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You Need to Watch Black Mirror: “The National Anthem” Episode Review

black-mirror

Jonathan May

Promise: I will not give away the ending. You must watch this show. Watch it immediately after reading this.

It’s been a long time since television has posed such an interesting question as this episode poses. Is the decency of one man worth more or less than the life of one other person? Such a fragile and horrifying situation. I found myself aghast at the cost of fame, wherein your personhood, known to all, is your own worst enemy. In this case, the British Prime Minister must have sex with a pig on live television or else the kidnapped Princess will be executed. The use of YouTube by the kidnappers (I’m not giving the end away, I promise) to facilitate a public interest reminded me, in a way, of the scene between the prisoners and citizens of Gotham in The Dark Knight. You bring the public into the situation, and that’s where the stake of fame comes in. It would be interesting to posit the same premise, but with an “ordinary citizen” at the center, instead of a Prime Minister. Would the greater public be just as interested in watching an everyday Joe have sex with a pig to secure the release of a princess? I’m not so sure, but then again, I’ve never wanted an office of power, where you become the target for statements thrust into the public sphere.

As far as this being a commentary on art, all I will say, without divulging the end, is that this episode conflates “Art” with “Statements.” For something to be artistic, it should be beautiful (a bold statement, but one I’ll stand by any day), and while the idea might be beautiful in a cold, intellectual way, the expression of the idea is far from beauty, focusing instead on art always being a performance, which I thought we had moved beyond.

But for the love of yourself, if you want to watch the most gripping thing produced for television in the past five years, seek out Channel 4’s Black Mirror, the first episode “The National Anthem.”

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com

 

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Pay Day and Pineapples

 

Brent Hopkins

There is nothing quite like the feeling of getting paid monthly or biweekly, depending on your job. That is the main incentive people have of going in and grinding 40 hour weeks for the majority of their lives. I am like most people where the synapses in my brain fire when I check my bank balance and see the money is a few grand higher than before. I always felt this was unrelated to other outside influences and that the feeling of getting paid would always have that endorphin buzz attached.

This month, I started a new job and I am the only person who gets paid on the 25th of the month. I was pretty excited for this because I had taken a bit of a break from work and had not been paid in awhile. I was pretty surprised to find that I was almost completely unenthused when I checked my bank account and it took me awhile to figure out why.

A large portion of the glee from getting paid is tied to all the people around you getting excited about the day, without that it is like clapping at the end of a movie with no other spectators… it just feels a bit empty. I wonder if I got paid more would this sentiment be different, but I don’t think it would. Pay day is one of those few things that are a regular celebration that goes across language barriers and cultures; it really needs to be shared to get the full benefit.

This is how I expect my next 11 pay days will look.

I love fresh pineapple and I have gotten quite good at carving them up as opposed to buying them pre-sliced. Pineapples aren’t the cheapest of fruit but I managed to grab some for three dollars each. I felt like I had just stolen them from the pineapple plant (not tree) they were so cheap, so I took my bounty home to make some smoothies.

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Incredibly disappointing compared to the tree most people have in mind for pineapples.

These pineapples were small so when I got to carving I got rid of the outer layer of armor and about 20% of the fruit was gone. Then I cored the thing, because biting into that is akin to chewing sweet bark. After all was said and done I was covered in juice and had about a cup of pineapple. This is the most disappointing ratio of work to delicious in the fruit world, hands down. Maybe it’s because I live alone and I have to converse with myself but I looked down at this thing and seriously considered ways to use the remains of the pineapple. It took all of me not to blend that core into a gummy mess and consume it. I honestly believe there are few things worse than feeling like something you invested in was wasted – small pineapples will do it to you every time.

Off to my sad corner

Images: Funky Space Monkey, Corbis

A Visual Travelogue of Chinese Food

Brent Hopkins

Good day folks, it is time for yet another non-gaming article from yours truly.

Today I want to chat about Chinese food. I am coming back from two years living in South Korea and one of the main things you miss when you live overseas is the food. South Korea has decent international cuisine and plenty of American chains like Subway, McDonald’s, and Taco Bell. That being said, there are still a ton of things you just can’t have in South Korea without spending an arm and a leg — like cold cuts and fine cheeses. I traveled a lot in my two years, so I was able to get sated on many things in countries like Japan and Taiwan which have dirt cheap imports on those kinds of goods.

The thing that I want to really focus on here is Chinese food. Chinese food is unique in that every country you visit tends to have drastically different cuisine that is considered “Chinese.” In Korea there are two or three main dishes that are considered Chinese. The stigma behind the food is much the same as it is in America, though: tasty, cheap, and not entirely healthy. That being said, the food is delicious just like in America but it is drastically different. My favorite dish happens to be jjambbong:

jjambbong

Seafood and spice, so very nice!

This is a spicy seafood soup with rice noodles and lots of veggies and seafood, mainly squid octopus, and mussels. This is absolutely divine and is probably the only Korean-Chinese dish I really wish I could find in America. This will almost never happen because the seafood in America tends to be less fresh and more expensive and generally speaking spicy soup isn’t something you see, as we go for creamy and savory soups. This gets five stars, and in any country this should be on the Chinese menu.

Next we have bokumbap, which is just good old fried rice, though they do tend to throw a fried egg on top in Korea. Three stars, because honestly the plain rice in Korea is so good that this just doesn’t really hit the spot

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Great picture, but you won’t be craving this wherever you’re from.

Lastly, we have jajangmyeon or black noodles. These things look vile but actually taste pretty decent. The problem is this is the cheapest main dish you can buy and it is known for being made with old oil in less than street-legal kitchens. I personally got violent food poisoning from this dish but would recommend it nonetheless as it is very Korean-Chinese. Three stars. I dunno if I can love myself giving a higher rating to something that led to an IV drip.

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This looks a bit like alien insides. Their insides become your insides! ^_^

Hong Kong is now a part of China proper but even there the dishes are slightly different due to the heavy British influence. This is closer to the mainland of China in cuisine and you can have some amazing meals on the street in little alleyways.

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This is actually open air in an alleyway even though it looks like a shop wall.

This turned into super cheap fried noodles. The perk here is that you can choose the type of noodles and the type of meat and the lady fries it up and gives it to you to go in a matter of seconds. These noodles are delicious and were better than a lot of sit-down restaurant meals I have had.

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Look at this handsome man with his farm worth of animals in the background.

Next, I got to have some pork, goose, and duck meat in what appears to be a butchery/restaurant. This is an odd combination as you tend to want to keep the dirty work away from patrons but I say if you can’t handle seeing where it came from then you shouldn’t be eating it anyways. This meat was smoked goodness and I can’t recommend it enough. Also the price was reasonable compared to going to a place with a prep room and a closed off kitchen. Four stars. The taste and the value can’t really be beaten here.

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Had to eat the weak to get to the fish.

Last for Hong Kong I had some steamed fish, which is really hard to find in other areas of Asia. This is hands down my #1 Chinese dish and I try to have it any time the option presents itself. This thing is butter love in the esophagus. If you like fish, you will devour this whole thing’s body and crave more when you’re done. Face, fins, and inner bits are all fair game because it is just so friggin’ flavorful. I tend to understand disliking certain types of food but this is one I wouldn’t even invite a non-fish lover out for as I would feel its death was under-appreciated by the naysayer. All the stars. Seriously, there are only a few non-fish dishes I have had that can go head-to head with this.

Now, as most of the people reading this will probably be North American I am not going to go image search Chinese food since you know what is out there, but almost everyone has their favorite dish and their favorite place to go. There is nothing quite like Chinese cuisine around the world (please comment if you know any others) where the immigrants and the home nation always seem to create a fusion of dishes that would be the most appetizing within the country. I love Chinese food in every country I have had it but none of them taste or look anything alike except for having fried rice and dumplings. The one thing that is constant is just how similar it is to that country’s culture without just suddenly becoming American food or Korean food. It takes skill to be every nation’s entry into exotic dining, so props to the Chinese for making bellies happy.

crabcorners

I lied these thing are so friggin good and I had to make mine in Korea to have them. Best appetizer from a Chinese place.

Image sources: General Google Image searches (first three) and the author (rest)

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed

Andrew Findlay

The Dispossessed is a perfect novel. It is great not just because of plot, characterization, or prose, but because Ursula K. Le Guin structured it in a way that makes it almost an architectural marvel. The general plot is fairly basic – in the Tau Ceti system, there is a binary planet – a system in which two planets orbit each other. The original world, Urras, lush, green, and rich, is at the mercy of a massive revolution led by a woman named Odo. To defuse the situation, the government makes a deal with these Odonians to send them to Anarres, the other world. The revolutionaries take the deal, even though Anarres is basically a planetary desert. The story opens a couple of centuries later, when a famous Anarresti physicist, Shevek, is invited to Urras to help work on a mathematical equation which would enable faster-than-light travel. He heads to Urras on a journey that will finally unite his people and make life better for everyone, the end. Except Le Guin puts it together in a way that makes it so much more complicated and rewarding.

Science fiction is a spectacular vehicle for social critique, as it can either propose worlds and social constructs that have never existed and show how much better they are than what we have, or mirror and exaggerate the systems we currently live by in order to scrutinize the problems inherent in them. The Dispossessed accomplishes the latter. The binary planetary system does more than separate an Earth-standard planet from a worldwide desert, it separates a world of capitalists from a world of anarcho-syndicalists. Shevek, the protagonist, comes from Anarres, the anarchist moon. He is raised in a society where there is no such thing as wages, where if someone needs something they just go and pick it up at the village dispensary, where room and board is free and people can do or not do mostly what they want, except for work necessary to support society (farming, sewage treatment, construction) that all members do in short rotations. This society stands in sharp contrast with that of Urras, which is propertarian, patriarchal, and filled with nationalist conflict. It is a stand-in for 1970s Earth, complete with a world-dominant continent-wide capitalist country (A-Io) and a nation with a massively centralized and authoritarian government resulting from a workers’ revolution (Thu). A lesser author would have used the moon dichotomy to demonstrate how evil and backwards the Earth stand-in is. Le Guin is not a lesser author. Her exploration of the contrast between the two worlds is complex and subtle for two reasons. One is that the anarchist from Anarres who visits Urras, Shevek, is not the righteous voice of morality, come to indict a degenerate culture. While some parts of Urrasti society do disturb him, he mostly just does not understand it. When he is shown into his private quarters on Urras, they are so big he assumes he is to share it with three or four other people. His mind is blown by the amount of water wasted when he flushes the toilet. When he asks his scientist companions on Urras why there are no women scientists, they answer with a lot of claptrap about differences between the genders, the purity of women, and the intellectual superiority of men. In one of my favorite tongue-in-cheek exchanges in all of literature, Shevek explains how things are on Anarres:

“You Odonians let women study science?” Oiie inquired.

“Well, there are many in the sciences, yes.” [Shevek responds]

“Not many, I hope.”

“Well, about half.”

This simple exchange highlights the absolute gulf of understanding between the two societies – Shevek cannot see why you would waste half of the human race, while his companions are horrified at anything that challenges male primacy.

Go fuck yourself, Urras. Love, Mme Curie.

The second reason the story is subtle and complex is that, although people try to be equal above all on Anarres, and people try to extend their own power and make money above all on Urras, Le Guin does not set up an all good/all bad dynamic. When Shevek first sees the open, green fields of Urras, he is taken aback by how beautiful everything is. When he sees their workers, he is surprised at the ingenuity, drive and desire that they exhibit – to him, any work done simply for money is inherently debasing and demoralizing, so he cannot reconcile the quality and effectiveness of Urrasti work with what he has been taught his entire life. On the other side of things, the completely egalitarian society of Anarres is not without flaw. It becomes clear as the story progresses that there is something not quite right. Power has a tendency to cohere, thicken, and spread. While nearly everything on Anarres is decentralized, no society can work without some type of organizing force. This force on Anarres, the PDC, is responsible for inventory, personnel, and communication worldwide. It started out as just a coordinating body, but its members have won themselves a type of personal power. For example, if a scientist wants to publish a paper that the PDC does not agree with, it will not get published. Someone of whom they disapprove might have trouble finding a job that matches his or her skill set. A math teacher could end up being assigned to dig ditches every single work rotation instead of receiving a teaching post. Anarres is still held up as a “better” society, as some true atrocities are committed on Urras, but the flaws in the “good” example and the beauty in the “bad” example serve to show that nothing is ever perfect, and nothing is ever all one thing or the other. The answer is just never that simple.

Unless the question is “Is Hoobastank a good band?”

Most well-known science fiction is a normal story that simply happens to take place in a universe where technology is extremely advanced. Star Wars: A New Hope could easily have taken place in a much less advanced society with just a few plot changes. Some Star Trek episodes deal specifically with problems that come from advanced technology, but many are simple shoot-em-ups where the cowboys have absurdly complex toys. What is glorious about The Dispossessed as a science fiction novel is that science is at its core. The entire motivation for the Urrasti to receive Shevek on their planet is because he is the most brilliant physicist of the century. He is on the cusp of working out the General Temporal Theory, which would enable instantaneous travel over interstellar distances. Propertarians that they are, the Urrasti invite Shevek to their world so that they can own the completed equation. What exactly does the equation accomplish?

The General Temporal Theory, if completed, would unite two seemingly contradictory theories of time. In the novel, sequency physicists believe time occurs linearly, in discrete bits, one right after the other. Simultaneity physicists believe everything is happening all at the same time. There is stiff disagreement between the two camps, but Shevek, the brilliant scientist, believes the theories can be unified. If everything is happening all at the same time, and the sequence of step-by-step time that we perceive can be linked to simultaneity, then there is no obstacle to having a ship wink out of existence in one time and place and wink back into existence wherever its captain wants to take her, as everything is happening at the same time anyway. This represents a huge source of power and profit to the Urrasti scientists.

We are gonna monetize the shit out of this.

This equation does more than just drive the main action of the book. The entire structure and thematic development of the novel mirror it. Thematically, the book addresses problems created by false division and limns the benefits of unity. Capitalism and anarchism, Urras and Anarres, the self and the group: all of these things suffer from being pulled apart and considered absolute opposites. Structurally, the book jumps backwards and forwards in time, with the odd chapters starting with Shevek’s arrival on Urras, and the even chapters starting with his childhood on Anarres. The even chapters trace his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood on Anarres, and the odd chapters cover his adventures on Urras. The chapters saw back and forth until the last even chapter is Shevek and his wife discussing a possible trip to Urras, and the last odd chapter is Shevek returning home from Urras. The chapter design itself leads to unity between the sequency and simultaneity of time.

Le Guin pulls so much off with this book. She crafts a novel that shows all the true subtlety and real problems of moral governance. She organizes it so that science is not just its setting, but its main driving force, absolutely essential to the plot and theme of the book itself. The science fiction here is not laser guns and biological horrors, but clear, cold math alongside a profound exploration of the impact of that math on the societal underpinnings of two civilizations. Le Guin refuses easy divisions and classifications, she refuses simple morals, and she refuses easy answers. It is something for which all science fiction writers, and all writers in general, should strive.