Saturday, March 25, 2017

CREATIVE SOLITUDE

Albert Einstein wrote, "The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind."

Monday, March 20, 2017

THE GRAND EXPERIMENT

LOST had many controversial elements. One was that so much of the criminal activity on and off the island was not punished. One could literally get away with mass murder.


In civilized society, the rule of law, a code of right and wrong, is necessary to stop the general public from turning into aggressive savages. In some ways, the island was its own uncivilized society where the normal rules did not apply to the characters.


It is possible to equate this element with a new scientific study which attempts to map "criminal intent" in the brain activity of potential criminals. In order to convict a person of a crime, the prosecution must prove mens rea, or the "intent" to commit the crime. It is done mostly by circumstantial evidence and common sense. For example, if you carry a gun into a store and demand money from the clerk, you are intending to rob the store. Judges and juries often have to gauge a defendant's mental state at the time he or she committed a crime in complex cases or where the defendant may have mental impairment. They have to decide whether a defendant committed a crime "knowingly" or "recklessly." In some cases, the difference could be a matter of life or death.
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has turned to the brain to find a basis for this distinction. The researchers were able to find distinct brain activity patterns that revealed whether participants knew they were committing a (virtual) crime or were recklessly taking a risk.


“All the elements of the crime being the same, depending on which mental state the court decides that you were in when you committed the crime, you can get probation or 20 years in jail,” said the study co-author Read Montague,  a neuroscientist at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “I can't think of anything more important than loss of your liberty, so understanding these distinctions or the subtleties in them is important.”


For this study, 40 participants played a game inside a brain scanner. They had to decide to carry a suitcase that could contain sensitive documents through a maze where they could encounter one or more guards. The number of suitcases and the guards were altered in each round of the game to play with the level of risk the participants had to take.


The researchers used a machine-learning method of data analysis that looks at activity across the entire brain to find patterns. This revealed two activity patterns that corresponded to the conditions in which participants knowingly decided to carry a suitcase containing contraband, or the conditions where the participants made an uncertain but risky choice.


The distinct brain patterns they found suggest that these two legally defined mental states—knowing and reckless—are not arbitrary, but indeed map to different psychological states.


Montague is quick to point out that this study is not something you could use to avoid harsher punishment.


“It has no implications within a courtroom, and probably won't for quite a while,” Montague told mentalfloss.com  “This is a proof-of-principle study that informs the idea of mental-state distinctions.”


In fact, what neuroscience in general could potentially offer in a courtroom is heavily debated.
Our relatively recent ability to scan the brain and look for otherwise undetectable injuries has raised the idea that neuroscience could be used to inform the circumstances of a criminal case. If you have a brain lesion, after all, your behavior could be profoundly affected.


Taking this scientific study to the LOST world, Dharma was interested in various aspects of brain activity. From manipulation to brain washing, Dharma and Ben used methods to control the Others and the survivors. But it is unknown whether the original Dharma researchers had more civil aspects to their experiments such as finding clues to criminal behavior through tests and brain scans.


In order to get samples from various types of people, it makes sense for the island scientists to bring various people to the island and let the boundaries of civilized society be negated in a new world where basic survival is the only thing that matters. Call it a grand experiment to determine how normal people react in an abnormal environment. And if it was an experiment on how humanity is changed under those circumstances, it would appear the verdict would be that normal people mostly fail both their own moral codes with increased criminal behavior.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

BYE BYE CHARLIE



 
The demise of Charlie was a puzzling development.

Dominic Monaghan’s character was killed off in Season Three by drowning in what amounted to a suicide mission. He died bravely aiding his fellow castaways in their never-ending attempt to get off the bizarre island. Why was this important character killed off?

As with other actors in the series, there may have been contract issues, popularity conflicts or actor's seeking other opportunities. Or, the writers needed to create "drama" to keep viewers watching from week to week. A cull of the main characters was a necessary evil.

When LOST started, Monaghan was in a relationship with his co-star, Evangeline Lily. Lily was a model. She had little acting experience when she was cast as the principal female lead in the show. As it was told from insiders, the original premise of the show had her character, Kate, being the leader of the survivors. Jack was supposed to have been killed off at the end of the pilot episode in order to grab the audience by the throat so prove the island was a dangerous place.

But the producers found Jack's character too appealing to let go so he was given a bigger, the focal role in the show. But Kate was always hanging around Jack as the principal female lead.

During the show, Lily broke up with Monaghan. Some believe it was due to Charlie’s lessening importance as the main character; he had been receiving much less screen time in the season before his demise. It could also stem from jealousy as Lily was receiving much more attention in the press from the beginning than he was - - - and the sudden popularity of the show must have added pressure to succeed.

But how Charlie had to die was maddening plot twist. The hokey idea that the underground station's code was musical notes (which apparently Charlie figured out quickly on his own) made Charlie the main character in that episode. He had to overcome his fear of swimming to dive deep below the water to get to the station. Then he had to fight off dangerous Others to send out a rescue signal. But when he got the message out, an explosion rocked the control room flooding the compartment. Everyone saw that Charlie had time to escape, but he locked the door to prevent the station from flooding or harming Desmond. The last thing Charlie did was receive a message he wrote on his hand: NOT PENNY'S BOAT.  It was a heroic demise when the waters engulfed him at the portal.

But Charlie could have opened the door to let the water rush into the very large open space of the station. He could have made it back to the open hole and swam out of the station. Most fans believed at the time it was an unnecessary character killing. Thus, there is a level of fan suspicion that there was another reason why Charlie left the show.

The character of Charlie had hit a dead end. The relationship with Claire, while special at the start, turning a boring pull-take romance that never got off the ground. Charlie's quest of having a trustworthy family blinded him from his true friendships. He never contributed a major "eureka" moment in the story lines. He was another downtrodden character, the LOST equivalent of a Star Trek red shirt.

We will never know the real reason Charlie got written out of the show. File it under the numerous "more questions than answers" bin.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

THE MISSING

Korea's LOST TV series, The Missing 9, is a critical panned and low rating series which the reviews continue to gripe about slow plot lines and very little information per episode. Television series are often copied but rarely reproduced to the original's glory.

Now that the American series has been off the air for a long time (and not in syndication), what are the nine characters you miss the most? What character stories have we missed out on?

In no particular order:

BEN

There is something about a really good villain. Ben's character had the psychotic twist that made him the most memorable character in the series. Michael Emerson played the role to perfection.  He made a short guest appearance into a long running fan favorite. It also garnered him steady work in subsequent network series (though not to the level of fame as his LOST character).

LOCKE

Locke was the original fan anti-hero. The Locke character was the beaten down average Joe who was looking to something more important to break out of his miserable life. His abandonment and loneliness led to dead end jobs which many people can relate to on a personal level. Terry O'Quinn was able to change his character's emotional state from season to season. He was able to adapt an evil character, Flocke, in order to try to get the series to the finish line. Locke's fate at the hands of Ben was probably the most shocking scene in the series.

HUGO

Hurley was the comic relief and the audience's eyes and ears in the series.  For a loner, he got along with everyone. But underneath his friendly but shy demeanor lurked his psychological demons, also fed by abandonment issues. Jorge Garcia was the most fan interactive actor in the series, communicating directly with the fans through his blog posts. Hugo could have been a much more complex character, but in an ensemble cast he was the most charismatic of the second tier characters. His centerpiece episodes had tragic comedy aspects.

KATE

There are two stark camps on Kate: some loved her and others loathed her. But most would agree that she embodied the spunky, independent, funny, tomboyish girl-next-door woman that most men find extremely appealing - - -  to the point of being hurt by her selfish betrayals. Kate was the most attractive character because her charm, guile and persistence made her the best at the game of survival. Evangeline Lilly may have not been the most accomplished actress in the series, but she maintained a level gritty determination that made her a likeable character. The problem some people had with her character was the poor to unbelievable story lines (especially once she left the island).

ELOISE

Eloise Hawking may not be on the top list of main characters, but we miss the point that she always knew more about what was happening than we, the viewers, would ever be told. In that regard, we miss the opportunity to learn more about the island mythology and secrets. Fionnula Flanagan played her mysterious mean character in a subdued fashion which increased her evil quota by ten fold. We only got a glimpse of her back story when she was a young islander. She should have had a flashback to explain her relationship with Mr. Hawking and Daniel's upbringing to be sacrificed for the island. One could easily suspect she could have been the continuation of the Crazy Mom who stole Jacob and MIB from their mother or an advanced smoke monster  - - - which would have answered one of the confusing mysteries: what is a smoke monster?

SAWYER

Sawyer was the protagonist who got under everyone's skin. He was the charming con-man who had a cruel streak. He had a sense of humor, but usually directed at the flaws of other people (like Hurley). He was one of the few characters that actually changed during the course of the series. His growth into a competent adult from a bitter, vengeful child was a testament to Josh Holloway's ability to evoke emotions by mere facial expressions. His character's story had the most open ended possibilities, especially when the plane took off with the final survivors. Instead of the flash sideways world, we missed out on what would have happened when Sawyer returned home - - - what would he have done, and who would he have partnered with?

CINDY

For a minor character, flight attendant Cindy is still the major prize in the claw machine that we cannot capture. Cindy is like a codex to unravel the island mysteries. She gave Jack the extra liquor bottles which were important to him after the crash to be an antiseptic to his wounds. She was also the one who gathered and protected the children from the Others and later, Flocke's killing spree. Kimberly Joseph's portrayal of Cindy was subdued but important clue. Was she an Other planted on Flight 815 in order "mark" the survivors for Jacob? This would mean she would have had direct access to Jacob which Ben did not. Or was Cindy merely a nice woman who quickly adapted to an unbelievable situation with maternal instincts so strong that she kept Emma and Zach from harm. Or, like Eloise, was she a continuation of Crazy Mom, an island smoke monster or a different guardian angel?

WALT

 Walt's ticket off the island was a growth spurt in real life. Malcolm David Kelley  literally outgrew his part! But Walt had abilities that were not fully developed or explained in the series. He could have had a major role (even more important than Hurley being the fan's representative in the show). Just as the Others were interested in Walt and his abilities, so were we. We saw Walt adapting to a "normal" life as a student living with his grandmother. It was a sense of normalcy that Locke could not bring himself to try to get Walt back to the island. In another story flaw, the rule was that everyone had to return in order for the mission to succeed. Without Walt, everyone did get back to the island. But if Walt was supposed to be the keystone - - - who took his place in the final showdown. Apparently, it was Desmond, whose anticlimax "superpowers" was a final season head scratching moment.

EKO

Of the Other 48 characters, Eko had the biggest presence. A contract dispute with producers led to Adewale Akinnoye-Agbaje's early departure from the show. Eko's character had the inner conflict between redemption and rage. If there was a character who was living in a recognized purgatory, it was Eko. We got a good understanding of his character's pain with his gangster flashback which caused the anchor of guilt on his brother's murder hanging over his head for the rest of his life. Eko's complex emotional state of adopting a religious penance while defiant in accepting his fate was perfectly exposed when he was killed by the smoke monster. If Eko had stayed on the show, it would have missed a great show down between Eko, Jack and Flocke for the leadership of the island survivors.

Now, some may ask why not any of the other main characters like Jack, Desmond, Charlie, Michael, Sun, Jin, Claire or Shannon? Everyone has their opinion on how important each character's story and development was to the overall affect on the series. But in this column, the idea is simply which characters and their story potential do you miss the most. In my view, if you had to re-boot LOST with just nine (9) characters, I would choose Ben, Locke, Hugo, Kate, Eloise, Sawyer, Cindy, Walt and Eko. It would make a dynamic, complex character driven show.







Tuesday, February 14, 2017

NATURAL LAW

What were the basic tenets of the island? Was there a governing system of fundamental rules or beliefs that no one could change?

We are aware that "laws" are created by governments in order to protect basic individual freedoms, like property and person, from harm. But the source of the power to create laws, and the corresponding "order," is not clear cut.

Natural law is among the oldest philosophical traditions. Some of history's greatest geniuses, from Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson, devoted their most brilliant arguments to it, often differing about details but agreeing on the broad outlines. Natural law was the basis on which America's founders wrote the Constitution.

Among other things, it holds that politics isn't just a matter of agreement. Instead, principles of justice, or the idea that murder or theft are wrong, run deeper than government's mere say-so. Those things are actually wrong, aside from whether or not they are legal—and that means government itself can act unjustly and even impose rules that don't deserve the name "law."

That's a view many on both left and right share. The greatest spokesman for natural law in the twentieth century was probably Martin Luther King, who denounced segregation not because of its technical complexities, but because it betrayed the natural law principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Today, most American judges—including liberals and conservatives—reject natural law. They embrace a different view, "legal positivism," which holds that individual rights or concepts of justice are really manufactured government fiat. The late Justice Antonin Scalia, who was viewed as a strict constitutional constructionist,  rejected natural law arguments. "You protect minorities only because the majority determines that there are certain minority positions that deserve protection," he said, not because everyone has basic rights under natural law.

Still, even those who embrace natural law, including Justice Clarence Thomas, have their differences. For example, while Thomas and his allies see natural law as a basis for attacking legal protections for abortion and euthanasia—because they contradict the sanctity of life—others believe that natural law theory actually supports these rights, because it prioritizes individual autonomy.

That debate arises from a central natural-law question: What is the source of the good? Are things like life or freedom good because they relate to human purposes—such as the pursuit of a fulfilling life—or are they just intrinsically good, without any deeper reason? This debate matters because if life is just inherently good, then even someone suffering a terminal illness who wants to end his own life should be barred from doing so because life is good, period. On the other hand, if life is only good because it serves the goal of happiness, then someone whose life has become a burden of suffering should be free to end it if he chooses.

How we act between ourselves is a complex system. Where does one get their moral bearings? From their parents? From their friends? From their experiences? From their genes which may program one's personality traits? From successes or from failures?  Or is there something inherit in every person's mind that sorts "right" and "wrong" before we act?

If it is truly an individual decision, then the will of the community is irrelevant. The community can only assert its philosophy after the fact towards someone for their actions. There is individual free will but societal consequences.

But the LOST characters on the island rarely, if any time, had their personal wrongs vetted by a community judge or jury. The island was a moral soup of contradictions. Ben was a mass murderer, but he was allowed to live and eventually go to heaven (the sideways world) while petty diamond thieves Nikki and Paulo were buried to rot in island purgatory. If you try to reconcile these two outcomes, one could argue that Ben was luckier than the criminal couple. Or more popular with the writers and viewers. The latter would diminish the LOST mythology as the foundation of the stories, the character morals and actions are not subject to rules but whims. Did natural law influence the decisions and framework for any island visitor? Or was it merely a game of fiat by the supernatural beings that inhabited the island?

Friday, January 27, 2017

PRUNING THE MIND

Arstechnica reported new findings on memory and sleep.

REM sleep is known to help solidify memories, but the mechanism for making memories more permanent is not well-understood. A recent study published in Nature Neuroscience shows that, during REM sleep, some of the structures neurons use to make connections with each other are pruned, while others are maintained and strengthened. The findings indicate that sleep's role in solidifying memories comes through allowing the brain time to selectively eliminate or maintain newly formed neural connections.

Dendritic spines are small outgrowths on a neuron’s dendrite, which is the portion of the neuron that receives chemical signals from other neurons. These spines enhance the strength of connections between neurons so they can play an important role in strengthening new neural circuits and solidifying new memories. These spines aren't permanent structures; instead, nerve cells can create new ones or get rid of existing ones (a process called pruning) as the importance of different connections shifts.

The new memories in this case were formed in mice, which were trained to complete a treadmill-like motor task. Then, the mice were either deprived of REM sleep or allowed to experience this form of sleep. The mice that were allowed REM showed significantly higher pruning of new dendritic spines compared to the mice that were REM sleep deprived. This difference in pruning was only seen for new dendritic spines, and previously existing dendritic spines were pruned at the same rate.

The researchers looked at how REM sleep influenced dendritic spine pruning at various points throughout the mice’s lives. They found that this neural pruning occurred while the mice were in REM sleep during their development (during the equivalent of mouse adolescence) but could also occur when the mice experienced REM sleep later in life after motor learning tasks. REM sleep increased the size of the spines that were retained, both during development and after motor learning tasks—these unpruned new spines were strengthened, reinforcing the developing neural circuitry.
In other words, during REM sleep, the brain selects which portions of new neural circuitry it wants to eliminate and which portions it wants to strengthen and enhance for future use.

The researchers then looked at the role calcium channels, which let calcium ions across membranes, may play in these decisions, as changes in the levels of calcium in cells is a normal part of brain activity. They found that sudden changes in the amount of calcium seen during REM sleep were critical for selective pruning and strengthening. When these calcium channels were blocked, the previously seen changes in dendritic spines no longer occurred.

Too little REM sleep during development is known to have detrimental effects on brain maturation, and this recent study provides new insight regarding the mechanisms that may be at play here.

Without sufficient REM sleep during development, juvenile and adolescent brains may not be able to adjust the connections among their neurons to hold on to what they've learned. Similarly, REM sleep is known to help with learning during all stages of development, including adulthood. In both cases, lack of REM sleep prevents the brain from eliminating unneeded spines generated during learning and prevents the strengthening of critical new spines that make newly learned tasks stick.

The interesting caveat to this study as it relates to LOST is that the main characters had a hard time grasping and retaining island knowledge. Many fans were upset when a group would return from a mission, the other castaways would not ask them basic questions of what happened to them. Other times, a character would continue to get manipulated, such as Locke. 

So were the main characters unable to retain knowledge because of sleep deprivation? We did not see extended periods of time when the characters were asleep, except for Jack when he was captured at the Hydra station. At that point, Jack was asking Juliet many pointed questions, but did not get the responses he wanted (and recognized it).

If the island was a metaphor for some other place, such as a medical research facility, could the characters have been test subjects in sleep and REM research? And if it is true that lack of sleep can effectively strip your brain's ability to make or break connections to retain important memories, could that have been the real power that Widmore and Ben wanted to control?

Friday, January 13, 2017

RISK REWARD LUCK UNLUCKY

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said, "The only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks."

There is a stigma against risk taking; it is an inherent defense mechanism in the brain which governors people trying to hurt themselves. No one wants the pain of being hurt, whether physical or emotional. Rejection is a burning knife in the gut. Going outside one's "comfort zone" is a high anxiety experience. 

You can stop the risk by becoming a hermit living in one's personal shell of personal barriers, excuses, bad lonely habits and paralysis.

LOST was a case study of different types of risk takers.

You have the messiah-complex high level risk takers who really did not weigh any moral issues when they made their decisions. Ironically, Jack and Ben were on a similar plane. Jack took surgical risks on patients because he believed he was a miracle worker. It was an unrealistic belief that he could save everyone. But even with those giant risks, he got very little reward from his hospital, his staff or his father. Ben took a different path to putting in play his "big play," the banishment of Widmore from the island and the purge of killing the Dharma collective, including his own father, so he would become the island king. He risked everything for the power to control the island. He got nothing in return because the Others did not respect him (they feared him), he had no friends and his own self-grandeur amounted to nothing in the end.

Hurley was at the opposite end of the spectrum. He did not want to take any risks. So he hid himself in a shy exterior. He would only come to life once he got to know you well. He only had one or two friends, but those relationships ended when he failed to share his secret that he won the lottery. He believed himself cursed by fate, so he did very little to try to expand his reach. He would have been a fast food lackey his entire life; no ambition, no girlfriend, no family, no life. Once he landed on the island, he could have made more of his "new start." He became the likeable guy, but not a major player or decision maker.

Of the "lucky" survivors, many of the main characters' lives did not end well in the series. If they risked the perils of the island to reach their personal dream or goal, they failed. Sayid longed for his one true love, Nadia.  But he risked his own life to get her back, but in the end he wound up with Shannon, the exact opposite. Locke longed for acceptance and adventure, the hero jock. But he wound up conned and crippled by his own family and his own shortcomings. Their personal sacrifices did not result in reaching their dreams.

There is a relationship between risk and reward. One cannot exist without the other. It is like a reflection in a mirror: you have to see who you are in order to change yourself. "Bad luck" is more often the lack of effort to reach an opportunity. But if one takes failure as "proof" that one's fate is a sad, lonely, unfilled life - - - they are missing the great life lesson that experience comes through failure. Experience is necessary in order to take calculated risks for reasonable rewards. It is those people who understand this dynamic push forward (against the odds) to succeed; they make their own luck.