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You’re Not Wasting Your Time

Near the beginning of the first book of The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one of my absolute favorite series, Douglas Adams writes, “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime, doubly so.” Like just about everything Adams wrote, it’s a joke painted onto something deeper and ultimately rather tragic. The sanctity of lunchtime is a recurring joke in the Guide; the eponymous publication’s equivalent of a Managing Editor spends the entire series (which spans thousands of years and at least two prongs of the multiverse) on a lunch break — something to which I myself aspire. All of the time jokes and time travel throughout the series come together to form a pretty astute observation, namely that human beings’ understanding of time is shaky at best, and the way we use our pathetically brief lifetimes is absolutely ridiculous.

(I could at this point veer off into some dark and forbidding philosophical territory about the ineffability of time, but I want you to keep reading, Indy reader, so I’m going to try and stick to the more hospitable climate of Douglas Adams and my own complaints.)

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that we don’t actually know what the hell we’re talking about when we talk about time. We think about it in terms of space, as if Wednesday were some distinct location we needed to get to, as if time were a concrete thing that actually “passed” by us. We act as though minutes and hours and days and years were natural distinctions instead of facing the reality that those artificial labels are figurative at best. Perhaps the only reason I begrudgingly accept the presence of Arizona is its refusal to play by the farcical rules of Daylight Savings Time.

(Okay, I lied about not including philosophy; if you would like to read a non-butchered expression of the above paragraph, irrational hatred of Arizona excluded, consult Henri Bergson’s theory of duration.)

Here at Georgetown especially I think we suffer from a total lack of scale. Our sense of short term and long term is perverted by the incredible pressure we face to become instantly successful — and we’re not even the ones defining “success.” We divide up our lives into five year plans and burst into tears when we don’t get The Internship because now we’re “just wasting” our summer. Seriously? If less than three months of leisure, or volunteer work, or pursuing a hobby is all it takes to torpedo your entire future, your plan sucked to begin with.The Universe is around 14 billion years old; it is not going to fall apart if you spend a summer in a hammock instead of an office.

Our lack of proportion is reflected in our language. Seemingly innocuous sentences like “It’s time for class” reveal how egocentric our conception of time is. It is not actually time for class; that is not the definitive purpose of this moment. Time isn’t for anything or anyone. We move around in it (so far only in one direction) but we don’t actually know what it’s doing or why. It’s one thing to say that Georgetown Day is twelve days away, and quite another to understand why the time between now and then feels both infinite and instantaneous.

Doing things at your own pace isn’t wasting time. The time wasn’t yours in the first place. Maybe you’re super stoked to work at the non-profit of your dreams this summer — awesome, you’re using the time well. Or maybe, like me, you’re feeling a little burned out after overexerting yourself all semester or all year, and you want to take it easy and rediscover why you care about the things you know deep down matter. That’s also fine.  Take your time, for lack of a better phrase: it makes little difference to something as old and as vast as the Universe.

The Winter Soldier: Not-So-Subtle Politics in one of Marvel’s Best Yet

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I hate drinking the Kool-Aid and jumping aboard the hype train that everyone else is already on, but even I have to admit that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a damn fine movie and the best Marvel superhero film since the original Iron Man back in 2008. It also stands as probably the most engagingly political popcorn flick since 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, a dimension that was greatly appreciated and helped elevate this film over other superhero films. So what makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier so damn entertaining? First off, the movie has an excellent sense of itself – it knows what it wants to be and does not deviate from that: two-thirds 1970s political thriller, one-third explosive action flick. The first two-thirds or so of this film are intriguing as the audience delves along with Steve Rogers into this world of espionage that has all the characters looking over their shoulders and doubting the loyalties of those around them. It is a refreshing tone for a Marvel movie and this sense of paranoia permeates the first two-thirds of the film before erupting into a violent finale. Speaking of violence, this film is MUCH more violent than previous Marvel movies: innocents are gunned down, people are fall from high structures to their deaths, and one guy is even thrown into an aircraft’s propeller. Not that this is a bad thing; in fact, it adds a sense of weight and heft to the violence in the film now that individuals are shown to actually die from the explosions and flurry of gunshots (something which was lacking in The Avengers).

The performances are all great for what the film asks, with Robert Redford stealing nearly every scene he is in. Chris Evans is the perfect Captain America, a genuinely good person who is struggling to adapt to the violence and deception that characterizes the 21st century. Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, and Cobie Smulders all have their chances to shine, but the real star of this film that dominates every scene he is in is the Winter Soldier (it would be a spoiler to say who the actor is… you’ll understand what I mean after you see the film). The Winter Soldier is the best villain in a Marvel film since Loki in the original Thor – he is terrifying and an unstoppable force, someone who is more than a match for Captain America. The story surrounding who he is and why he stands against Captain America was particularly intriguing and their two hand-to-hand combat scenes in the film were exceptionally well done.

I need to mention the political commentary present in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. SHIELD, the US task force for which the members of the Avengers work for, has developed helicarriers that are able to assassinate anyone who poses a threat to American security. These assassinations can be undertaken whenever the government wants and can be done anywhere in the world. While this is about as subtle as the drone commentary in Star Trek: Into Darkness, it is handled in a much more grounded manner here. It is clear what political issue the film is discussing and what the film’s position is – the evidence for viewers is the adventure Captain America undergoes in his battle with the Winter Soldier. And what a fantastic adventure it is; you may not leave the theater singing “America, fuck yeah!” but you will certainly leave clamoring for more.

A Bite of The Walking Dead: Thoughts on Season Four

The-Walking-Dead-Season-5AMC’s The Walking Dead concluded its fourth season this past Sunday, leaving fans with a cliffhanger that will make the wait until the debut of the fifth season in October even more agonizing than anticipated. Now that viewers have had a few days to process and reflect on the events of the finale, and this fourth season as a whole, it seems like the appropriate time to reflect on the events that have occurred in the series this season, which I believe stands head and shoulders above the previous four seasons and demonstrates a massive leap in quality for the series. I remember the series premiere on Halloween of my junior year of high school – it was scary, cool, and seemed like a show that could mix gore-filled horror with thought provoking critiques of society. The series premiere still ranks as one of my favorite hours of television ever, but the first and second seasons seemed to drag on, as if the writers were never quite sure of what they wanted the show to be: was it a character drama? An analysis of power dynamics in society? A collection of thrilling horror scenarios? These first two seasons of The Walking Dead tried to be too many things at once without excelling at being any of them.

The first half of the third season was a major improvement, demonstrating that the show had fully invested in the analysis of power and maintaining order in this group of survivors, a microcosm of society as a whole. It was thrilling, it was scary, and was the most focused and driven the show has ever been. It dwelt on the conflict between all-around good-guy Rick (portrayed by Andrew Lincoln, whose performance this season earned him his first Critics’ Choice Award nomination for Best Actor in a Drama Series, which he lost to Bryan Cranston for Breaking Bad) and the more politically adept, yet morally questionable The Governor (portrayed by David Morrissey). The conflict between these two fizzled out in the second half of the season though, as the two often would trade threats and insults more than they would engage in actually conflict. The war that was promised between the two over the prison, the new-found home for Rick’s group, never happened, as The Governor ultimately murdered his own followers when they questioned him.

It was this sense with trepidation that I entered the fourth season and was completely surprised. Season 4 of The Walking Dead stands as my favorite season of the entire show for several reasons: the focus on Rick as a leader, the use of effective cathartic moments, a keen attention to character building, and the thematic cohesion throughout the season. Despite his absence in several episodes in the second half, the fourth season was about Rick’s journey: following the events of season 3, specifically his son Carl’s willingness to gun down someone who might have been an enemy, Rick began this season as a man who renounced the burden of leadership in order to save his son’s soul. The world may be cold, cruel, and violent, but Rick still sees it as his parental duty to protect Carl from this for as long as he can. So he trades his gun in for seeds and becomes a farmer.

As the situation at the prison worsens, Rick finds himself taking on more and more of his former leadership responsibilities against his will. Eventually, Rick starts once again making executive decisions without the consent of the group, as demonstrated when he exiles Carol from the prison, effectively sending her to her death (we knew she wouldn’t die, but Rick does not have the perspective of the audience). When the Governor arrives at the prison intent on capturing it, Rick is forced to make the decisions that decide the fate of many. After the prison falls, Rick is a changed man: broken (physically, at least), distraught, and lost. However, it is through this extreme loss that Rick manages to shred the remnants of his farmer persona and become the leader of the group in totality. Whether it is murdering someone who could have been a threat in the bathroom of an abandoned house to allowing the death of someone that would have cost too many resources to save, Rick is now making decisions for everyone, motivated by his complete desire to ensure the survival and protection of his son. This re-ascension of Rick as the group’s leader in order to protect his son is crystalized in the season finale, in which Rick literally bites someone’s throat out and stabs another man repeatedly for attempting to rape his son. Gone is the Rick that wanted to save his son by farming and protecting him from the horrors of the world; here is a Rick that is willing to commit horrors himself in order to protect his child.

This scene provided a moment of catharsis, as audiences witnessed a character who had once been a paragon of moral goodness rip someone’s jugular out with his teeth. Yet most people would agree that this gang deserved to be brutally murdered by Rick because of their attempted rape of his son, in addition to all the other actions audiences witnessed them commit this season. Season four excelled at providing these cathartic moments, of building the tension up to the boiling point and then having things explode into a flurry of brief violence. Whether it was Rick beating Tyreese to a bloody pulp when Tyreese threatens Rick following Karen’s death, or the battle for the prison between The Governor’s followers and Rick’s group, this season excelled at building moments up and then actually releasing all that tension violently. This provided audiences with a greater sense of release and enjoyment. A simple comparison of the finale of season 3 and the midseason of season 4 reflect this welcome shift: season 3 teased a war between Rick and The Governor that abruptly ended after five minutes in the finale, following which The Governor’s forces fled and he gunned them all down. The midseason finale of season 4, on the other hand, showed a full out war between the two forces that resulted in massive body counts on both sides, tragedy, drama, violence, and heartbreak. The battle for the prison stands as perhaps the greatest action sequence of the show and is an excellent example of cathartic violence (non-cathartic violence is often just more boring to watch) in this most recent season, something that previous seasons had sorely lacked.

           Season 4 also had a renewed focus on character. Daryl, Glenn, Maggie, Carl, Hershel, Michonne, Beth, Carol, and everyone else were all given more depth. Even “red shirt” characters that we knew were going to die were given enough screen time and enough lines to make us feel genuinely sad when they were brutally killed off. One character, other than Rick, truly stood out this season as the most developed: The Governor. While he had always been a tragic figure who was never completely stable (he had his undead daughter chained up in his apartment after all), The Governor was never truly someone you wanted to see win or sympathized with. In season 3 he was always alienated from the audience; we often saw what he did, but never felt compelled to sympathize with him. Season 4 was a different story, as it told the tale of The Governor’s failed redemption, culminating in his assault on the prison and final war with Rick.

Absent for the first five episodes of the season, The Governor is shockingly shown watching the prison at the end of an episode. Following this were two flashback episodes that show what happened to The Governor after he killed his followers at the end of season 3. The tragedy here is that this man who murdered dozens of people was, before the apocalypse, a completely average guy with a job and family. The pressures of leadership in the post-apocalyptic world are what drove him to become an unhinged killer. Yet in these episodes, The Governor is given a chance at redemption and reforming himself: he manages to form a new family unit, changes his name, burns all memory of his past, etc. As Rick will later do at the end of the season, The Governor is willing to take extreme measures to protect his people. The Governor wants to be a normal guy with no responsibility and just be with the ones he loves, but he knows that he must revert to his previous, more violent identity in order to protect these people – for The Governor, the lives of those he cares for is more important than his own redemption, thus he descends back into his violent old ways, culminating in an assault on the prison that results in the death of almost all of those he was trying to protect and the majority of Rick’s forces. This violence is given added weight because we want both The Governor and Rick to win: we care about the people who stand with both leaders, so when the bullets start flying, we are distressed by the deaths of characters on both sides of the conflict we have come to care about. This stands in stark contrast to the nameless forces of Woodbury that fought with, and were ultimately murdered by, The Governor. The intensity of this scene is tenfold because these are characters, not just humans in a scene of violence. It is for this reason that the renewed focus on character development this season has been such a benefit – it makes the action more meaningful and the scenes more engaging.

Finally, this season was more thematically cohesive than previous seasons. The overarching question posed was whether we get to come back from the things we do. Rick articulates this to the strange woman he meets in the forest in the very first episode of the season, and then the question is posed back to him by Carl when his son asks, “who are we?” Many of the characters this season have wrestled with this question. The Governor concluded that there was no way to return from the things you have done, thus the only way to survive is to embrace the horrors you have committed for the greater good. Rick tells The Governor, “we have all done the worst kinds of things just to stay alive, but we get to come back.” The season leaves it up to the viewers to decide at the end whether we truly get to come back from all the things we do. In the season finale, after murdering the men trying to rape his son, Rick and company arrive at Terminus, a promised sanctuary, only to find that something is amiss and they delve into violence once again. Perhaps it is not so much what we do as opposed to what we do them for that determines if we, and these characters, can come back. As Hershel says, every day we risk our lives and, “the only thing you can choose is what you’re risking it for.” This thematic cohesiveness, when combined with the stellar characterization, cathartic violence, and some really cool moments (including the outbreak of the flu in the prison, Daryl and company running through a horde of zombies, the battle at the prison, and Rick’s confrontation with the marauders) set season 4 of The Walking Dead head and shoulders above its predecessors.

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Virtual Reality is A Thing Now, So Get Used to It

Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR made huge waves last week, breaking the circles of tech news into broader media coverage. After all, the world’s largest social network suddenly and unexpectedly taking over a gaming-focused startup in the recently re-emerging VR space sounds like the perfect setup for a soon-to-be cyberpunk dystopia.

Statements by Mark Zuckerberg’s press release didn’t help matters, promising that “Oculus has the chance to create the most social platform ever, and change the way we work, play, and communicate.” Framing Oculus’ breakthrough VR headset Oculus Rift  like this could have come out of any number of classic sci-fi and cyberpunk works, as Fast Company’s Co.Design recently outlined in a blog post. Sci-fi fanatics, to be sure, tend towards the over-cautious when it comes to new technology (see: grey goo), but this time around it doesn’t feel like an overreaction. The purchase of Oculus VR was made with explicit public intent to expand into social spaces, and all we can do now is wait.

 

Most critical with shocking news like this, we need to take some time to really analyze the situation. Jamin Warren, founder of Kill Screen magazine (also the guy behind the fantastic PBS Game/Show) wrote a couple pieces which break down the deal and work through the finer mechanics of the games industry’s relationship with the world at large.

 

Social VR could be the greatest invention of the millenium. Given the right applications, something as basic and developmental as the Oculus Rift has the potential to drastically change the way we experience empathy (note: NSFW link) and how we relate to others. There might not be a limit to what we can do with this sort of technology. We’ll have to look back at fiction to get some ideas, but VR could mean a whole new way of engaging with each other and the world at large.

 

On the other hand, Facebook’s acquisition might prove the death knell for Oculus VR and the burgeoning field as a whole. Massive corporate interests, even beyond creating the potential for giant oppressive cyberpunk-y situations, might just kill the whole thing in a cash grab filled with such fun terms as “gamification” and “micro-transactions”.

 

While we await our inevitable doom/salvation, welcome to my new new column, Welcome to the Future Because It Is Now and We Are Living In It, in which I talk about all of the fun things that come with modernity (and/or post-post-modernism) and the internet and the little magic boxes we keep carrying around nowadays. So stick around, because it is quite the time to be alive.

Forrest Fenn, American Hero

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As promised, Ladies, Gentlemen, and those who identify with neither category: Forrest Fenn, American Hero.

Forrest Fenn amassed an incredible collection of art and artifacts earlier in the century, acquiring objects from all over the world, mostly at a time when it didn’t seem to occur to anyone that maybe indigenous peoples wanted to keep their sacred objects. He has some absolutely fantastic things in his house, including a sizable collection of Precolumbian animal figures, many of which are solid gold.

He was diagnosed with cancer in 1988 and, fearing his death was imminent, packed a bronze chest full of gold, rare coins, jewelry, gemstones, and a jar containing his biography, and decided to bury it in the wilderness north of his Santa Fe home. Fenn recovered before he could bury the treasure. A few years later he changed his mind and buried it anyway, and published nine clues to help potential seekers. The clues are in the form of a poem, because what kind of story would this be if they weren’t? The poem was casually slipped into Fenn’s memoir, The Thrill of the Chase. The man knows how write a headline.

The treasure’s value has been placed around $1 – $3 million dollars. And it’s just chillin’ somewhere in the Rockies, waiting to be found. It’s been over a decade since it was buried and Fenn, now 82, is growing antsy. He’s since released four more clues and has now published a second book, Too Far to Walk, which contains a map of the area containing the treasure. He is begging us to find it.

When I first learned about this fantastic story, I was ready to drop everything and heed the call of Forrest Fenn. A buried chest, questionably-acquired artifacts, clues written in verse? The Fenn saga feels like it comes from another era, some earlier time in American history that’s all but disappeared into lore. It’s the Gold Rush reincarnate; Americans making bold forays into the unknown, knowing that their chances of striking it rich are slim, but willing to throw themselves into the chase.

The best part of the tale (and it does feel like a tale) isn’t even the treasure, which has yet to be found, but the adventure. The people who do dedicate their time to finding the chest share their experiences with each other and with the world. Dal Neitzel is a major treasure hunter whose website serves as a forum for other searchers to compare their findings and stay up to date on the news.

As it turns out, this renewed interest in exploration was Forrest Fenn’s plan all along. He’s been interviewed saying that the reason he decided to bury the treasure after his cancer was cured was to rekindle our passion for discovery. He wants to share the experience he had finding these objects in order to inspire us to keep exploring. At the risk of sounding tragically corny, the real treasure was hidden in the first clue — The Thrill of the Chase.

As you may have gleaned from the above, I live for this sort of thing. Cultural consequences of Manifest Destiny notwithstanding, I am a major proponent of the frontier thesis. (If such a thing existed, I’d have a poster of Frederick Jackson Turner above my bed.) I think the best way for us to know ourselves is to be constantly pushing past ourselves and into the unknown.

To me, science is like a spectator sport: I approach it with great enthusiasm and astonishing ineptitude. Considering all of the horrors human beings have inflicted, are currently inflicting, and will probably continue to inflict on each other and our planet, it sounds naive, even insensitive, to suggest using our resources to send explorers out among the stars or down into the depths of the sea. I know that. But I also know that right now, while freezing rain falls on us in DC, it’s raining diamonds on Jupiter. And, personally, I’d like to see that.

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Why First Impressions of Earth is Actually a Good Album

Many fans on the Internet are less than pleased with the rumors that Julian Casablancas’ second solo-album will be a spiritual follow up to the much-maligned third album by The Strokes, First Impressions of Earth, instead of continuing along the path of the 1980s electronic aesthetic of his first solo album. I, on the other hand, am more than willing to embrace this change and have hope that his upcoming album (rumored to be titled Voidz) will be an aural delight. My hope lies in my unwavering love and appreciation of First Impressions of Earth – though regarded by many to be the “weird” album by The Strokes that delved into an angrier, more hung-over sound that many found off-putting following the one-two punch of Is This It? in 2001 and Room on Fire in 2003.

           I consider First Impressions of Earth, released in 2006, to be my favorite album by The Strokes because of this exact fact: it’s different. The Strokes are known for their lyrical prowess in describing mundane moments in life, with many of their most famous songs seamlessly blending dialogue with narration to describe relationships and partying. First Impressions of Earth focuses more on feeling, combining images with statements that are meant to elicit a specific mood as opposed to capturing a moment in life. In “Ize of the World” the band tackles the intersection of finding identity through dedication to an art, in this case music, with the censorship of that art by the media. At one point Casablancas sings:

Am I a prisoner to instincts? Or do my thoughts

just live as free and detached as boats to the dock?

Just like the music was born and detached from your heart

Is your free time to free minds or for falling apart?

At the climax of the song, the sound in the final line abruptly cuts out before Casablancas can finish his statement, reinforcing the themes of censorship present in the song by, in fact, censoring the song itself. Additionally, there is a greater focus on lyrical repetition on this album as compared to previous and future works by The Strokes. Many songs consist of only a few key lines repeated over and over. In “Ask Me Anything,” after spending a verse instructing audiences to avoid being “coconuts” because God may try to speak to them, Casablancas repeats the line “I’ve got nothing to say” eight times before moving on to the next verse. Similarly, in “Fear of Sleep” he uses the line from which the song derives its title twenty times, and the fateful proclamation of the song that “you’re no fun” is repeated twenty-seven times. Instead of indicating lyrical weakness, it suggests the theme of uncertainty with oneself: the construction of the lines in songs forces us to question our perceptions of ourselves: Do we have something to say? Are we fun, and does it matter at all? This degree of artistic craftsmanship and focus is not found in The Strokes’ two previous albums, which is one of the reasons why I believe First Impressions of Earth to be the superior effort.

           What also distinguishes this album that it is both more aggressive in terms of denouncing an unspecified “you,” while at the same time, existing as a more romantic album than any of their other efforts. The first two albums by The Strokes often had songs focusing on the breakdown on relationships or the initiations of hookups for the first time, while their latter two albums, Angles in 2011 and Comedown Machine in 2013, are more remorseful and contemplative in their discussion of relationships. First Impressions of Earth is ranges from the spiteful to the outright loving. In “Juicebox,” Casablancas sings:

 I know you miss the

 Way I saw you

And cold

You’re so cold

You’re so cold

You’re so cold

Similarly, later in the track “Vision of Division,” he almost yells, “All that I do is wait for you / I can’t get away from all your friends / I’m not coming back / That’s all there is.” On “Razorblade” he calmly and coldly makes the following statement to demonstrate the conclusion of a relationship: “Oh, no, my feelings are more important than yours / Oh, drop dead, I don’t care, I won’t worry.” Yet on an album expression these feelings of utter disgust and hatred towards an individual, The Strokes also reach moments of sincere tenderness. In “Evening Sun,” Casablancas remarks to this “you” that “You’re the prettiest smartest captain of the team / I love you more than being seventeen.” Perhaps one of the bands more romantic songs is “Red Light,” in which after remarking that, “Two can be complete without the rest of the world,” Casablancas goes on to sing the following:

All the girls could never make me love them the way I love you

  I saw your face then I heard that song

  It was so inviting it hurt my bones

  Well it looks like you but your eyes are grey

  And your hair is gone but your mind’s okay

  Yes I like your smile but your forehead’s cold

  I don’t want you to be afraid and go

  I would cheat and lie and steal now I’ll stay at home and kneel for you

Pretty damn romantic, right? Most likely inspired by lead singer Julian Casablancas’ marriage during the writing of this album, these tracks delve into more heartfelt and romantic territory than any of their preceding or following efforts.

           First Impressions of Earth is sometimes a down-right odd album, and that is part of why it is so endearing. Is something nonsensical simply because I don’t understand what it means? Or are the words merely a vehicle for eliciting a specific emotional reaction or mood? I believe this album is an example of the latter. In “15 Minutes,” Casablancas at first appears to be discussing a relationship, saying “It’s not that I don’t really love you / It’s just that I don’t really know.” Then he is randomly going off about how, “He would like one more night in your life / I saw worlds they don’t stop, they’re like us / They go fast like a sun that’s been shot.” After that he’s talking about some random party, but suggesting we not worry about it, “’cause today they talk about us / And tomorrow they won’t care.” Finally he starts following an existential question about reality itself: “This whole life is it a dream? I can’t tell / I got up, then I waved, then I fell / I recall, you were there with me / Overjoyed and at peace.” Do I have any idea how these events narratively fit in with one another? Not in the slightest. But am I able to determine a specific mood from the song regarding the nature of existence and the nightmare-ish uncertainty of certain relationships? Absolutely.

           While First Impressions of Earth was the album that almost killed the career of The Strokes and resulted in the band taking a five-year hiatus, I find it to be perhaps their strongest effort in terms of constructing the entire album as a thematic work. Is This It? and Room on Fire will always be two of the best damn albums ever recorded, but First Impressions of Earth deserves more consideration for the complexity it displays that their other albums lack. This is why I am excited by rumors that Julian Casablancas’ second solo album will be in the same style as First Impressions of Earth. Now all we have to do is wait until it is released…

jikatu/Flickr bit.ly/1dEuSuv

MIA is a Barren Hellscape

My dearest Indy reader, I failed you last week. I had every intention of posting something ridiculous yet vaguely inspiring about Forrest Fenn’s treasure and the frontier thesis (stay tuned — I promise I’ll explain my obsession with Mr. Fenn next week). In fact, I was all set to write up my post on the plane back to DC when I was confronted with the fundamental incompatibility of Miami International Airport and happiness. What follows is what I wrote, hysteria mounting, while sitting in the airport, rocking back and forth slightly. Only slightly though.

 

>>>

 It’s 11:00 AM and I’ve been in the Miami airport for three hours now. I’ve been delayed before, delayed longer than this, but I’ve never heard a pilot sound as hopeless as Captain Johnson when he announced, “this will take an hour to fix… at least….” He didn’t elaborate on what “this” was that so desperately needed fixing, but judging by his tone of voice, I’m guessing it’s his entire life.

 I should have suspected something was amiss when I was randomly selected for the no-hassle security pre-check line. Nothing good has ever happened to me at Miami International Airport. I take it for granted when I travel that I will spend at least ten minutes of every journey barefoot and simmering with barely concealed indignation as a TSA agent roots around in my purse, ultimately emerging with a scented candle or a corkscrew and a totally uncalled for judgmental smirk.

 At any rate, I made it to the plane and boarded only to discover that I was seated by the emergency exit. Leg room and a window? The air travel gods continued to smile on me, or so I thought. After half an hour of sitting in row 15 without any kind of encouraging movement, I put on Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach suites in order to maintain sufficient Zen.

 Another hour passed and still no movement. Captain Johnson periodically informed us that he had no idea what was going on. We grew mutinous in the main cabin. My exit row compatriots and I briefly considered fleeing to freedom via the emergency exit. I even toyed with the big red handle, but alas: I am no revolutionary.

Tragic anti-hero Captain Johnson came back on the microphone to announce that he was personally embarrassed by the crew’s failure to inform him of some sort of mechanical turmoil in the cargo hold. There was talk of strapping things to walls, and of phoning ‘the boys’ in Tulsa for guidance. I was confident that no one in Tulsa could help us now. I switched to Wagner and began to seethe.

 The increasingly forlorn-sounding Captain Johnson suggested we leave the plane. We were only too happy to oblige.

MIA’s sole redeeming feature is that, due to some fortuitous topographical fluke, there is a bar approximately every fifty feet in every terminal. Yes, they are tiny, overpriced, and overwhelmingly tragic, but any port in the storm, right? Unfortunately, everyone else on that voyage of the damned had the same idea. The first bar I went to was filled beyond capacity. At the second, a woman eyed me levelly and said, “Ma’am, it’s 10:45. We aren’t serving wine yet.”

Wagner was suddenly not enough to express the depths of my despair. I switched to my emergency all-Duran Duran playlist and began to write this, perhaps my final communication before I expire from boredom. Does life still go on outside this airport? Are there birthdays and weddings and vacations in the sun? Is there laughter on the outside?

>>>

That’s where I stopped writing. It’s worth noting that we re-boarded the plane about half an hour later and took off without further delay. Blame it on being hungry or wine-deprived, but it certainly felt as though I had inadvertently glanced into the abyss. But maybe that’s just par for the course at the airport.

 

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Flappy Bird’s Existential Ambition

It may not be as popular as it was a few weeks ago, but Flappy Bird should stand as one of the greatest mobile games released this year because of its exploration of existentialist concepts in a manner that would make Albert Camus himself proud. I’m not kidding! Just hear me out on this one. Flappy Bird may seem simple at first – you play as a little bird trying to navigate its way through various gaps in pipes for some uncertain purpose. There’s no levelling up, no storyline, no true sense of progression. The enjoyment and lasting value of this game comes from nothing more than the simple innate desire to beat your previous high score and make it through just one more pipe.

Why is this bird trying to go through these pipes? What end does it hope to achieve? None of these questions have answers, nor do they require them. The bird finds purpose and meaning in its life through the struggle and the conscious act of navigating these pipes. Much like Sisyphus, condemned for eternity to push a boulder up a hill and then be cast down before reaching the top. So too must this bird wander through these pipes to no certain end for all eternity.

Flappy Bird does not limit its existential ambitions only to the central figure; in fact, the player becomes an active participant in this existentialist quest and embarks upon his or her very own – the player invests meaning into this game through nothing else other than their desire to reach their own new high score before inevitably stumbling into a pipe and being returned to a score of zero. When I first started Flappy Bird, my ultimate goal was to reach at least 5, then 10, then 25, and so on. My current high score is 172 and it still is not enough; I am always trying to achieve a higher new score in when feels like a futile quest. Flappy Bird imparts existentialist meaning into a little bird’s flight while, at the same time, provoking players to engage on their own existentialist adventure to reach higher scores that have no real consequence or meaning other than that which players choose to invest the game with. It is this duality that solidifies Flappy Bird’s credence as an existentialist work.

riekhavoc/Flickr

Foreign Developments in Gay Rights Prompt American Introspection

Above: An American protest of the Ugandan “kill-the-gays” bill.

The United States is a country that prides itself on being the leader of the free world, the champion of human rights, democracy, and liberalism across the globe. We are quick to condemn rights abuses in other countries and suggest that they follow the Western example. However, recent developments in the world regarding the place of LGBT persons have made me realize that before the United States can criticize the policies and practices of other nations, we first need to look inward at the condition of our own republic.

In the February issue of The Independent, Jose Altamirano (COL ‘17) wrote the cover article on the controversy surrounding the Sochi Olympics, placing it in the historical perspective of political activism and the Olympics. As you are likely aware, Russia has recently enacted legislation to strengthen limits on homosexual “propaganda,” a means for repressing LGBT Russians so that they can be arrested, beaten, and perhaps killed for overt expressions of their identity.

Meanwhile Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has announced that he will sign off on the country’s new “kill-the-gays bill,” as it is popularly being referred to in American media. Homosexuality is already criminalized in Uganda, and the main purpose of this goal is to strengthen the legal punishments for being convicted of homosexual acts.

President Obama and the American government has strongly condemned both of these pieces of legislation, and expressed their disapproval to the respective governments. The American public has been even more outraged by these developments and more vocal than the government in expressing their opposition.

For me, the American reaction to these developments is a double-edged sword. On the one hand I am proud to see Americans standing up for LGBT issues. However, it also makes me even more aware of just how backwards our own country still is.

This article from The Washington Post demonstrates how much hypocrisy there is in the American condemnation of Russia’s anti-gay propaganda laws. The state of Utah actually had stricter laws regarding LGBT expression during the time that it hosted the Salt Lake City Olympics than Russia does today; true, the penalties for violating these laws are more violent and abusive in Russia, but the same hateful principle drives each of these policies.

Meanwhile, at the very same time that Uganda is passing its kill-the-gays bill, the Arizona state government is passing a law that will allow for businesses to discriminated against LGBT persons in what is just the most successful of several similar pushes being made in several states across the country.

When we take the news of Russia and Uganda in isolation, it is easy to condemn these actions. However, when we juxtapose this news with examples from our own society, a hypocrisy is revealed that tarnishes the United States ability to lead the push for human rights abroad. If we want to be the leader that we proclaim to be, we need to practice our values at home before advocating for them abroad.

williamcromar / Flickr

We’re Totally Unprepared for Life, Everybody Panic

There are three subjects about which I would say I’m fairly well educated: art, literature, and theatre. Well, not really when the topic is so broadly drawn. I could tell you more than you ever cared to know about early twentieth century art in Northern/Western Europe. I can quote passages from the DADA manifesto; I can extemporize at length on the curriculum of the Bauhaus, especially regarding the color theories taught by Wassily Kandinsky and Josef Albers; and I’ve picked up more bizarre facts and anecdotes than I could ever use in a lifetime of bar trivia. My knowledge of post-war American work is none too shabby either — anyone who has had the misfortune to stand near me at the Hirshhorn or the Phillips Collection is fully aware that I am actually the worst museum buddy ever.

It’s essentially the same story with literature. Modernism? Nailed it. Postmodernism? Almost nailed it. Everything else written in English? Getting there. Did you know that Samuel Beckett lived next door to Andre the Giant and drove the enormous teen to school for years because Andre was too tall for the school bus by the age of 13? I’m less well versed on actual theatre history and theory, but on that front — much like Nikita Khrushchev — I’ve not yet begun to fight.

Embarrassingly, that’s about it. Eighteen years of education summed up in fewer than 250 words. Sure, I’ve taken calculus and physics and Spanish and French and history classes galore, but I’ve barely retained a thing. I had to google how to spell Khrushchev just now. I fell asleep one day in seventh grade math class and am still not entirely sure what a function is. I would be hard pressed to name all the countries in Africa, let alone describe their histories, and I have been pretending to understand economics for years. In less than a year and a half, I’ll have a bachelor’s degree, and I don’t know shit.

Does that frighten you? It frightens me. I absolutely love my degree program, but I can’t help but wonder whether all of this specializing actually hurts us. Personally, I blew through my Gen Ed requirements as fast as I could and retreated to my academic comfort zone. I wish now that I’d spaced out my non-major courses and forced myself to push the limits of my intellect.

Whether you’re solving a physics problem, parsing an international relations issue, or analyzing a painting, each discipline demands its own unique mode of thinking, and I’m worried that I’ve locked myself into just one mental framework. It’s comfortable, but it’s also lazy. My knowledge within my field is miles deep, but compared to how many fields are out there, it’s barely a quarter of an inch wide. Our generation is expected to job-hop way more than those preceding us; we need to be renaissance people, not specialists. We need to be adaptable in order to navigate systems we can’t even conceive of yet. Can I use the way I approach art to tackle issues in some other discipline? I have no idea — I haven’t been forced to try.

I don’t actually know what the practical solution is here. (As you might have gleaned from my double major/minor trifecta, practicality isn’t exactly my jam.) Maybe Georgetown needs to space out when we take our Gen Eds, or maybe grade schools need a more interdisciplinary pedagogy, one that encourages critical thinking across multiple subjects. What I do know is that I’ve watched probably a hundred TED talks in the past few years and I’m still not a scientist, so someone else should probably take the reins.