Month: February 2014

Glimpses of The White House on Television

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As I decided to squeeze Scandal‘s “mid-season premiere” (whatever that means) in the middle of my House of Cards binge, it struck me how many of today’s popular TV shows share the same setting: The White House. And although this setting does not same name and outward appearance, its presentation and function varies considerably from show to show.

Here’s a look at how the political epicenter of America is presented in four popular television series: Scandal, Veep, House of Cards, and The West Wing. (Unfortunately, I have not seen other popular political shows such as 24, The Newsroom, Political Animals, or The Good Wife, and so I cannot write about them.)

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A Sought-After Prize: Scandal‘s White House

As you might expect, the main thing that goes on within the White House walls on Scandal is, well, scandal. There is some mention of foreign affairs and I think maybe they mention that Congress and the Senate exists, but personal drama undoubtedly takes the forefront. In this way, the White House serves as more of a pedestal to try not to fall from rather than an actual political position. The main plotlines involve characters forming plans to obtain political power or to keep political power. And sex, there’s a lot of that too.

Smiling and Waving: Veep‘s White House

The only comedy of the bunch, Veep‘s depiction of the White House is also less focused on actual political maneuvers (although major plotlines do involve foreign espionage, trying passing a bill, and even a timely government shutdown) and more on trying to get good press despite comical mishaps. As the show focuses on the vice president rather than the president, it largely presents a flurry of functions that VP Selina Meyer has to attend to make the president and herself look good to the public.

A Rock-Climbing Wall: House of Cards‘ White House

Similar to Scandal, political positions within the White House in House of Cards is viewed as a prize. Except rather than watch the president attempt to keep his position (as we do most of the time in Scandal ), we watch the conniving Frank Underwood attempt to climb his way into the presidency, no matter how many bodies he leaves in his wake. While there is definitely personal drama, it is mixed nearly evenly with political maneuvers that Frank thinks will discredit his opponents. Affairs are less scandalized and used instead to garner more power. Largely, the White House is presented as a puzzling rock-climbing wall, requiring careful strategic planning on where to place your foot next — it could be your last step or bring you closer to the top.

Strictly Politics: The West Wing‘s White House

Arguably the pinnacle of political television, The West Wing‘s White House is presented less as a building full of power-hungry politicians and more as a group of people actually trying to make the country a better place. Sure, there’s plenty of personal scandals and worrying about reelection, but mostly it depicts a devoted staff and president trying to pass a law they believe in or perfecting a speech or discussing the ramifications of taking sides on foreign affairs. The White House is full of busy people with a million things to do each minute, who famously cannot even stop walking to have a conversation.

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It’s probably not possible to capture the entire essence of the White House in a television show, so it’s good that we can see the building and what it represents in so many different lights. But I’m still curious to see which depiction President Obama would find most accurate.

The “Twitch Plays Pokemon” Phenomenon: An Attraction to Chaos

For nearly an entire week, a growing number of strangers from around the world (reaching as high as 100,00 people) have shared one common goal: becoming a Pokemon master on a specific game of Pokemon Red Version.

What makes this specific game so unique and so difficult is that anyone can control the game at any given moment. By entering either “a” “b” “start” “right” “left” “up” or “down” into a chat box, you too could influence the decisions of the titular playable character, Red. Of course, due to difficulties in coordination, a 20-second lag time between commands and execution, and the ever-present internet trolls, what has resulted from this experiment is nothing short of chaotic frustration. But the popularity of the game is only continuing to grow, even spawning spinoff game-plays of different versions of Pokemon. There are currently over 14 million people watching Red run himself in walls and walk in erratic patterns. The comment board is always filled with exclamations of frustration, as it takes extremely long periods of time to perform very simple actions. So why are we still watching?

Small Victories: Overcoming Obstacles

From my understanding, the main reason more and more people will watch the infuriating nonsense is for the small victories of finally doing something right. Although it has taken nearly a full week of nonstop gameplay, the players have managed to obtain four of the necessary eight badges and navigated some tricky mazes. Of course, players celebrate these successes with fervent exultation, but even navigating Red to the correct stairway or to talk to a certain character receives accolades and pride due to the relative difficulty of these normally easy tasks. Once you open the livestream and understand that the players are trying to make Red pick up an item or walk into a specific building, it is nearly impossible to stop watching until he completes the activity, even if it takes 15 minutes of grueling turning around and start menus.

In fact, some of the most difficult moments in the gameplay have been tasks that are pretty simple when playing on your own. An event known now as “the ledge” necessitates the the character walk in a straight line and then up around a mound . If the character moves down at any point, he has to begin the process over again. Below is an image of “the ledge.” While normally this it is simple to pass this, it took the Twitch team a whole day to finally enter enough “right” commends without someone entering “down” to ruin the whole thing.

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Another major hurdle has been trees, which are a common obstacle at the beginning of the game. To get past trees, the character has to command one of his Pokemon to use the move “Cut” on it. This is easy playing alone, but it requires a lot of the Twitch players, who must be facing the tree, press “start,” navigate to the “Pokemon” menu, select a Pokemon that knows the move, and select “Cut” in that Pokemon’s individual menu. It’s no wonder it has taken hours to cut down each tree that has been encountered.

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Unfortunately the maze in Team Rocket’s headquarters – the villains of the game – proved too much for time and patience to prevail against. After a day of Red being unable to navigate the slide panels which require precise steps (not a forte of the Twitch players), the game admin introduced two new input commands “democracy” and “anarchy.” If “anarchy” received more commands the gameplay would continue unchanged with every input command being executed by Red, but if “democracy” received more then the game Red would only execute the command entered the most in each 20-second period. It was this usage of “democracy” that allowed the players to complete the maze, but it is still wildly unpopular among the players.

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There are many more obstacles to come for the players, such as the always difficult Victory Road and the Safari Zone, which only allows Red to move a set number of steps, but if the past has any indication on the future of the game, these obstacles will only draw in more people who will wait with baited breath (and gnashing teeth) for this perverse modality of teamwork to conquer.

Banded Together: Cult Worship

The fact that hope is what draws people into the game and the long hours spent watching has spawned an unexpected phenomenon: cult worship within the Twitch player community.

Paramount among the many in-jokes that have arisen from the gameplay is a new Christianity-modeled religion the players jokingly invoke based on the events of the game. Here’s the rundown before I get into specifics: Helix Fossil = God, Dome Fossil = Satan, Pidgeot = Messiah, Flareon = False Prophet.

Due to the amount of times the start menu gets selected (and the “Items” menu when in battles), Red will often attempt to use the items at the top of his list. Normally this results in the item being used or tossed, and thereby disappearing from the bag, but since the Helix Fossil cannot be tossed or used (until reaching the final town of Cinnibar Island, where it can be revitalized into the Pokemon Omanyte), it is always at the top of Red’s items list. This means that it gets selected a lot, but cannot be used. The Twitch gamers have given meaning to this fruitless action and dubbed it as “consulting the Helix Fossil.” Likened to prayer and divine guidance, consulting the Helix Fossil has placed the item on a godlike pedestal among the players, and has by opposition damned the Fossil’s counterpart, the Dome Fossil, to the role of Satan.

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With the Helix and Dome Fossils making up the two polar deities of this religion, the Twitch gamers also assigned them their primary disciples: Pidgeot for the Helix and Flareon for the Dome. Pidgeot is the highest-level Pokemon on Red’s team and is thereby the strongest. It has easily defeated opponents that none of the other Pokemon could.

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Flareon’s story is a little more complicated. The players decided to obtain an Eevee in Celadon City to evolve it into a Vaporeon so that it could use the move Surf later in the game (an essential function to completing the end of the game). However, since Red can only have 6 Pokemon at a time, the players had to deposit one of their current Pokemon into a PC before getting Eevee. This is a dangerous task since the PC contains the “Release Pokemon” option, which loses the Pokemon forever. In the end, it was that option that was selected for both Red’s Charmeleon and Rattata, and in an act of sacrilege, the Helix Fossil was deposited into the PC, although later retrieved. It was the Eevee that was blamed for these actions, and in the end it was evolved into a Flareon (which cannot learn Surf). This string of ruin caused the Twitch players to conclude he must be sided with the Dome Fossil.

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Of course, this “religion” is all just in-jokes resulting from the extended period of time together and the intense investment in the game. And this type of response is not at all surprising coming from the fandom culture present in today’s internet-savvy teenagers.

As the game goes on, there is sure to be more additions to this “scripture,” and perhaps that is another reason we are still watching: for the story rather than the game.

All I can say is this: HOW THE F*** ARE WE STILL IN LAVENDER TOWN!?

College Is Just Second Childhood

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My typical meal was macaroni and cheese and a Capri Sun. I spent my free time playing Pokemon and watching cartoons. I had a nap-time. I laughed at fart jokes. Can you guess how old I was when all these things were true?

It’s a trick question, since there are actually two correct answers. These are experiences that I, as well as most, would associate with preadolescence, but they also ring true of my life while I was attending college. And through conversations and observations, I have found this experience to hold widespread truth.

This leads me to a hypothesis that I have had for some time now: College is basically just a second childhood.

Sure, the analogy isn’t perfect. College students worry about essay deadlines and the best way to talk to the girl in their Tuesday-Thursday marketing class while children don’t tend to worry about much more than simply having fun. But every time I saw one of my classmates napping on the floor of the student center or even throwing a tantrum about how much work they have to do in so little time, I cannot help but be reminded of childhood – where all that mattered was feeling good and the alternative was screaming and crying.

The college years create this phenomenon due to the social spheres that align. Most prominently, college means moving away from home and most likely living on your own for the first time ever. Without parents telling you to eat vegetables or to make you nice meals, your diet naturally reverts to easily-prepared foods that taste good. And while some college students are health-conscious, the environment is undeniably saturated with … well, saturation, and sweets. Like children in a candy store, college students won’t hesitate to grab a plate of fries with dinner, a candy bar between classes, or the inevitable late-night snack.

Late nights are obviously no stranger to a college student. Even if they did no have a curfew towards the end of high school, once in college people will stay up later either to finish the increased workload or just because they can. In a way, late nights are one of the most rebellious acts of freedom for a college student – no longer under the thumb of their parents to go to sleep at a reasonable hour (the bane of every child’s day). While this seems to be a divergent from my “college is just childhood” theory, I see it as more evidence. This desire to stay up late is something apparent in children, and they only go to sleep because they are forced to. After college, most people will choose to go to sleep at more reasonable times because they are tired from their work. But a college student, like a child without parental supervision, will stay up as late as possible, even if they have a 7:30 am lecture the next morning.

Those oh-so-common late hours are also when college students will act the most childish, as how you present yourself to the world is no longer important. It was not very uncommon for me to find everything from a man giggling for hours on end at a picture of a dog to a woman openly crying over her laptop. Clearly any masking of emotion has goes away at a certain point in the night.

While the refusal to sleep is prominent at nighttime, it completely vanishes during the day. Napping is a huge phenomenon on college campuses, and the amazing thing is that it only occasionally happens in a bed. At times, it may be hard to tell the student center lobby apart from a wartime infirmary with so many unconscious bodies draped over every surface. While coffee and energy drinks are weapons of choice, most college students cannot fight off the overwhelming need for sleep that they neglected to get the night before. And although children usually do get a full night’s sleep due to their parents’ urgings, a nap-time is definitely associated with childhood, and the inability to go through the day without a little break.

Finally, college is a mindset that breeds nostalgia. Students are faced with the choices that will directly impact their future each day, and they are told so continually. It’s no wonder that so many will look back to their carefree youth with longing. Back when catching Mewtwo was the pinnacle of achievement and Spongebob was the funniest thing in the world.

While my theory may sound patronizing, I think most college students can see some truth in it. And I think a return to childhood is more than appropriate for someone as they are about to enter the adult world. One last glance at the wild freedom before it becomes business meetings and student loan debt and mortgage.

Frances Ha: Platonic Love and Private Space

Upon starting Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s film Frances Ha, you may assume it is an older movie due to the fact that is filmed in black and white. In fact, the 2012 film couldn’t be more modern.

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The story centers on the titular character of Frances, a dancer struggling to get by in New York City. Throughout the film, Frances struggles with losing her apartment, her best friend, and her direction in life. The story seems to be like one of the many in the genre of “a woman loses everything but finds herself,” but it deviates from this formula in important ways. For instance, the film does not end with Frances falling head-over-heels in love with Mr. Right nor is a romantic partner something she actively seeks out.

Instead of the erotic plot-line so common in these types of movies, Frances instead has to grapple with the challenges of keeping a platonic friendship. Frances brushes off the realm of romance with breeze: breaking up with her boyfriend for suggesting they move in together and continually joking about how “undateable” she is with her friend Benji, the closest she has to a romantic partner. Instead of getting a boyfriend, Frances is clearly more concerned with keeping her friendship with her best friend Sophie alive. This intense focus on her friendship over her search for love is epitomized even in the first moments of the film, when the viewers  are presented with the intimacy that Frances and Sophie share through late night conversations and playful wrestling. These scenes lead the viewer to assume what some other characters assume throughout the film: that Frances and Sophie are lesbians. However, they directly address and dispute this notion several times throughout the film. However, the clear intimacy between the two women, contrasted by the lack of intimacy between them and their respective boyfriends, shows that the real love story in the movie is between Frances and Sophie, albeit a non-romantic one.

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This idea is explicitly emphasized at the end of the movie through a simple gaze. In what I claim to be the movie’s “thesis” and best line, Frances describes her idea of love:

“It’s that thing when you’re with someone, and you love them and they know it, and they love you and you know it… but it’s a party… and you’re both talking to other people, and you’re laughing and shining… and you look across the room and catch each other’s eyes… but – but not because you’re possessive, or it’s precisely sexual… but because… that is your person in this life. And it’s funny and sad, but only because this life will end, and it’s this secret world that exists right there in public, unnoticed, that no one else knows about. It’s sort of like how they say that other dimensions exist all around us, but we don’t have the ability to perceive them. That’s – That’s what I want out of a relationship. Or just life, I guess.”

In the end, it is Frances and Sophie that share this look at a busy reception. And even though Benji asks Frances out at this same reception, the viewer is left with the understanding that the platonic relationship between Frances and Sophie is more meaningful and more important than each of their romantic relationships.

Frances’s statement on love also highlights her obvious desire to avoid growing up. In the film, Frances is clearly averse to taking on responsibilities and letting go of things she is used to. She cannot accept Sophie moving in with her boyfriend and moving away from her and she turns down a job offer  to choreograph dances because she wants to continue to be a dancer despite losing important dancing jobs. If Frances had her way, the world would be frozen. That yearning is reflected in her quote, as her ideal realm is a frozen, secret world among the hubbub of life — like a stationary stone in the middle of a coursing stream.

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As the film progresses, Frances finally accepts that she must take the choreography job and that Sophie has moved away. But although she has accepted to give in to the onward motion of life, she still has access to her frozen world that she shares with Sophie that, much like their apartment, is a place where only the two of them have access.

Lethal Interjection: Why the EU’s Objections Could Stop Stateside Injections

In thirty-two U.S. states the death penalty is legal. Far and away the most common method of execution under the death penalty is lethal injection, which has been the cause of 1,191 death penalty executions since 1976 and is the primary (if not sole) method in every state where the practice is legal. Electrocution has the next highest number at 158 deaths since 1976, followed by the gas chamber at 11, and finally hanging and firing squad at 3 each. As these numbers make very clear, the real “life” of the death penalty lies in lethal injection.

But persisting challenges in obtaining certain lethal injection drugs threaten the future of the death penalty as a whole. Due to the European Union’s opposition to the death penalty, it has banned exports of the usual lethal injection anesthetic agents to the U.S., and has instituted lengthy preauthorization procedures for barbiturates that could be used in lethal injection.

These anesthetic agents are a critical part of the three-drug process of lethal injection. The process involves an anesthetic to induce unconsciousness, a paralytic to induce muscle paralysis, and potassium chloride to stop the heart. Without the anesthetic, particularly barbiturates, the person receiving the injections would experience extreme and prolonged pain before their death, being unable to express this in any way due to the paralytic. A case could be made that this would violate the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause.

Some prisoners have proposed moving to a one-drug process of overdosing on a barbiturate, but since obtaining the anesthetic is the challenge that wouldn’t solve the problem. Instead, states are experimenting with anesthetic agents previously unused in lethal injections. Some states, such as Texas and Georgia, have obtained execution drugs from U.S. compounding pharmacies, which make small amounts of drugs and are not regulated by the FDA. Florida used the sedative midazolam in an October 2013 execution, the same month Missouri had planned to execute a convicted murderer using propofol but abandoned the decision due to combined pressure from the EU, the FDA, and two manufacturers of the drug.

Clearly, it is getting more difficult to perform lethal injections, and these challenges are only expected to grow. This is leading to officials in death penalty states coming up with plans to abandon the practice of lethal injection. While for some hardcore death penalty states, this means looking into other death penalty executions (the Missouri Attorney General has proposed reopening the state gas chamber that’s been closed down since 1965), the growing public support for alternatives to the death penalty could lead many states to abandon the death penalty altogether.

The Biggest Loser: Body Image Over Weight Loss Please

For 15 seasons now, “The Biggest Loser” has offered viewers inspiring stories of extreme weight loss transformations, but the recent season may have taken this a step too far.

Rachel Frederickson, 24, won this season of the reality competition by dropping 155 pounds (going from 260 lbs. to 105 lbs.), which is 59.62% of her body weight. What’s more, the 5’5″ woman now has a body mass index of 17.5, which is considered underweight by the National Institutes of Health. This has led to a media uproar, condemning the show for driving a 24-year-old from one extreme to another.

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Rachel Frederickson before and after the show.

The show is no stranger to controversy. Since it’s early days, “The Biggest Loser” has been the target of public controversy. Some viewers are taken aback by the ruthless methods of the show’s trainers, Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels, and many fitness professionals point to the show’s inappropriate program design and oftentimes dangerous overtraining. But even Bob and Jillian seemed shocked and somewhat disgusted to see Rachel’s more than extreme weight loss at the show’s finale.

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BL trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels react to seeing Rachel’s dramatic weight loss.

In my opinion, Bob and Jillian are so hard on the contestants because these people are severely obese and stuck in their ways. It’s one thing to try to get fit on your own if you are already living a somewhat active lifestyle and are maybe 15-20 pounds overweight, but it’s a completely different venture for a person who lives a sedentary lifestyle and will not think twice about eating piles of unhealthy foods each day. These people need a fitness and lifestyle regimen that really does go above and beyond the regular routine.

In most cases, the show is inspirational and provides hope for many viewers that they can also achieve their fitness goals through hard work and support, which is only becoming more important as obesity is on the rise in America. However, as the case of Rachel Frederickson shows, “The Biggest Loser” needs to be sure that it is promoting a healthy lifestyle in every realm.

Losing weight should not be the goal for every person. While obesity is on the rise as one of the top killers of Americans, so are eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). And the fact that the show’s key demographic is 18-49 year-old women — the age range and gender that is most susceptible to eating disorders — supports my point that “The Biggest Loser” needs to stress that a healthy body image does not mean skinny.

I propose that the show add trained body image and BDD counselors. This will not only help contestants that may be exhibiting signs of eating disorders, but it will also help other contestants struggling with accepting themselves due to their size and work towards achieving fitness for their health.

The show should also be judged on body composition rather than body weight. Because the show is based on entire body weight, contestants are actually penalized for gaining muscle weight and rewarded for losing this healthy weight. Judging based on body composition will eliminate weight loss due to muscle, bones, internal organs, and most of all water.

I still think “The Biggest Loser” does help motivate many Americans to lose some much needed pounds and life a healthier lifestyle, and with a few changes hopefully it can also help the many Americans struggling with being underweight or eating disorders to work towards a healthier lifestyle as well.