A raised over $1.2 Million U.S. dollars to donate amongst various democracy-chosen charities. They accomplished this in seven days, a feat which could not have been achieved without the conversations which took place in the comments.

It is my view that YouTubers who disable feedback on their videos do exponentially more harm than the (tendentiously) blunt, hyperbolic, unfiltered stream of comments that exist by default on the website. Speaking broadly, YouTube videos resist classification in the way that books do; no two are the same, whether copied or not. Each must be produced, distributed, absorbed, shared, reflected upon, and discussed to be considered “culturally relevant.” These elements of both books and YouTube videos allow for a flourishing, evolving culture that continually flowers and dies back in a perpetual cycle of rebirth. With all art and forms of expression, there will be positive and negative criticism. Without YouTube and its (severely flawed) comments platform, these environments of positive social change would not be able to exist. Without ideological debates, good ideas would be indiscernible from awful ones–at least in terms of a one-way path; we need a two way path of conversation; talking past each other is ineffective and potentially harmful.

Let it be made clear that I am not anathematizing any Youtuber in particular, as it is each channel’s right to do as they please within the YouTube terms and conditions. I simply implore all to ask themselves what the internet would look like without a method of feedback from others. It would be a ghost town, in my opinion. Social media is so effective because it allows us to be, more or less, checks and balances on the ideas and behaviors of those around us. Without comments, you might not have ever heard of that hilarious cat video or book to read next. Without a system of feedback, we all are talking into the void.

A message to be taken away from this is that, though no website has any obligation to provide a comment section, we have an obligation to ourselves to see what others have to say about an idea being presented to us. When Constitutional free-speech is thrown around in political conversation, many miss the implication of the First Amendment; the protection of free-speech not only allows you to speak, it allows you to listen. In fact, I’d argue, it calls you to listen first, and to speak later. In the words of Christopher Hitchens, “No special circumstances, no emergency, no unforeseen contingency can dilute the plain and straightforward meaning of those words or that phrasing.” The reason free-speech is so important as to be the First Amendment is because ideas shape the world we create. Listening to what people have to say, as opposed to living in delusion of omniscience and authority, is perhaps the best way to discern the veracity of ideas. Reasoning and argument, as I’ve written before, are perhaps the best tools humanity has crafted to construct a beautiful society.

The Internet is one of the first avenues we humans have had in avoiding reticence in our beliefs, to share our deepest convictions without filter, and relate to others half a planet away. To silence those who are engaging with the content–people–is to silence intellectual growth. If someone is posting controversial ideas, I tend to believe it is their obligation to leave the comments section open. Its that or they will be in a think tank comprised of one member: Them. To my mind, treating one’s initial ideas and beliefs as Godlike and unquestionable is intellectual dishonesty, parsimony, and despotism.

So a call to any YouTuber afraid of criticism or hateful dialogue: I am not minimizing the psychological effects bullying & hate speech can have. I’ve experienced both in real life and online; it is not fun. But we are mentally stronger than that! There is a reason someone has an opposing belief to your own. Teasing that reason out isn’t terribly arduous; it may have claws but, like cats, it’s likely soft and innocent like your own reasons. To resist criticizing those you disagree with is, equivocally, to not care critically about what they have to say. You don’t have to care about everyone’s beliefs, but you do have to care about your own. That, at least, seems uncontroversial.

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No Preamble: The Legend of Korra: “Day of the Colossus/The Last Stand” Finale Critique

December 20, 2014

Obviously Spoilers: Be warned, it’s better that way.

It’s no secret that the Legend of Korra has been deeply overshadowed by the Last Airbender in many ways. I’ll avoid a summary of these past four seasons and dive into my thoughts on the two-part finale of the series that aired today.

Day of the Colossus

“Day of the Colossus” has some cool action scenes, but the pacing just feels awkward and imbalanced. Most of the appealing moments in this episode deal with Kuvira’s massive mech suit. We are led to believe that this massive platinum creation is about to efface Republic City from the map–not exactly an original plot device (see every mech anime ever)–and the previous episode leads us to believe that Kuvira just blew the warehouse, and those inside it, to bits.

This series has been saturated with Deus ex Machinas at every turn. This episode is no different. A brief, undetailed example would have to include Milo and his paint-balloons being…windshield wiped randomly? Kuvira must have, I guess, thought of everything. Or a better example is the “plasma saw” which we just now find out about in the nick of time. LoK constantly introduces new technology immediately before it is used to solve everything, i.e. hummingbirds, the EMP Varrick uses, etc. Additionally, the random zoo we’ve never seen or heard about just happens to have two very compliant Badger Moles. Convenient. Or simply lazy writing. A more careful and patient writing team would have slipped in a zoo scene three or four episodes ago, casually showing us that it exists. Instead, we just have to swallow an instantaneous, clean solution.

It’s difficult sometimes to discern where the line is being drawn between this being a kids show and a fanservice for the ATLA generation (teens/adults). But the line clearly exists, or at least is intended to. It’s great that a kid-friendly show can be dramatic, complex, ethically nuanced, and culturally diverse. LoK stands well there. But ATLA was so well-written, well-animated, cohesive in its own universe, and actually developed its characters in unusual and believably human ways. LoK just kind of forgets about its characters and breaks its own rules. ATLA’s unique “anime” style was meticulously honed from real martial arts forms and it seem that we have lost that model. Inventive bending? Seductive settings? Character individuality? Very few of these in LoK, if any, hit their mark. Point is, if you’re going to use a character as a plot device, let’s get to know and care about these characters, settings, and battle techniques.

The most redeeming thing about this series is the fact that it’s willing to allow meaningful action to take place. This is a rather morbid analysis of what’s “good” about this show but, being honest, fights and battles should be meaningful; we should not just blow off action without consequence–especially in a kids show (still questioning that). Action should have real stakes for the characters and for us as viewers. There weren’t any moments in this episode where the action seemed to be leading to the downfall of any character we’re invested in. This is true especially the protagonists: They end up virtually unscathed.

Hiroshi Sato’s death was actually written and placed within the story well. It hurt to see him go so altruistically. However, this is the one consolation. After we’ve seen buildings torn apart, explosions the size of naval ships, our characters blown out of the sky, knocked out, beaten up, etc. we get ONE death. Casualties: 1

There are admittedly some cute moments between Varrick and Zhu Li, some nifty bending choreography, etc. But overall, not a very impressive lineup of plot and character development, especially for part one of a finale.

The Last Stand

First, where did Mako come from in this episode? His character is simply dead weight after season one, and the way they’ve tried to write him back in at the last minute begs some ponderous questions. It’s cool seeing Bolin & Mako team up as brothers, but we’ve seen that. Bolin is such a more likeable, complex, well-written character which leaves Mako an embarrassment. Comparatively, I’d argue the Cabbage guy from ATLA has more complexity.

Su/Lynn’s sibling fighting style is just so much more interesting and action packed than Mako/Bolin’s. The Beifongs rock it out in every fight scene they are involved in and I really wish they had more screen time. However, a note to the animators, when disarming the weapon, the spirit cannon exploded upwards and Su/Lynn just ducked backwards out of the way unscathed. That’s um…not how explosions work. They would have been singed, at best.

Which brings me to my next qualm with this finale: The world’s most slightly inaccurate mega-weapon. These two episodes have at least seven near-misses, where BUILDINGS are taken down and our characters just barrel roll out of the frame. Again, good writing demands consequences. I, personally, can accept about two near-misses in a high-stakes fight, and then it gets insanely cheesy. In the words of the YouTuber JonTron: “Fool me once, I’m mad. Fool me twice, how could you? Fool me three times, you’re officially that guy.”

All irritations aside, there are some genuinely cool action scenes. It was pretty brutal to see Kuvira just casually tear off the most important limb off her mega mech suit. Then the mech eventually gets blasted into pieces from the middle. We see Mako almost die (seriously, if he died there exploding the spirit vine, that would have been AWESOME and SIGNIFICANT). We needed more scenes like these with weight to them.

But then everything goes back into Deus Ex Machina territory. The broken spirit cannon arm just happens to be in working condition, tangled along down Kuvira’s escape path. The Avatar State just happens to be a panacea which not only blocks the spirit cannon, but rips another spirit portal into the world preventing any casualties. (“Yayyy, peace and prosperity and flowers.”)  Seriously. The explosion goes into a spirit-nuke which engulfs half the city and EVERYONE IS OKAY?! Boo. You cannot just write this level of violence and have everyone be safe, just ducking behind walls by the breadths of their arm hair. I don’t want anyone to die, but if you’re going to introduce a weapon with the alleged capability (and willpower behind it) to wipe a city off the map, show me. LAZY. WRITING.

And then the line drawn between kid/adult audience is made pretty glaringly obvious in the final moments of this episode. Korra just befriends Kuvira. We get a few brief lines of, “You don’t understand my problems. I was an orphan!!” Weak sympathy, poorly executed, with scant setup. Having never formally been invested in Kuvira before her rampage this season, her character evolution feels stale, forced, and puerile.

This episode just wrapped up like the seventh Harry Potter book (of which, admittedly, I am still a fan): We see Korra go into purgatory, or what looks like it, see the villian, and then suddenly compassion happens and we see her come back to life (so to speak). Everything gets wrapped up with a pretty bow, no one except Hiroshi dies, and everybody literally lives happily ever after. Yay.

I was worried at the end. It looked like they were setting Makorra up again (Mako & Korra as a couple), which seriously is the worst pairing in Avatar history. Luckily, we see a hint, a pretty direct hint, at Korrasami (Korra & Asami as a couple). I am a huge proponent of the Korrasami ship, and we’ve clearly been getting flirting glances at the potential there. It would be fantastic to see some deviation of heteronormativity on the show, given how much the fans have vocalized their yearning to see it happen. There was even a Change.org campaign to make Korrasami cannon. And lets be honest, they’re so cute together. Realistically, one chaste kiss between them would have been all we needed to see without being “in your face” and “offensive” to conservative viewers/parents. We don’t need a makeout session. But they just hold hands. We’ve seen every other couple kiss (when appropriate) and here we just get a suggestion. Not happy. Cowardly writing. Nickelodeon, I’m assuming, shut this one down.

Overall: I’ve seen far worse from Korra (the filler/recap episode this season still makes me cringe). I still don’t see why she deserves the “Legend of Korra” title; the only legendary thing about Korra is her impeccability to lose a fight. In fact, LoK has kind of called the title, “Last Airbender,” into question given how many airbenders come back. I understand the team behind the show got repeatedly shafted by Nickelodeon and that their budget was more than slashed. Though it sucks that they were taken off the air, I’ll go ahead and say, releasing a TV show over the internet for free is a much more convenient/effective system. The lack of respect the Avatar team received with LoK makes me really sad because given what we’ve seen this show to be capable of at times, the iffy parts really stick out, leaving a sore spot of what could have been. From season 1, most fans expected another ATLA. This became quickly apparent to be a pipe dream. Instead, we get something that staggers across the finish line. Regardless, it will be sad to see such a long, fruitful, cult-fanbase die down at last.  I may not be satisfied on every account, but I can safely say I will return to LoK again some day. Long live the bending universe.

Edit: Having taken some time to rewatch and reflect upon this entry, I have to say that I was a little harsh in my review. I’ve noticed a lot of things I was complaining about this finale missing–my mistake. Korrasami has been officially confirmed by the creators and so I feel more satisfied with the ending at this point. There are still some action gripes I maintain, but aside from those, this finale bumped from a 6/10 to an 8/10 in my mind. Even sadder now.

“The Top 5” – Best Albums of 2014

December 18, 2014

1. Closure in Moscow – Pink Lemonade (10/10)

Pink Lemonade is a concept album built around the most hallucenogenic ideas I have encountered on a record (akin to The Mars Volta, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd). This record brings to the table ingenuitive ideas, trippy effects, impenetrably complex lyrics, and vocals that sound as if from the “Brahmatron” itself. More or less, Pink Lemonade dresses like a classic-rock album, yet somehow Closure in Moscow breaks that mold and comes across with incredible driving force and energy. No two songs feel the same, yet all flow into one another seamlessly. This record is a perfect example of what experimentation and musicianship can do when properly combined. The worst thing about Pink Lemonade is the fact that it took (literally) five years to make it into my mailbox. It was worth the wait. Favorite Track: “Church of the Technochrist”

2. Hail the Sun – Wake (10/10)

A very close contender for the number one spot this year, Hail the Sun’s first full-length, Wake, blew fans out of the water. Until about this year, Hail the Sun had been a rather esoteric Reddit-only-club kind of band. Their sounds derives itself from too many possible angles to wrap up into a generalization; they can be compared to anybody from The Fall of Troy, to Circa Survive, and to anyone in between. Wake has some amazing instrumentals, driven by Donovan Melero the drummer/singer (wtf, how does he do it?) and has lyrical concepts far deeper than meets the eye. Speaking of Reddit, check out their AMA from a few weeks back to get a broader scope of what kind of songs HTS were trying to produce on this record. Wake might have made it to number one if it had come out earlier this year and allowed time to marinate my feels some more. Favorite Track: “Disappearing Syndrome”

3. Artifex Pereo – Time in Place (9/10)

Artifex Pereo, since Ailments & Antidotes, have lost their original vocalist, and a lot of time on hiatus. Having fallen in love with their craft, I picked up Time in Place expecting a sloppier, more radio-friendly release. Let’s just say I was slapped in the face the second I put the CD in my car. This record packs one hell of an articulate punch. Artifex, as a unit, somehow blends the softest jams in with post-hardcore that, if released maybe 5 years back, would have changed the future of music as we know it today. This record gets a little too soft and angsty towards the end for my tastes (“Weep & You Weep Alone” and “Overview”) but, on the other hand, it’s nice to finally see Jeremiah Brinkworth get some solo time as keyboardist. Artifex are at their best when all instruments are involved, particularly blending heaviness & ambience within a single track–I’m not asking for breakdowns, just less loftiness. That aside, these are extremely technical songwriters who blend together some jams that very few bands ever have the ability to accomplish. Favorite Track: “The Golden Age”

4. Icarus the Owl – Icarus the Owl (9/10)

Though Icarus the Owl hasn’t chosen to experiment too much over the years, they somehow never fail to impress the listener. Icarus are so catchy–almost pop music–yet they remain completely, unintelligibly inventive and dynamic. This self-titled release is full of many jams that will refuse to leave you alone even when you aren’t listening to it. Their mathy movements and tap/sweep guitars dominate the background, whilst the playful drums and loose vocals kill the fore. I am still of the opinion that their previous release, Love always, Leviathan is one of the top ten records I’ve ever heard, so this record had a lot to live up to. Thankfully, Icarus the Owl has not disappointed. However, there are occasional overlapping moments I’ve noticed in their song/lyrical themes, which is a symptom of owning all their records in addition to previous musical endeavors (Kill Your Ex). Not sure why this record warrants self-titling in particular; they’re only getting better as musicians. Favorite Track: “Lily Trotter”

5. Tides of Man – Young and Courageous (8/10)

This list would be amiss without this beautiful, experimental honorable mention. I was heartbroken when Tilian Peterson (Tides of Man’s previous vocalist) left to join Dance Gavin Dance, another favorite of mine. Still, when Young and Courageous came out in the spring, my pre-order arrived and I was hooked instantly. Tides of Man might resist the label, “Post-rock,” but it seems the most fitting way to describe the way this band has transitioned. No longer are their jams heavy and technical; they are simple, loopy, trippy, and free. Young and Courageous takes flight in many movements that old fans will (hopefully) still love and grow to appreciate. I’m sure I’m not the only one with bated breath, hoping for Tilian to return, but even if that weren’t the case, Tides of Man can kill it instrumentally. And their live show is…let’s just say, unforgettable. Favorite Track: “Drift”

Aside from this “Top 5” list and a handful of records that slipped through the cracks (Lights, Young the Giant, So Much Light, to name a few), this year in music has been particularly disappointing. Here are my “Bottom 5” list of flop-releases from 2014 which, while they aren’t terrible, do not live up to the caliber of the bands I have known previously: Chiodos – Devil, Emarosa – Versus, Manchester Orchestra – Cope, Memphis May Fire – Unconditional, Set it Off – Duality. Each of these records has maybe two or three redeemable tracks, but universally fail to build on their past groundworks.

Here’s to hoping 2015 has more low-hanging fruits.

No Preamble: Lights – Little Machines (Deluxe Edition) 2014 – Album Review

December 3, 2014

Lyrics & Vocals: 9/10
Lights’ voice speaks for itself; there are too few vocalists of her caliber today. In terms of lyricism, Little Machines delivers a melancholic mixture between dark and cute moments. Lights vocabulary never ceases to surprise the close reader. There are gentle and complex concepts, both philosophical and playfully childish at times. A few repetitive concepts appear, such as the cliche of metaphorically being “low” and climbing “higher,” or of being a child and suffering from the battle between youth and adulthood. Luckily, Lights does it well.

Musicianship: 7/10
Nothing especially unique about this album in juxtaposition with her previous releases. There are moments of grittier-than-usual synth percolating throughout some choruses and interesting patches dancing along in the background. Also a bit more guitar is present, or at least appears in more stand-out areas than before. Excellent balance in the mix. Her vocals sit perfectly atop the instrumentation.

Album Cohesiveness/Flow: 9/10
This album carries its weight at almost all times from front to back. There is a nice blend of tempos fluctuating across each song and, although a few tracks lag behind, no chorus feels stale or repetitive. Little Machines begins with the tranquil, progressive “Portal” which extends itself into the full flow of the rest of the album. Some highlight tracks are “Up We Go,” “Speeding,” “Muscle Memory,” and…alright the whole album is awesome.

Experimentation: 6/10
This is perhaps Little Machines’ only weak point. It seems that The Listening was a collection of past demos and experimental jams, Siberia was a process of really honing her songwriting, and Little Machines is a refinement of all these sounds and ideas. The final bonus track, “From All Sides” has promise of dynamically pushing Lights in unexpected directions. It takes a few spins to (not “accept,” but) really adjust to the direction this album wants to take the listener. Not much has changed, but no two songs carry themselves the same

Overall: 31/50
The only appropriate way I can describe Little Machines is “ear Skittles.” Not a perfect A+, but certainly worth picking up and acquainting yourself with. Unlike so many artists who release copy-paste albums when they “find their sound,” Lights keeps things fresh without alienating her audience. Old and new listeners alike should be able to find high points across all 14 tracks.

Plaudits & Polemics

December 1, 2014

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Winston Churchill

This pertains to (mostly) those outside of academia: There is a severe abject confusion in our daily discourse regarding argumentation, one which hinders ideological evolution. Many people I’ve encountered recently are conventionally afraid of arguments and see them as negative, harmful, and offensive. Now that is a parsimonious view in my mind. Those who are unwilling to challenge are often unwilling to be challenged. That hesitance, I argue, needs to be corrected.

Its a survival technique to feel certain, to find patterns and make assumptions about the nature of reality, but we tend to be incorrect in those assumptions, at least in nuanced ways. Barely fifty years ago in the United States it was legally justified that blacks and women hadn’t the same rights as white men. This was a belief, one that needed to be argued against, and thankfully succeeded in changing many people’s minds. Without the argument, however, we would have sat in silence and casually allowed oppression to slip through the cracks in our perception. Argument is necessary.

What troubles me about this resistance to argument is, what I call, “the offence card.” Often in online conversation, someone will express a dissenting view from one’s own. It can feel like a violation of one’s own identity to have one’s central belief called into question so radically. Many people tend to mistake criticism of ideas as criticism of themselves which, in a good argument, would not otherwise be confused. A good argument engages with premises and conclusions, which we don’t often explicitly do when having these discussions (politics, for example). Places like the Internet are breeding grounds for straw man and ad hominem attacks, which are, at best, unhelpful. What falls as a logical fallacy, I would argue, is the offence card. I believe Stephen Fry best criticized this weak line of intellectual defense when he said, “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.”

I would like to acknowledge that people have feelings and their beliefs are not always detachable from their emotions. Feeling things is encouraged, it is human, but should not get in the way of logical discourse. You can feel passionate about something and even argue through that passion, but when encountered with contradictory views or evidence you should open your mind to the possibility of being wrong. Opinions are like writing utensils; when your pencil gets dull or your pen runs out of ink, you need to pick up a new, more functional one. Before adopting a belief, first seek out and evaluate opposing beliefs.

Let it also be said that we do not give enough praise to others, as a symptom of this refusal towards argument. Unwillingness to reason with another person is, in my experience, indicative of subconscious insecurity.  Not a weakness, but an unsharpened conviction. Those who learn through argumentative discussion tend to appreciate their own beliefs more, having risked them against someone else’s. When those beliefs are eventually overturned or punctured, however, there is a thankful or successful feeling that arises internally. There is something rewarding about meeting someone who teaches you something about the world and shows you how to think more intricately. This promotes gratitude towards others, if nothing else.

I am not claiming to have intellectual high ground here. I will surely reflect on this post as fatuous, without prescience. I think what is worse than being wrong is sitting in silence, afraid to say anything. There is a kind of intellectual despotism currently sprouting up around social media forums which is a punitive solipsism, “you can’t have this view because I am offended by that.” This is a non-sequitur, a cop out, and above all, intellectual dishonesty. You can be offended and still engage; if you’re offended, you should engage. In fact, empathy is an extremely powerful tool to create change. I only ask that you take the time to listen to others as well, not stultifying and shutting out someone’s ideas simply because they appear unscrupulous or incongruous with your own. Arguments and experiences are the only way to create empathy, in my mind.