May 2017 news

topics: newsletter
created: 2 May 2017; modified: 21 Apr 2019; status: in progress; confidence: log; importance: 0

This is the May 2017 edition of the newsletter; previous, April 2017 (archives). This is a summary of the revision-history RSS feed, overlapping with my Changelog & /r/gwern/; brought to you by my donors on Patreon.


  • nothing completed







  • Breaking Bad:

    A compelling examination of one man’s slippery slope into evil, driven by his fatal flaw of insatiable pride into destroying his family, his life, and all of his associates

    In retrospect, I’m surprised I took so long to watch this—after the arrest of Ross Ulbricht, a white man who was a materials science graduate student before dropping to try being an entrepreneur and then launching Silk Road 1 & becoming a drug kingpin who ordered 2 hits, the Breaking Bad jokes were endless and a later darknet market even tried theming itself based on BB. I’m glad I finally did, despite the intimidating length: BB is indeed awesome.

    BB forms a dark counterpoint to that other great sprawling American TV series on drugs & crime, The Wire. Where The Wire is a quasi-Marxist examination of how the interlocking systems of power in an American society undermine any attempt to do good by the well-intentioned & usually inherently good people by adding friction to the good choices & posing coordination problems, BB is a more person-centric character drama emphasizing the irreducible choice that goes into social pathology: it’s not “society’s fault”—while bad things do happen, everybody always has choices, there is always a path to the good outcome, and it is almost never the case that someone is truly forced into drug dealing or armed robbery or fraud rather than starve to death. The subsistence wage in the USA is far above starvation, and this is because people demand certain things, certain standards of living, which give them pride, and they will kill or die rather than live below it.

    BB is an extended examination of pride as a deadly sin—indeed, the deadly sin, occupying pride of place in the standard list of the 7 deadly sins, and identified as the first sin, Lucifer’s. The first episode is a masterful cinematic depiction of what I could only consider at the time Trumpism and ‘elite overproduction’: our protagonist Walter White, squeezed out of research at a national laboratory (as a plaque on the wall commemorating the creation of a new element tells us), underemployed as a high school chemistry teacher, is systematically degraded by everyone he meets, from the arrogant immigrant to the rich children of connected insiders to even his wife (who pays more attention to her eBay auction than giving him a handjob). Despite the lack of any internal narratives or monologuing, it is always clear what White is thinking and feeling, in a great credit to Bryan Cranston’s acting and the striking cinematography (such as flashforwards that don’t resolve for multiple episodes or the teddy bear/Gus Fring). Why is pride so terrible and a mortal sin, when it seems so much more harmless than the others like wrath or gluttony or envy? The slothful or wrathful can acknowledge their flaws and hope to do better, and even the lustful & greedy & envious can be briefly satisfied or rest from their sins. But pride has no limits—there will never be enough money, enough drugs, or enough power for White—and its inherent nature is to be incorrigible: White can never truly listen to others, trust in them, accept their help, or change his mind. But the prideful know no respite: long as White is alive, he loves no one, can take satisfaction in nothing, and must blame anyone other than himself for his self-inflicted failures as a researcher/businessman, husband, father, and drug dealer. There is no need for the viewer to condemn Walter White: he is already in Hell.

    Here the parallels to Ross Ulbricht are striking, as Ulbricht too, in his journal entries, delusional plans for Silk Road 1 expansions to things like credit cards, and growing comfort with ordering hits, evinced a loss of perspective and a growing hubris leading him to ignore clanging alarm bells and indulge in disastrous security practices—some apparently motivated by the idea of eventually writing a self-congratulatory autobiography!—that led nowhere but to a life sentence. Some of the parallels between BB and SR1 verge on the eery: Ulbricht’s first hit involved a faked photograph by Mark Force of arrested turncoat Curtis Green lying dead on the floor with Cheerios as fake vomit (a fatal mistake that killed any chances of parole or public sympathy), while at the end of BB, White’s fatal mistake is prompted by a faked photo of the turncoat Jesse laying on the floor with his brains splattered next to him. Art anticipates life sometimes.

    Which is not to say BB is perfect. I would have to rate The Wire as better than it overall. BB has the problem of any great work, that flaws that would go unmentioned in a lesser work become all the more glaring when set aside all the things it does well. The fundamental problem with BB is that the entire series is deranged by the presence of Jesse Pinkman; his endless incompetence, weakness, vacillation, and often deliberately suicidal sabotage render entire plot arcs idiotic, particularly in season 3 and afterwards. It destroys all the internal logic of the series, otherwise so carefully constructed and believable, that Pinkman survives any of the things he does. Every scene with Pinkman becomes a pain to watch to try to endure the latest moronic ‘twist’ or the inept attempts to explain why or how White would care any more about Pinkman than he would a bug—infinitely more believable is the first season where Pinkman’s role is to be mocked and undercut by White to support his pride & self-esteem. (WP says the director initially planned to kill off Pinkman at the end of season 1; if only!) Particularly disturbing is the slackness and flabbiness of season 5, which is a bad idea from start to finish, as it recapitulates poorly the empire-building process while introducing a bus load of characters for no purpose other than to kill them off; one senses that season 5 was never supposed to exist and the writers are rather embarassedly trying to patch around all the problems and come up with some sort of half-hearted redemption ending which would at least try to justify Pinkman’s existence.


  • Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (continuing the theme of the deadly sins, I revisited the classic franchise’s update. The second anime version is longer, benefits from the manga having been completed, and has an additional decade of progress in animation to draw on. The series is overall good and it’s satisfying that it has the full plot to draw on, but it’s held back by the first few episodes being badly-paced shonen-cliche infodumps which damage any sense of connection to key characters (particularly Major Hughes) since it violates the core formula of comedy seguing into drama/tragedy, and though it may be the nostalgia talking, I feel in some ways the first series was better in focusing on the theme of equivalent exchange and providing much more compelling backstories for the homunculi. On balance, it’s probably better, but you can’t step in the same river twice.)
  • Blood Blockade Battlefront (one of the most highly praised anime of the past season and based on Trigun creator Yasuhiro Nightow’s second manga, this was described as great action in media res; the first part is somewhat true, and the second is entirely false because ‘media res’ implies any of it will make sense after a while, but the 12 episodes of BBF never add up to anything with elements and MacGuffins dropped in constantly and immediately dropped entirely. From the nonsensical frame story of the protagonist handwriting a letter to his blind sister to the supersonic monkey to an episode whose climax is the discovery of hundreds of vampires who are never mentioned again to an entire episode devoted to a pseudo-chess game—set to “Ode to Joy”, no less!—which has no consequences whatsoever and whose objective is also never mentioned again to a new character showing up just a few episodes from the final episode while never mattering to final episode itself whose sekai-kei meaning is, shall we say, left as an interpretation for the viewer… It’s almost an accomplishment to see how all of it resolutely avoids connecting up in any way. The premise of the world-building sounds intriguing in providing a Men in Black-ish mashup of classic Western supernatural tropes with b-list horror/SF movies and all movies/TV series set in NYC, and drawing on a jazz esthetic a bit like The Big O drawing on Art Deco with ambitions of an ensemble cast evoking Americana like Baccano!, but unfortunately the series distinctly fails to remember love for NYC (as a comparison to, say, the success of Aria in evoking Venice would make clear) and the supernatural-made-mundane NYC citizens, with the honorable exception of the mushroom-man episode (probably the only good episode) serve solely as background scenery. Given that it’s Nightow, and that there are a lot of intriguing details & characters, I’m willing to believe that the manga does something with all of this and will justify it all, and with a second season announced, even that the second season might be able to recover from the first season’s disastrous choices, but season 1 is a mess and does not stand on its own.)