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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (3/8/10) 10:58am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Glee [1x05-1x08], LOST [6x05-6x06] [spoilers]
Books:  The Checklist Manifesto [audiobook], Perfecting Sound Forever

Glee [1x05-1x08]
The second disc of Glee's first volume contains the episodes "The Rhodes Not Taken", "Vitamin D", "Throwdown", and "Mash-Up".

Glee is still just as much of a mess as it was at the start.  It's still the drooling head-trauma victim of plot-construction.  The stories just don't follow round-earth logic, which is fine, but they don't follow any internal logic either.  How does the world work on Glee?  It works by whatever rules will get us through the plot as quickly as possible.

But even that isn't quite accurate.  Yes, musicals have to have simple, efficient plots -- they have to set up soaring, melodramatic emotions, and the frequent singing means they don't have a lot of 'scene time' in which to move a complicated story along.  But that doesn't mean the story choices have to be *stupid*.  And Glee remains resolutely stupid -- full of decisions you might throw out early on in a brainstorming session with full confidence that they'd get mulched under and replaced with better ones:  "Okay, maybe we could include Kirsten Chenoweth in the musical numbers because... um, she's an ex-student who left a few credits shy of graduation!  So... so, Will brings her back into the glee club!  Or, you know, something that's like that, only less stupid and impossible."

On the other hand, these writers are clearly having a ball writing certain characters.  It's obvious that they're really cutting loose with Sue Sylvester and letting her speak the most moonbatty lines they can come up with.  It's obvious they've really nailed Rachel's voice.  Other characters are slowly coming alive.  Emma's OCD has become more a basis for her character than her entire character.

But the rest of characters are still sort of limp.  Most of the time, Finn is just dumb.  And it's not even an interesting kind of dumb.
Rachel:  "I'm sorry I called you 'lackadaisical' and 'recalcitrant'."
Finn:  "It's okay.  I don't know what those words mean."
C'mon, people.  That's not character interaction.  That's a Family Circus cartoon.  And the "doesn't understand big words" thing is a lazy, signifying way to express "this character is ignorant".  And Finn is better-written than most of the supporting characters, who are either one-note or just complete ciphers.

But still, they're moving in the right direction.  At this rate, by the end of the season, maybe they'll have homed in on a set of sharp, distinctive, and funny characters to work with.

But the writers will still marionette them through mind-bogglingly stupid stories.

LOST [6x05-6x06] [spoilers]
The latest two episodes of LOST were "Lighthouse" and "Sundown".

Fans continue to be sharply divided about the flash-sideways storyline.  Some fans hate it.  Some fans love it.  Me, I keep going back and forth.  "LA X" was exhilirating, the way it introduced the concept, brought back long-dead characters, and sent all the central cast scattering around after the plane's safe arrival.  And "The Substitute" gave us a flash-sideways storyline that felt like a resolution, of sorts, for John Locke.  After a plane crash, endless manipulation and betrayal, unbearable failure, attempted suicide, and getting murdered for no apparent reason, I finally saw some version of John Locke have a good day.

Then again, "What Kate Does" felt like a dud.  I was never really invested in Kate's storyline, so that episode had nothing it could really 'pay off', in my eyes.  Also, nobody in that storyline seems to obey round-earth logic:  "Oh, you want to give me a ride, carjack-lady?  Ok, sure!"  Uh, what?

These last two flash-sideways storylines, I've felt more ambivalent about.  It *was* satisfying to see Jack settle his daddy issues in pretty much the most decisive way possible:  telling his own son, point-blank, that he would always, always be proud of him.  But then, it was hard for me to feel emotionally invested in the son whom I'd never seen.

The Sayid flash-sideways was engaging -- it was great to see Omer and Nadia back, and watching Sayid pwn bad guys is always a good time -- but it didn't feel like it resolved anything.  I feel like a braying simpleton for saying this, but here goes:  if the flash-sideways had been a simple story of Sayid finally winding up with Nadia, I would have liked it better.  The elephant-in-the-room question with the flash-sideways stories has always been "Why do I care about this?", and when those stories have felt like happy endings to the more miserable Island storylines, I've found them very satisfying.  I get that what the writers did here was more clever and surprising, but with storytelling, 'clever' is not always your friend.

That said, one thing I loved about that Sayid flash-sideways is that it's basically a film noir.  Remember, the important thing about film noir isn't (IMHO) the black-and-white photography, or the hard-boiled detectives, or the witty-but-world-weary dialog.  Fundamentally, a film noir is about a bad guy trying to be good.  And he tries to be good, and he tries, but the story keeps hitting him with situations where being good is just too damn hard.  And I don't mean 'inconvenient', I mean 'hard' -- like, "Well, you can hold true to your vow never to shoot anyone again, but if you do, gangsters will torture your family."  Eventually, the guy just can't hack it.  He falls.  And he's punished.

(Side note:  I suspect that none of the world's fanfic-writers are writing about an alternate-universe scenario where Sayid is a sad-eyed gumshoe in 1940s L. A.  This is rather a shame.)

As for the Island storyline, it feels like they've finally finished shuffling all the pieces into place, and they're going to get started on the real story.  Okay, we've brought Claire back to the Temple; we've moved Jack and Hurley out to the Lighthouse; we've joined Miles up with Ilana's crew; we've sent Sayid off to Smocke's army.  But now, we have a war.  Smocke has an army, and that army is intent on killing everyone in their way.

In a world full of vagueness and mysteries, this is a story I can understand.

Part of the problem with these 'setup episodes' is that I didn't really get the LOSTies' objectives.  They reacted to stuff that happened -- okay, now they're following instructions to go to the temple; now they're told to give Sayid a pill; and so on -- but I never felt they had strong goals to pursue.  But now it looks like we're shifting over to a big battle.  I can easily wrap my head around "We have to stop Smocke from killing everybody."

Likewise, it looks like, after several episodes of establishing stuff, we're homing in on why the flash-sideways stories matter.  There's a theory floating around that this is an alternate world somehow created by Smocke as a way to give the LOSTies what they want.  Sayid wants to see Nadia again?  Hey, here's a reality where this is so.  Locke gets Helen back.  Kate gets to be innocent of her crime.

Between that and the stronger hints that Something Is Amiss in Sideways-Land (Jack's bewildered, "When did I get my appendix out?" is one of my favorite lines of the season), it looks like we're about to nail down why the flash-sideways world matters.  Then we'll probably re-watch that initial run of episodes in a new light.

Again, I'm not panicking about whether they'll have time to give us all the answers.  I still think they can info-dump the important stuff in short order if they want to, and they'll probably put that off until (say) we get an Alpert episode.  No, the problem I've had is that the mysteries in play have made the story feel vague.  ("Right, so these people are supposed to do... something... to help somebody... get to some kind of goal.")  But it looks like they're solving that problem, so I'm looking forward to the upcoming episodes.

(Side note:  at work, I joked that the two name-lists were "an obvious database-sync problem".  Then they made fun of me for being too nerdy.  Guess the levels of irony here.  [Hint:  not zero.])

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande [audiobook]
This is Atul Gawande's nonfiction book about his efforts to apply airline-pilot-style checklists to the worldwide practice of surgery.

"Common sense is what tells you that the earth is flat."  I love this quote.  I have nothing against common sense -- it works great most of the time.  Hell, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a whole book on how, in many situations, gut instincts work far better than detailed analysis.  But common sense, when it gets beyond common experience, fails pretty badly.  Look at a flat plain, and you will extrapolate a flat earth, and you will be wrong.

So there are zones where common sense fails.

If you're studying quantum physics, and you're examining the world at the femtometer scale, that's outside your experience.  Any attempt to apply common sense is going to fail.  ("Wait, its *location* is a probability cloud?")  Similarly, cosmology, with its massive scales of time and space, is going to stymie your instincts that are based on "dropping a potato" scales of time and space.  Relativity, with its thought experiments about riding around at nine-tenths the speed of light, fall well outside our experience of velocity and send us into a surreal world of slowed clocks and doppler-shifted light beams.[1]

(Yes, I know.  I'm getting there.)

This book made me realize that there's another zone that falls outside our experience and thus stymies our common sense:  edge cases.

Say you have some task that you do every day.  Say you do it correctly 99.5% of the time.  How are you going to fix that 0.5% failure rate?

The problem here is that failure is so rare that it's outside your common experience -- and that means your common sense no longer applies.  So maybe you address the problem by polishing up your everyday skills, the ones that get you 99.5% success.  But the truth is, there could be something utterly bizarre causing that 0.5% failure, and you'd never know it, because you wouldn't have a decent sample set of failures.

This is the world that Atul Gawande lives in.

Here's an example from his previous book, Better:  general anaesthesia works fine 99.9% of the time.  But many times, those 0.1% problem cases are fatal.  And Atul Gawande researches how they address edge cases like that.  It turned out that simply reconfiguring the knobs on machines that delivered oxygen -- specifically, reconfiguring them so that clockwise always meant 'more oxygen' -- fixed a vast number of those problem cases.

"Oh, come on, Peter.  I'm not *stupid*.  I would *always* turn that knob the correct way!" 

Sure, you would.  Except for that one, rare edge case where you wouldn't.  Your common sense only knows about the 99.9% end -- it won't lead you to the right course of action, because you don't have a 'feel' for the failures.

The Checklist Manifesto is about fixing edge cases in surgery by employing airline-pilot-style checklists.  Make sure you're operating on the correct side of the patient.  Verify the antibiotic has been administered.  You know:  the stupid stuff that you would never ever screw up, except when you do.

What's interesting is that making checklists is a bit of an art form.  Boeing, for example, puts in a ton of research determining (1) what pilots screw up, (2) which of those screw-ups could be corrected with simple checks, and (3) the best way to put those actions in a simple, easy-to-follow checklist.  And it's not always intuitive what should go *on* a checklist.  My favorite item has to be the first one on the checklist for engine failure on a Cessna:  "1.  Fly the plane."  Pilots routinely get so panicked in this scenario, and so flustered by trying to run through the other checklist items, that they genuinely need the reminder.

The book details Dr. Gawande's efforts to come up with a basic surgery checklist for the World Health Organization.  WHO had observed that the amount of surgery going on in the developing world had skyrocketed, but that surgical complications (infections, mainly) were at unacceptable levels.  So Dr. Gawande and his group took inspiration from the airline pilots and came up with a checklist to handle the stupid stuff.

Their results were impressive, but they didn't make much headway with the surgical community at large.  Remember:  the checklist is designed to handle edge cases, that fraction of a percent of the time when you screw up, the cases outside of your everyday experience.  So your common sense tells you, "I don't need no stinking checklist."  This is especially true if you think very highly of yourself, and surgeons are, by general report, think as highly of themselves as is humanly possible.

For some reason, seeing the checklist turn out to be so effective made me very happy.  I'm not sure why, but I'm always happy to see difficult tasks get offloaded to mindless "just do this stuff" instructions.  It might be a self-confidence thing.  We live in a world where the important stuff gets done by bold individualists who have the genius and the intuition to always improvise the right solution.  I don't see myself as a Howard Roark type.  So if somebody reduces an imposing task to a long series of manageable subtasks, suddenly it feels like something that somebody like me can do.  In the end, I always root for the people who aim to rid a field of its aura of mystery, or its elitism, or its requirements of airy genius.

This is not to say I can do surgery now because a checklist exists.  But I'm glad surgery is getting safer, and I like seeing surgeons knocked down a peg or two.

Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner
This is Greg Milner's history of recorded music, from Edison's very first experimental phonographs to today.

Largely because of technological developments, not only do recordings change, but society's conception of what a recording *is* changes.  For instance, the earliest recordings were reproductions of live performance.  People judged them on how well they re-created the sound of that performance.  Most recent recordings are largely generated "in the box" -- that is, inside the recording workstation -- and we don't conceive of a live performance out there that sounds like (say) a Squarepusher song.

And what's weird is that the inflection points -- the moments where society changes its mind about what a recording is -- those are reflected (and, I suppose, influenced) by format wars.  Should a live recording contain a performance with the ambience of the room it was recorded in, or should it just contain the performance without any such artifacts?[2]  This decision was one component of the format war between Edison cylinders and Victor wax discs.  The cylinders lost, and we made our choice for how recordings would sound.

And so it went, over and over again.  Cylinders versus discs.  Electrical versus non-.  CDs versus vinyl.  Analog versus digital.  ProTools versus SSL decks.  Autotuned versus not.  There's a certain amout of conscious irony in Milner's choice of title, because we're never really 'progressing' towards some point of perfection -- we keep changing our minds about what we're going for.

The writing was pretty solid.  He's done his research, and the book is filled with quotes from all sorts of recording-industry pioneers.  He explains the technology quite lucidly.  On the other hand, his more philosophical points got away from him.  When Mr. Milner talks about whether Edison would wind up "owning" your sense of hearing -- well, I'm sure the author knew what he was writing about, but I couldn't make heads or tails of it.

All in all, though, it was an intriguing way to look at the history of the recording industry -- that it's as much about what we think we should hear as what the technology will allow.

(Side note:  one bit of trivia I found fascinating was that even though Edison invented his phonograph in 1877, the basic technology for it had existed since the renaissance.  Think about it:  we've always had things made of wax; we've always had sharp needles; we've always had horns; we've had rotating surfaces for as long as we've thrown pottery.  The missing piece was really the *concept* that a sound could be fixed in an object.  Once you've realized it's possible, the rest is just logistics.  Again:  it's just as much about the *ideas* as it is about the technology.)

For next time:  I've started listening to Nurtureshock on audiobook.  Hopefully they'll get Anatomy of Story in at the library, and I can start reading that -- for now, I'm reading An Abundance of Katherines on Shellie's recommendation.  I'm watching some more episodes of Chuck, and I still have that Silver City DVD kicking around.

[1] I suppose we could also throw in 'evolution' here.  You may be a very smart person, but you really don't have the intuitive framework to make sense of "tiny little mutations, accumulating over several *millions* of years."

[2] There are sensible arguments for this.  For instance, if you record a violinist in a music hall, and then play back the recording on a record player in your living room, you wind up with the acoustics of the music hall multiplied by the acoustics of your living room, creating an acoustic space that doesn't really exist.  Play back a "dead" recording with no ambience, and theoretically, it sounds like the violinist is in your living room.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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Date:Monday (3/8/10) 7:18pm
Ohh, Checklist Manifesto sounds rather intriguing - and thinking about veterinarians' reactions to such guidelines gives me a laugh
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Date:Tuesday (3/9/10) 8:30am
(I assume veterinarians' reactions would be rather unpleasant?)
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Date:Wednesday (3/10/10) 9:37pm
What prompted you to read (err, listen to) Checklist Manifesto? I just realized that the author is the same guy who wrote - The Cost Conundrum (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/06/01/090601fa_fact_gawande), which is probably the single most interesting thing I've read about our health care system.
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Date:Thursday (3/11/10) 10:11am
Lessee... I'd already read Complications and Better.  I think I read the latter because I liked the former, but I have no recollection of how I found out about the former -- maybe it cropped up in one of those AVClub "best nonfiction of the year" columns?  In any case, I heard about this latest book because ptevis mentioned he was reading & enjoying it.

I hadn't heard about "The Cost Conundrum" -- I'll have to read that!
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