Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fixing Mr. Ninjahobo!

OK. Just let me say this upfront - this is entirely pointless. I'm being self-indulgent here. There is less than 0 chance that J.J. Abrams will read this and fix his shit. However, a Facebook friend of mine recently ran a longish series of notes about the things he'd fix in Star Wars given the opportunity* and I spent a pleasant 3 hours over Wellington Anniversary Weekend playing Prime Time Adventures, so I'm kind of in a "Let's fix fictional shit for fun!" kind of mood....

So just to recap, the thing I want to fix is Person Of Interest. Specifically I want to turn it into the "Murderous Ninjahobo" show that the first ten minutes of the pilot episode appeared to promise.

The premise of the actual programme is that an eccentric billionaire has built himself a backdoor into the surveillance system that he built for the US government. This backdoor provides him with a list of individuals who will either commit or be the victim of a violent crime some time in the near future (up to a month). He employs a broken-down ex-CIA/Special Forces man to be his agent and track these people down with the intention of stopping whatever crime was going to happen. I see no need to change this basic outline.

First thing to fix is obviously the central character, I think his name is supposed to be "Reese" but I'm going to call him "Mr. Ninjahobo" anyway. The main problem here is aesthetics. It turns out that Jim Caviziel (who plays Mr. Ninjahobo) looks really good with a full beard. It brings out his cheekbones, and gives him an "interestingly starved visionary ascetic" kind of vibe. This is exactly the kind of look we want in a protagonist who is insane enough to take on 10 opponents simultaneously (though more of that anon).

The original programme had him lose the beard within 15 minutes, I say he should keep it - and his hobo clothes as well. Quite aside from the fact that the beard suits him, homeless people are ubiquitous enough in many American cities to provide a pretty good cover - like dressing as a maintenance person or minor menial servant to get into someone's household.

The next problem with Mr. Ninjahobo is one of attitude. Ninjahobo is tormented by the loss of his lover, and it was this that started his drinking and vagrancy. This is an alright motivation, but actually not a very interesting or compelling one. Or rather, for it to be interesting and compelling, we need to care about Ninjahobo and his lover, and we're not really given time to do either - it's just taken for granted. Thing is, Mr. Ninjahobo doesn't actually need an external reason to lose it. He's worked successfully for both the CIA and US Special Forces, which means that he's almost certainly done some gut-wrenchingly terrible shit in the name of his country. That can and does drive people to drink even now. So we scrap the dead love interest, and have him drink simply to forget all he's done.

Which brings us  neatly to our next point - Mr. Ninjahobo's drinking. The initial fight that had me thinking that this show was going to be about a murderous (or at least lethal) ninja-hobo takes place while Mr. Ninjahobo is on a train, and near passing-out drunk. It's mentioned in his later conversation with Fincher (the eccentric genius) that he's been drinking solidly like that for at least a couple of months. That suggests someone who has totally lost control of his habit, and is on a steep downward spiral. However, the programme has him magically clean up as soon as his life has "purpose". Now for one thing, this is not particularly realistic, but I'm actually totally willing to sacrifice realism for an interesting story. Trouble is that the miraculous recovery presented here isn't an interesting story.

If Ninjahobo has to kick the booze (which he might, in order to become the kind of employee that a mad scientist might want) then let's have him take his time over it, and actually sweat it out. This would give him a genuine flaw (as opposed to soft-focus dreams of "happiness" in between planning and action sequences) which might lead to interesting conflict with his employer. It would also inject a much-needed sense of risk into the action scenes: "Precisely how impaired (either by booze or by withdrawals) is Ninjahobo going to be in this particular fight?" If we have him slip up every so often - dumb mistakes that someone of his caliber ought not to make - that'll serve to reinforce the sense that this guy Does Not Have His Shit Together.

The final problem with Ninjahobo is his lethality, or rather the lack thereof. Now, I have it on good authority from my martial-arts-practising-actually-getting-into-fights-occasionally friends that it's not impossible for someone to fight off 10 opponents without seriously injuring or killing any of them**. They also said that you'd need to be willing to get hit a lot to try it. That means that Mr. Ninjahobo, while he doesn't necessarily need to kill people all the time, is the kind of person who's willing to take a beating to prove the point that he's tougher than someone. He's also probably (according to my informants) trained in the sort of martial arts that mainly rely on you being in pretty good shape, rather than on having a hell of a lot of fancy techniques up your sleeve.

When we see Ninjahobo fight, we shouldn't be seeing someone technically and carefully incapacitating people without hurting them. We should be seeing someone who fights to win, and doesn't really care if he gets hit a lot on the way past. Broken noses and arms, maybe ribs, maybe knees - not black eyes. Ninjahobo should also collect a lot of passing hits (especially considering the whole drinking thing) but is probably good enough to mostly avoid anything crippling.

So, instead of a clean-cut suit-wearing military man, I'm thinking Mr. Ninjahobo should be a genuine bum. He should be desperate and (at least at the beginning of the series) hard-drinking, but still lethal as a result of sheer muscle memory and experience.

Right. I feel like this has gone on long enough - so I'll postpone fixing Mr. Finch for next time.

*The list of things I'd fix about Star Wars is too extensive to interest basically anyone, including me.

** Assuming you don't think a broken nose or two count as "serious".

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Murderous Ninja-Hobo Show! Or not...

So, because we were up late for baby-related reasons, the wifey and I checked out the first episode of a new show on TV1 - Person Of Interest

It started, promisingly enough, with the protagonist (ex-special forces/secret agent chappy haunted by the death of his True Love) getting harassed by young thugs on a train, and beating the crap out of them despite being nearly-passed-out drunk - sort of like an unarmed American Zatoichi with drunkenness instead of blindness. I was pretty stoked at the idea that I was going to be watching an hour of murderous ninja-hobo TV. That would, after all, be a fairly unique premise - or at least an interesting reimagining of the "Man With No Name" cowboy/samurai archetype for an almost-totally urbanised modern America.

The first warning sign came when he was at the cop-shop getting booked, and it turned out all the punks who'd been hassling him were there too. So he's not lethal, and in fact fights large groups of opponents without seriously injuring them? So we're in superhero-land? Ah well, this still might go somewhere interesting.

Except that after initially Refusing the Call, his first act was to book himself into a hotel, off his hobo beard, and change into fresh non-filthy clothes. This had the effect of instantly making him less interesting. The actor playing Non-murder Non-hobo actually has a pretty bland face when not bearded, and the lack of his distinctive hobo-plumage strips away the last shred of interest his appearance had.

My certainty that this is going the wrong way is finally confirmed when, as soon as he has "purpose", the main character's drinking problem disappears. Firstly, addictions Do Not Work Like That, and even assuming that his drinking was just supposed to be problematic rather than chronic, the show has just dodged another opportunity to add depth to their main character. Obviously his Dark Past is supposed to be enough. It's not even like your main character can't be plausibly lethal and an alcoholic.

Oh well. I suppose if I'm up late in future, Person Of Interest has a cute enough rest-of-the-premise (people using a backdoor into a pervasive government surveillance network to play superheroes) that I might watch it. But it's not the Murderous Ninjahobo Urban-Man-With-No-Name that I was promised*.

* Yes yes, I realise J. J. Abrams & Co. actually promised me nothing of the sort. I still hate it when something has an interesting first five minutes then has all of the points that would make it actually unique stripped out in the next ten.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Talking about God (for fun and profit?)

...and we're back! So before I forget, Hairy Eczema and Flappy New Ears to all!

I was recently prompted to do some thinking about God as a result of a piece of debate I was included in on the mighty Book Of Faces. Specifically the thinking I needed to do was about Richard Dawkins' arguments about the non-existence of God, and my problems with Richard Dawkins (and, by extension the people who most commonly argue with him).

Strangely enough, my issue with Dawkins isn't his aggression and regular use of mockery (though I think these are unhelpful) - I object more to his conflation of spiritual and religious thinking with the power structures that tend to grow up around religions over time. Dawkins' opponents seem to me to suffer from a very similar problem. They seem to be stuck in a rut of attempting to defend willfully illogical ideas and corrupted institutions quite uncritically, when it seems to me that by sacrificing some of those more superficial trappings of their religion, they could still salvage the core more or less unscathed.

Now, Richard Dawkins does provide a pretty solid mathematical argument for the probable non-existence of God (or at least an argument that suggests most of the things commonly said about God are wrong)*. This is not necessarily fatal for theists/not-totally-materialists though - Alan Moore, for example, cheerfully admits that the god he worships was probably a sock puppet. More problematic (were it true) is the harm that Richard Dawkins claims is caused by the very act of belief.

He puts the Crusades, the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and the various horrors of ultra-orthodox Shariya law*** (amongst many many other things) at the foot of "belief" on the grounds that only by believing in some god could we justify doing such awful things to each other. Unfortunately for Dawkins' argument, humans are quite good at justifying doing awful things to each other on irreligious grounds as well.

I think that most of the stuff that Dawkins (and those who agree closely with him) wish to blame on religion can be more accurately blamed on religious leaders and organisations who are more interested in maintaining their own position of power than in the teachings of their various faiths. The reason this rings true for me is that  you can see the same kind of behaviour by power-elites who exist outside of religious groups - it seems counter-intuitive to me that there's really something magical about religious belief that totally switches people's brains off. Power-worship seems like a far more likely culprit.

Which brings us to Dawkins' detractors. My problem with churches is that they seem to me to be primarily organisations of social control. The spiritual core of most religions is self-improvement along various lines, but this has little to do with the daily machinations of, say, the Catholic Church.

I spent 4 years doing a job which required me to listen intently to a minimum of one church service a week. I was recording them to be broadcast, which meant I had to pay much closer attention than many church-attendees (I suspect) in order to catch any verbal slip-ups so they could be corrected. The thing that struck me was the disconnect between the words of Jesus quoted from the Bible, and the interpretation applied by the church people. The words of Jesus seemed to me to place the power of his message directly in the hands of his Disciples, and by extension his followers. The standard church interpretation, however, claimed that he'd empowered the organisation, rather than the people.

My point is, that the best defense a Theist can take to Dawkins' mathematical info-theory argument, is to abandon some of their dogmatic points about God and the organisations that humans have built up around him. This would result in an infinitely less rules-lawyer-y approach to spirituality****, and make them essentially immune to arguments from the likes of Dawkins. For example, the Dune books provide a good example of what an omniscient being would need to look like for their existence not to violate human free will. Not that all spirituality needs to come from 70s science fiction, but it does provide a blueprint for thinking outside the box about this stuff.

The only problem with my suggestion, as far as I can see, is that by sacrificing dogma and their big Clubs O' The Saved, theists lose the ability to claim that they have a particular right to tell people what to do. And there, I suspect, lies the rub...

* I'm not going to go into it in the main text of the post, because understanding it properly requires being a maths-nerd of the kind which I am not, and because explaining it properly would cause me to ramble even more than is usually my wont. If you're interested, Richard Dawkins explains the relevant bit of information theory in more depth than I can be bothered to here.

A rough summation of his information-theory argument for the non-existence of God goes something like this:

  1. A thing's "informational content" is the amount of bits of information we'd need to make a correct guess about its existence and attributes in the absence of any other context that would explain it for us**.
    1. Therefore, the higher a thing's informational content, the less chance we have of making a correct statement about it without the addition of some provable information.
    2. There's a mathematical formula for precisely how much each bit of information reduces our uncertainty if you want to follow the link, but it's not actually necessary to understand the point of the argument.
  2. Some Theist philosophers have argued that God has an infinite informational content. This is also a potential consequence of interactions between some of the attributes traditionally ascribed to God by Theist philosophers.
  3. You have an infinitely-small (functionally zero) chance to make a correct statement as to the existence or attributes of a thing with infinite informational capacity unless you have an infinite number of bits of information about it.
  4. The possibility of God's existence (or at the very least anybody's ability to make a correct statement about God's existence or attributes) is infinitely-small - functionally zero.
** A neanderthal might find a computer pretty mystifying, but modern people have enough other contextual information for even reasonably un-computer-literate people to know that they're reasonably common in the First World at least, and have some idea of the things they can do.

*** I'm pretty sure that we only ever hear about insane applications of Shariya law in the West - honour-killings and all that madness. I don't know of any sane applications of it (and can't be bothered trawling right now) but I'm pretty sure that if they exist we won't see 'em on the News.

**** And precisely how could a more adaptive spiritual approach possibly be a bad thing? Sure, people will come up with crazy new prejudices to replace the old ones they've abandoned, but they do that with economics and politics already, so why the hell not?