Friday, May 30, 2008

Lost Finale Recap

Well, there it was. It wasn't the mind-blower we were hoping for, but it gave us a few great dramatic moments and a heck of a lot to ponder.

What's most disappointing is that the story has barely inched forward from where it was at the end of last season. Season three ended with Jack saying "We have to go back." Season four ended with Ben telling Jack, "You have to go back." Lost has a Rashomon-like tendency to jump back in time and tell the same stories over and over again from different perspectives (think of the beginning of season two, which took around four episodes to depict under an hour of time in the hatch). When it works, it underlines the choices made by the characters and asks interesting questions about how things might have played out differently. When it doesn't, it feels like meaningless wheel-spinning. Why show us an extended version of the scene between Jack and Kate at the airport, when the extension consists only of Kate slapping him and general bitchy melodrama? The dots are now connected -- the flash-forward in season three is matched up with the present tense -- but not much has been added to the off-island storyline. The twist at the end -- Dead Locke -- felt both obligatory and false. They've spent too much time building this character up to kill him off so summarily. And what with time travel, resurrections, doubles and flashbacks, I think we all know that on Lost, death is not the end.

The on-island stuff worked a lot better, even if our knowledge of the future created an unfortunate sense of inevitability. Usually I find the heavy action/drama stuff on Lost to be ham-fisted and cheesy, but tonight featured a number of affecting moments -- Sun's heart-stopping grief over Jin's (possible) death, her shrieking and sobbing followed by a moment of empty, haunted silence (her transformation into a forlorn-yet-badass player on the corporate stage is pretty interesting, too); the reunion of Desmond and Penny (I'm a sucker for those two, and was legitimately surprised when her boat appeared); and most of all, the madcap insanity of What Went Down in the Orchid.

What did go down in the Orchid? Well, Ben did. Down into the icy bowels of the beast, wearing Hallowax's parka, where he -- and I have to give the writers credit for ballsy literalness here -- moved the island by turning a giant frozen donkey wheel, then zapped into future-Tunisia. I feel like this is a litmus test for whether you can follow Lost all the way down the rabbit hole -- can you watch someone moving a magical island by turning a giant frozen donkey wheel without laughing or sneering? If not, it's probably best to abandon ship now -- the craziness is not likely to subside anytime soon. Personally, I loved every minute of Locke and Ben, but I have a massively high threshold for whacked out, half-baked nonsense, so long as that nonsense is sufficiently awesome.

In any case, the on-island storyline ends with Locke taking over from Ben as the leader of the Others -- which sounds like a major step down for the Others. Locke can be by turns terrifying (his sudden murder of Naomi -- very Bentham-like utilitarianism, that), endearing (that big, sad, open face, pretty much always), and frustrating (his absolute faith in and reliance on concepts of destiny that he barely understands), but he's certainly not reliable. Ben always has a plan -- Locke spends most of his time feverishly hoping for divine intervention and prophetic guidance. As we saw in the spectacular episode "Cabin Fever", Locke has an uneasiness with his destiny, and every time he tries to fulfill it he seems to screw up somewhat spectacularly. My prediction: poor decisions by Locke lead to terrible disasters on-island in season 5.

There isn't much more to report in terms of story, because the finale didn't give us much we didn't already know. Michael is dead, his character arc having come to a hasty end. Jin is probably not, because they'll need some extra plot twists next season. All that's left are intriguing little clues, like Charlotte's decision to stay on the island and search for the place she was born. (What a wonderful payoff... when she landed on the island in the season premiere, I remember looking at the expression of joyful recognition and her face and thinking, "She looks like a woman who's coming home.") Could Charlotte be Annie, Ben's childhood love? The ages are off, but hey, crazy time-travelling island, right? Why was Locke, in death, going by the name of Jeremy Bentham? (One hopes the answer isn't "to set up the big end-of-episode reveal.")

Overall, I feel that the episode was something of a letdown. Still, it was chock full of enough thrilling moments (the guerilla Others taking down Keamy's team with a show of superior stealth), touching scenes (grown-and-sexy Walt asking why no one's come to see him), and zany surprises (the island went "pop" and disappeared! So deliciously literal!) to keep me eager for more and wishing I'd started blogging about this show earlier, so that someone might actually read this. In any case, imaginary internet-browsing humanoid who reads this blog (you must be lonely), enjoy your free Thursday nights this summer, and watch out for those time-travelling polar bears. Seacrest OUT.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Lost Season 4 Finale: There's No Place Like Home

Doc Teeth here again. In my continuing effort to hijack this blog as a sounding board for bizarre nonsense, I thought I'd post my thoughts going into the season finale. I know a promised semi-coherence, but I can't really deliver more that 15%-20% coherence. Luckily, neither can the show we'll be discussing!

LOST has a tendency to introduce tantalizing, problematic themes, only to dance away from them when the shit hits the fan. The concept of duality has been central to the show from the very beginning: in Locke's backgammon game, in the modified yin-yang of the Dharma symbol, the corpses of Adam and Eve -- even in the logo that begins and ends every episode with white lettering on a black screen. One of the most intriguing iterations of this theme has been the conflict between Jack and Locke, or as they're called in the title of the season 2 premiere, the Man of Science and the Man of Faith. In practice, though, the writers have often struggled to figure out the ramifications of all this symbolism, muddled things with too much heavy-handed philosophizing and not enough organic, character-driven drama.

I feel that Lost's fate is inextricably intertwined with the fate of John Locke, the castaway most burdened with excessive symbolism. When his character arc is interesting and dynamic, the show is terrific -- when he's huddled in the hatch compulsively pressing a button over and over again for seasons at a time, not so much. He's is the only true spiritualist on the island, and the tension between his shamanistic approach and Jack's rigid, pragmatic outlook provides a lot of fuel for the show's drama. As long as Locke was perfectly satisfied with spending all of his time mashing buttons, that tension slackened. Much of the live-wire intensity of season four (the best season yet, for my money) is due to the fact that Locke's been busy leading splinter groups, having esoteric visions and stuffing live grenades into people's mouths.

Prepare yourself, gentle (possibly imaginary) reader, for some intensely pretentious psuedo-intellectual masturbation. (One of my favorite kinds of masturbation.) This is the part where I use Wikipedia to make myself sound really knowledgeable.

As mentioned above, the concept of the double is central to the Lost mythology. The primary figure in the island's mystery seems to be the invisible patriarch, Jacob. When Locke and Ben refer to the island, they seem to be referring to a person. It seems that Jacob and the island might be one and the same. The biblical Jacob was, himself, a twin. He and his brother Esau struggled within Rebecca's womb to be the firstborn. Jacob refused to accept his lot as the second-born (and therefore inferior) son. He tricked Esau out of his birthright, buying it in exchange for a bowl of soup. Later, he tricked his blind, dying father into giving him a blessing meant for Esau. Jacob was a con man who won the blessings of God through trickery. Due to his conniving (as well as the fact that he had an awesome badass showdown with an angel), he received his second name, a name that translates as "struggles with God."

The name "Israel."

I'm spouting nonsense, you say? I'd have to agree. But I can't stop now, because I'm too busy blowing my own mind. (I must be pretty flexible.)

The first flash-forward (the surprise reveal at the end of season three) was the latest moment we've seen chronologically, the current end-point or the story thus far. The season ends with our heroes, the Oceanic Six, stuck back in America, mysteriously desperate to return to the island. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? They (Jack and Hurley, at least) want to return to Jacob -- they want to return to Israel.

So my question is: where is Esau in all of this? Esau is Jacob's twin -- despite the fact that Esau was first-born, and despite the fact that Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright, it's written in the Torah that God loved Jacob and hated Esau. (In the training film for the Orchid [the station all forces seem to be converging on], a subliminal frame blips the message "God Loves You as He Loved Jacob.") Could there be another island? In that video, we see two identical rabbits appear in the same room, causing much panic and consternation among the Dharma scientists. So we have evidence that the time travel we've seen has the potential of creating doppelgangers. So are there two islands? When Locke speaks of "moving the island," is he talking about a time-shift?

There's one line from season two that I keep coming back to -- Ben tells Sayid that "God can't see us." The subliminal message in the Orchid video says that God loves us as he LOVED Jacob. So he doesn't love Jacob anymore. What hides the island? What is the destiny that Locke keeps rejecting? What is the significance of Ben's connection to Jacob? (Remember, the Biblical Benjamin was the youngest son of Jacob and Rachel, who died in childbirth, as all mothers on the island do.) Why can Hurley see Jacob's cabin? Where does Christian Shepard fit into this scheme, and how does he act as Jacob's mouthpiece?

Most importantly, what was up with that four-toed statue?

Anyway, put in the popcorn, pour yourself a stiff drink, and prepare yourself for answers that are less than forthcoming. Most of all, enjoy the exquisite pain of what may be the single weirdest show in the history of network television. I'll be back tomorrow for some post-game, or possibly tonight if I can't resist the urge.

I wish you all much happy bafflement.

Head Home

Hey You Guys,

I'm Dr. Teeth. You may know me from my work with the Electric Mayhem, or perhaps my thriving Muppet-orthodontia practice. I'm the new pop culture guy here on the balcony. Expect me to use this space to vent my frustrations with and enthusiasms for the books, movies, TV shows, albums, and other random things over which I obsess. So if you're out there, wandering the blogosphere like a forlorn Jew, thirsting for a place where you can find high-minded dissections of all the pop cultural detritus with which you fill up the cold black void in your sad, lonely little life (you loser), you can have a home at From the Balcony.

Let's start off with an album you should buy. (Not steal; buy. Judging from their stage show, these guys are in dire need of funds with which to purchase shirts, low-calorie foodstuffs, and back-waxing kits.)

Hailing from the murkiest swamplands of Brooklyn, New York, the members of O'Death conjure up a brutal, humid hoedown on their latest album "Head Home." The opener "Lay Me Down to Rest," an irresistibly ramshackle shout-along, sets the haunted hillbilly tone that echoes through the record. Yes, O'Death is another band of college-educated New Yorkers attempting to summon gothic ghosts out of the weird old South. But no, unlike several of their hipster-country contemporaries, they don't suffer from musical carpetbagging.

Mixing a great deal of hoot with a pungent dash of nanny, these guys create their own passionately threadbare musical universe, making similar gothic yowl-folk groups like Man Man and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah look half-hearted by comparison. They wear their influences on their sleeves -- singer Greg Jamie's high, wobbly voice recalls Tonight's the Night-era Neil Young, while the gutbucket bass thump and general kitchen-sink groove are lifted directly from late-period Tom Waits -- but blend them into a heady concoction entirely their own. There's something relentless about the music -- the songs are hastily hammered together out of wagon wheels and rusty nails, driven forward by whip-crack fiddle sawing of Bob Pycior. They sound as though they might burst into flames or fall to pieces at any moment.

O'Death is also capable of restraint and loveliness, as in the melancholic opening of "Only Daughter," a song that eventually builds to a chaotic storm of thuds and strings. It's one of the few mistakes on the album -- a quiet and gorgeous song dressed up in apocalyptic pretentions it doesn't need or deserve. Listened to all at once, the album suffers from a somewhat wearying sameness -- more quiet and understatement would serve to highlight the cataclysmic barnburners and supply some much-needed tonal shifts. As scorching and enthralling an album as Head Home is, it sounds like a first try. You get the sense that the great O'Death masterpiece is still in the future -- a future that lies further and deeper in America's growling, cut-throat rural past.

Next time on "Doctor Teeth Yammers Semi-Coherently"... The Lost Finale: did it suck or rock?; a philosophical treatise on the hotness of Evangeline Lilly; and why it's all actually about the nation of Israel.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The significance of waitlists

According to the NYT, top colleges are digging deep into their waitlists this year, which I'm sure is like Hannukah in May for all the high-school senior boys and girls. What interests me is, why?

The biggest (and in, my opinion, least interesting) cause seems to be the scaling back of early decision. Colleges target a certain class size, and early decision locks down a portion of the class early and since people can be admitted later but not de-admitted later, colleges admit conservatively. Early decision lowers the variance of the pre-waitlist acceptances, which means colleges will aim higher than they would otherwise.

However, there are other interesting factors that may or may not be at work in this particular case, but might explain prior or future fluctuations in "waitlist depth".

Assuming away structural factors like changes in early decision policies or college preferences between having a too-empty class and a too-full class, the only reason that a college will dig deeper into its waitlist one year rather than another is that fewer of its admitted students choose to matriculate there. For an individual school, this could represent a decline in stature; however, if every high-ranking school digs deeper into its waitlist, that means the average number of letters a student sends declining matriculation at high-ranking schools has increased.

What could cause this? I can think of several possibilities:

- Increased number of applications per student. As the Common Application becomes more common, the marginal cost of applying to schools decreases, so students should apply to more schools, get accepted at more schools, and thus decline matriculation at more schools.

- Increased targetting of schools by students. In a stylized world where every student applies to one high-ranking school as their reach, every offer a top-ranking school sends out is accepted. In a world where the high-quality students are the only ones applying to high-ranking schools, and they apply to multiple high-ranking schools, this is not the case. There is a subtlety here that there may be both increased targetting due to transparency in the market (students have a better idea of their chances at getting into high-ranking schools) and due to increased stratification in quality among students.

- Increased competitive pressure from lower-ranking schools. Students may choose to attend a lower-ranked school because the school offers them a scholarship, or because the validity of the ranking itself has decreased (for a number of different possible reasons).

- Early decision, again. Early decision, along with having a subtle effect on class size targetting, has the very direct effect that students who are admitted early decision do not apply to other schools, thus reducing the total number of declines (since early decision students would otherwise have been accepted at, on average, more than one high-ranking school).

- Increased homogeneity of acceptance among universities. This is the flip side of the targetting effect, where high-ranking schools are increasingly admitting the same set of students. Stratification plays an even more important role here; if there are students who get all As, and students who get all Bs, clearly the A-students get into all the high-ranking schools and the B-students into none; however, if every student has half As, half Bs, schools must subjectively decide whether they should admit students who got an A in math or students who got an A in English, or perhaps they wish to admit a mix of both. In any case

As usual, I don't have any specific strategy in mind for identifying these different effects, but an enterprising economist (possibly a future version of myself) could attempt to piece it out. I think there might be a story here about the relationship between rising income inequality in America and educational outcomes, especially with regards to the possibility of increased quality stratification in students and to increased competitive pressure from lower-ranked schools offering scholarships.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Differing methods of interest group capture

Becker and Posner have posts up this week about the whys and wherefores of agricultural subsidies. Becker, in particular, notes that agricultural subsidies are the rule in wealthy countries, and therefore we shouldn't be blaming subsidies on uniquely American institutions, such as the disproportionate power of small states in the Senate or the position of Iowa in primary politics. He also compares the agricultural subsidies in rich nations to agricultural taxes in poor nations, and concludes that what's going on can be attributed to the power of small, comparatively rich interests groups (first-world farmers and third-world urbanites, respectively) to manipulate the government into privileging them at the expense of large, comparatively poor interest groups.

This is all well and good, and certainly true to some extent, but I think the analysis fails to deal with a key point, which is that governments in poor countries tend to be less stable than governments in rich countries, and are thus much more vulnerable to violent overthrow. Since the seat of the government is in the cities, and because cities are naturally more volatile due to high population density (and perhaps due to other factors such as weaker family structures and demographic differences, i.e. more young, unmarried, riot-prone men) this gives third-world urbanites a level with which to capture the state that is not based on being a small, rich interest group.

It seems to me that, historically, the factors that Becker points out are more important, as countries were better able to control their populations and keep the poor from migrating into the cities. Now, however, as the poor continue to move from rural areas into urban ones, the threat of violence becomes a larger concern.

As an added and unrelated bonus, this is the best thing I've read today (hit tip to Marc Ambinder).