Code Geass Review: All tactics, no strategy

SPOILER FREE (I think)!
This is a general discussion of the show. I don't mention specific plot points or, at worst, anything you wouldn't know after watching the first episode. This is all general criticism of the show and its conclusion. For a detailed breakdown and synopsis check out this review from http://kotaku.com/.

It’s a helluva ride

First, I have to say that I found the show riveting. Code Geass does an outstanding job of creating tension and keeping you engrossed in its alternate reality and the characters' chaotic lives. I binged it pretty much all the way through and by the end I kind of wanted it to be over just so I could get down off the ride (I probably should have taken more breaks). If you're looking for something to watch it's definitely worth at least checking out the first couple of episodes, there's a lot to like. Just maybe don't expect a satisfying finish.

I should also note that I watched this on Netflix with English dubbing and maybe the subtitles do a better job with the story. Nothing will make me forgive the fake chess though.

Woman mouthing the words wah wah wah

Woman mouthing the words wah wah wah

Womp womp

My biggest gripe is the way Code Geass resolves the tension it creates. There are so many god-from-the-machine moments that it could have been called Geass ex machina (yes, I'm super proud of that). This is all the more gutting because the show is so good at creating interesting characters and a realistic world for them to affect and be affected by. But far too often the story abandons these threads in favor of some new element that nullifies the characters' power to change anything and rewrites the rules of its world because it moves the plot forward. If that happened once in a while that would be great. This is a show about morality and, hey, sometimes you do the right thing and lose anyway; sometimes the evil bastards win. Do that too often though, and instead of feeling like the apathetic motions of an indifferent universe it just feels like lazy writing.

Morality is the main theme of the show and pretty much every major character has to struggle with it at some point and no one more-so than super-genius protagonist Lelouch vi Britannia. When he's not busy outsmarting everyone around him, he's struggling with the consequences of his decisions and mistakes. He and everyone else is forced to ask questions about what mistakes are acceptable, whether the ends justify the means and how much evil is okay when you're trying to defeat a greater evil. Code Geass is good at making these questions personal and relatable and the way characters make decisions and the results of those decisions matters a lot. But if you're going to suffer these moral dilemmas along with the show you have to know what the goals are but most of the time they're so vague that you’re not really sure what to care about or root for. At first that’s mysterious and intriguing but eventually it just feels like the writers don't have a plan. Sure you know the good(ish) guys are trying to take over some base (not a real example) but you don't really know why that's important, why it's more important than one of the other plot points or why they seem to think it's going to work.

Stick figure falling apart a line at a time until it disappears completely.

Stick figure falling apart a line at a time until it disappears completely.

The characters are complex except when they're not

The show has a big cast and Code Geass is good at spreading out screen time and dialogue in a way that makes keeping track of everyone interesting rather than tedious. People grow, regress and feel authentic as TV personalities go. Their changes matter a lot to the plot and there’s a lot of time invested in whether they are good or bad changes and if that’s even a useful metric. But in a lot of cases these changes happen too fast to feel authentic and without a shred of doubt or second-guessing—if only I could learn their secret! Other times their choices make sense, are thoroughly explained and come with just the right amount of wavering only to be undermined by a plot twist that renders all their development irrelevant. Bye agency…

This is especially bothersome when it comes to Lalouch predicting human behavior. If you're old enough to read this you know that humans often do things that make no damn sense. They're unpredictable, even to themselves. They're unpredictable in the show too, right up until the moment they need to act exactly as Lalouch needs them too. Again, Code Geass gets this right often enough that it's only more jarring when it gets it wrong. It's not a silly show where explanations don't matter except when it is.

Good luck Sherlock

The fun of watching a whodunit like Murder She Wrote or Law and Order is the idea that you can play along—the clues are all there, at least in hindsight. Code Geass tempts you to figure things out but flakes at the crucial moments. It's like Angela solving the case by saying “An assassin did it. I know because I found an invoice. I would have told you before but I waited because it's more dramatic this way.” Basically, you know Lelouch is going to come out on top but not in a way you can piece together yourself. Magic!

Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch version) rubbing his temples in frustrated concentration

Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch version) rubbing his temples in frustrated concentration

Much of the plot is based on Lelouch's ability to make impossible predictions and think in ways that leave his enemies baffled. The show goes all in on the Smart People Play Chess trope and again their success rate is almost-but-not-quite. Lelouch is, of course, an amazing player and he has an unusual habit of moving his king early in the game. If you're not into chess, moving the king early is almost never a good idea and the show uses this to illustrate the way Lelouch employs unorthodox thinking to his advantage. The idea is that people underestimate him because he seems to make amateur/childish moves when really he's lapping them. It's usually accompanied by some version of, “If the king does not lead, how can he expect his subordinates to follow?”.

This is all fine. The metaphor's clear enough whether you play chess or not and the show backs up this lofty quote with lots of instances of Lelouch's jumping into the line of fire. It's a little sad that they've chosen an example that doesn't really work in chess when there are so many other ways they could have made this point with perfectly legitimate chess strategies but whatever, everyone gets chess wrong.

Where the metaphor really breaks down is the tactics vs strategy theme. Lelouch talks about the difference quite a bit, usually with the idea that he's seeing the bigger picture; “The tide of war is determined by strategy, not tactics”.

Even if you've never thought about the difference between strategy and tactics you know all about it—strategy is your goal and tactics are how you're going to accomplish it. It's easier to change tactics when you have a clear strategy as many self-help books and cheerful you-can-do-it blogs will tell you. Chess is exceptionally good at teaching this and there are literally hundreds of examples a google search away and they didn't look up any of them.

So the strategy vs tactics thing could have been awesome. It's got plenty of depth for the writers to work with and it could have done a lot of heavy lifting when it came to explaining Lelouch's thinking and continued success. But the show doesn’t invest enough time in the metaphor or reasoning for a useful comparison. They prime you for an “Oh, now I get it” moment that never comes. Part of this is because you have no idea what the hell Lalouch is trying to do, so, when he rubs his hands together muttering, “exactly as I planned” you can't really argue (or understand).

What makes this even stranger is the way they avoid a lot of the cliches that can drag down a superhero story. Lelouch has a magic power and most of the time the writers do a surprisingly good job of using it sparingly, using it in clever ways and not using it to explain everything. But then, out of nowhere, it appears to save the day. It's almost like they have one team that writes a really good build-up and then they pass it along to the slackers to finish. Or maybe to some kind of corporate supervisor.

Bart Simpson picks up a cake decorated with the words “at least you tried” and throws it in the garbage

Bart Simpson picks up a cake decorated with the words “at least you tried” and throws it in the garbage

Unhappy ending

Sadly these flaky finishes continue all the way to the show's conclusion. As season three staggers through already-explored themes and clunky setup we're presented with a baffling scenario that leaves everyone wondering what the hell is going on. To be honest, at this point you pretty much know what's going on although you're really hoping you're wrong (you're not). While it has echoes of some of the deeper themes, the resolution is simplistic and unsatisfying. It works only because this is a show and they say it works. Its idealistic, reductive tone contradicts the more realistic aspects of the show, diminishing both.

All of that said, there are a lot of interesting arcs, especially when Lelouch fails or when he succeeds in ways that come at a terrible cost. There are some genuinely heartbreaking moments and when the show gets it right, you really feel for the characters. There is a lot of dramatic irony and knowing what a character is holding back or lying about is often tragic and moving. But when it gets it wrong, character choices seem unrealistic and forced. You can't tell when you should be emotionally invested or apathetic and it gets it not-quite-right often enough that you sort of stop caring.

All in all, Code Geass aims so high that it ends up being pretty damn good despite the shortcomings. There are intense moral questions with real consequences and lots of good story to chew on. If it had aimed a little lower it could have nailed a lighthearted story about heroes and villains. I can't help being sad when I think of how epic it could have been. Too often they weasel out of satisfying resolutions to conflicts of all sizes. They ask good questions and then phone in the answers.

In the end, the chess metaphor works better than they probably intended. Instead of using the games to illustrate strategy and personality, they made stuff up and threw explanations out the window. Oh well. It was a fun ride.

Why I won't be joining Aliv's Apple for life program

A few months ago I got a call from Aliv asking me to take part in a survey. Since we're living in an exciting time for mobile phones in The Bahamas, I was only too happy to contribute. They asked if I would be willing to switch from BTC (I would), what service was most important to me (data), and, most notably, whether a payment plan for the newest iPhone would be a factor in my decision (HELL YES).

I was so excited about the prospect of an affordable way to upgrade my phone that I found myself checking the Aliv website from time to time to see if they'd published the details of their upcoming plan. When they finally did, my excitement disappeared faster than smiles in a government office. Even with the cheapest option available, I'd have to pay $1,700 for access to a phone that would cost $700 if I bought it directly from Apple. And it would be a long and painful relationship. Here's why.

First, you'll need at least $499 to join the program. That's the non-refundable down payment. You might qualify for a trade-in deal but the most you can get for that is $400. If you've got an iPhone 7 or later you'd do better selling it yourself. If your phone is older than that, you probably won't qualify for the full trade-in, but maybe I'm being cynical. Also, you may not qualify to join the program at all. It's not clear what the qualifications are, but you can apply on their website: https://www.bealiv.com/appleforlife.

Let's be optimistic and say that you've got the ideal trade-in, or, you sell your phone for enough to cover the $500 down. Great. Next, you're going to need to commit to 24 months of paying $125 a month a.k.a. $3,000. That's not all for the phone, though; most of it goes towards your calling plan. So let's get the plan price out of the way and figure out what you're paying for the phone itself.

There are two plans available, AFL75 and AFL120. They're identical to the liberty 75 and liberty 120 Aliv plans. We'll assume you're going with the cheaper option because there are already too many numbers in this review (sorry, I tried). The liberty 75 setup that AFL75 mimics costs $75 a month and comes with 12 gb of data, 900 minutes and 900 texts. 

So back to that $125 a month. You're paying $75 of that for your phone service which leaves $50 a month going towards the phone. For 24 months. That's $1,200 plus your $499 down payment—$1,699! How much would the same iPhone cost if you went straight to Apple? Well, it would cost $700, just $200 more than the down payment you'd need for Aliv. All told, you're paying $999 more for the same phone. Why would you do this?

Well, with Apple for life, you can upgrade your phone once you've made 12 consecutive payments. That's cool, but then what? Do you start another two-year contract at $125 a month? It's not clear, at least to me. If you don't upgrade (and you don't have to) the phone will be yours after 24 months of payments.

There are a few other things you should know.

  • Once you sign up, you're stuck with the plan for 24 months. If you want out before then you'll need to pay off the balance.
  • Aliv's warranty lasts 90 days. After that, repairs or replacements are up to you, and, if you want to upgrade your phone, it's going to need to be in good working order.
  • You've got to sign up for the auto-payment plan and “Customers should maintain enough credit on their Aliv account to enable auto-renew of the selected plan” so you'll need to keep on top of your payments.

After doing the math, I'm left wondering, who exactly is this for? Who is going to pay an extra thousand dollars and lock themselves into a two-year contract so that they can upgrade in 12 months?

Here's a comparison of Aliv's iPhone prices compared with Apple's. I've subtracted the cost of the calling plan so this is just the cost of the phone.

Keep in mind that the calling plan adds $1,800 and if you bought the phone outright, you could go with a cheaper plan too. 

For comparison, I looked at similar plans in the US. With Sprint's plan for the iPhone 8, you're looking at $125 down and and $95 a month. That's $30 a month for the phone and $65 for unlimited data, calls and texts. With Verizon it's $60 to sign up and $110 a month; $30 for the phone and $80 for unlimited data, calls and texts. Now, these prices are based on you having a good credit score and I don't expect Aliv to be able to match American prices but that's a pretty big difference. When my brother got an iPhone during his college days in the US, it cost him $400 to sign up due to his lack of credit history but he was not paying $50 a month for the phone.

I don't know about you but I'm not even mildly interested. Maybe it doesn't make sense for Aliv to price their phones or plans any lower, I'm sure they've done their research. But for me, this just doesn't make sense. I'm happy to pay off my phone's cost in what essentially becomes a never-ending rental arrangement, but not when the sign-up cost is damn-near the cost of a new phone and the monthly payments are high and inflexible.

I can't think of anyone that could make good use of this. The closest I can come is someone who's got a decent phone to trade in and already uses a monthly plan of at least $75. Even so, the $50 a month adds up and there are cheaper ways to borrow money. If you're excited about this plan I'd love to know why.

I was really hoping that the competition from Aliv would encourage the kind of programs that reward loyal customers with easy access to phone upgrades. Looks like it's still a ways off though.

Linkage:

Aliv Terms and Conditions https://www.bealiv.com/apple-for-life-terms-and-conditions
Aliv Apple for Life FAQs https://www.bealiv.com/apple-for-life-faqs
Aliv Apple for Life sign-up https://www.bealiv.com/appleforlife

Why you should be watching The Brain Scoop

Author's note: For some reason I posted this in a weird place on my blog and it wasn't on the main page. If I move it I'll destroy the old link (which is probably where you came from) so I just made a new one. It's got some photos and one extra link but it's pretty much the same. Click here if you want to go to that one.

Even though I can remember when internet celebrity Hank Green said that The Brain Scoop was starting I had never watched more than an episode or two. It wasn't that it wasn't good, it was great. But after binging 168 episodes during the last 36 hours or so I think I understand why I took so long to come around. Now that I've taken the plunge, I have some advice on how you too can jump into the show and be a part of one of the most amazing programs available.

What I was doing wrong

If you watch a random episode of The Brain Scoop it can seem disjointed. There's great info but it's hard to get a sense of continuity. That's not a fault of the show, it's just that Emily covers a lot of diverse topics and it was hard for me to feel connected without some background and a sense of the show's goals.

To fix that, I suggest watching a few episodes in a row. I would begin at the beginning but you can start anywhere, just make sure you watch a few in a row. Here's a link to the full playlist. It opens in a new tab so you can keep reading. Or just keep watching because my work here will be done.

The beauty of The Brain Scoop is that it's open to new things; there are field trips, interviews, dissections and one big relocation. At the start of 2017 they announced that they're changing again after reviewing viewer feedback and reconsidering their goals. That said, no matter how much they've changed there are some things that have always remained the same. The show has some of the best production I've seen, especially when you consider the budget constraints and the type of projects they take on. The sound is great, the lighting is great and the editing is great—IT'S ALL GREAT.

So that's all you need to know about why you should watch The Brain Scoop. Go watch it. Don't even bother reading the rest of this. Bye!

In-depth personal babble

What are you still doing here? I told you to go watch the show. This section is really for me anyway. After 168 amazing episodes I have a ton of feels and I have to do something with them so here we are. Proceed at your own risk.

Things I love about The Brain Scoop

Emily f***ing Graslie. Just wow. Graslie is a classic case of someone who is so good at something that she makes it look easy. It's easy to overlook her talents because she puts education first in every sense. She is super smart but asks questions she knows the answer to because the audience doesn't know. Then she asks questions we wouldn't think to ask.  Her interviews are relaxed and informative without the interruptions and mini-ego battles that can often erupt between clever people. She is charming and silly but can be serious without, like, bringing you down maaaan. This is a human that is making the world a better, more-informed place.

The production is Uhhh-maze-ing

I mentioned this above but I have to go into more detail. The first time I considered this was in the Ask Emily #2 episode—linkage. In response to a viewer question they cut to a scene with a stuffed animal (and I don't mean a teddy bear) that would come to be known as “Soon Raccoon”. It was a playful moment that answered the viewer's question in a way that embodied the spirit of the show—educational and fun. These things don't happen by accident. It takes time to plan and time to film and it takes guts to mix lighthearted stuff with serious topics. It's hard to do well. These moments are an essential part of the experience for me. They make it easy to watch and prove that smart people can be funny too. Despite being underfunded—more on that in a bit—The Brain Scoop makes up for a lack of budget with hard work. 

The content is incredible

I never thought I'd want to watch someone dissect a wolf but dammit if I wasn't transfixed. There's no telling what you're going to learn, only that it will be interesting. The Brain Scoop is at the forefront of a changing entertainment landscape in so many ways. It's online and free which means you can watch at your own pace—I recommend Mach Five but to each their own. Instead of a carefully curated and polished facade it opts for sincerity and openness. One of the best parts of good YouTube content is the relatability and an acknowledgement of mistakes. Emily is confident and humble enough to admit her errors and they only add to a rich experience. In the episode before she joined the team at The Field Museum in Chicago (link), we get an intimate look at Emily's challenges. It's a day in the life of a struggling scientist, a creator, and a young person doing their best to work hard at something they love. It's moving and informative and I'm so grateful she chose to share so much with us. 

Aaaaand back to the content. Dealing with scientific topics can be tough—what do you leave out, what's the right way to word a complex concept, how do you choose what parts of an hour-long interview to cut? The Brain Scoop addresses these with aplomb and isn't afraid to take another whack at it if they need to. Whether they're cutting apart a zebra head (don't worry, you'll get a grossometer warning), trekking through the rainforest of Peru or looking at transparent fish, you get a first-class viewing experience.

There are no ads

This is a mixed blessing but let's enjoy the good for a minute. If you've ever binged a playlist you know that it's not long before YouTube is shoving a crappy, irrelevant ad in-between every single video. It wasn't until I got past the 100th video of The Brain Scoop that I realized I hadn't seen a single one. Because of potential donor conflict and potential moral conflicts, The Brain Scoop is not monetized, which tells you a lot about the integrity of the show. This leads to some problems—apart from the loss in revenue it means YouTube has no reason to promote the show. This might explain why The Brain Scoop almost never shows up in my recommended list despite the fact that I watch a ton of related content—including a lot of stuff made by the team that helped Emily start the show. For a better explanation from Graslie herself read her frank blog post on the topic.

A final note

One of the first episodes of The Brain Scoop I watched was this one called Where My Ladies At?

It was an eye-opening look into the challenges of a popular female presenter and the notorious sexism in the YouTube comments section. I used to avoid the comments section because it's a terrible user interface that's often full of vapid babble but now I avoid it because when there's a woman presenting you'll find an endless stream of sexist drivel. For a creator trying to connect with viewers I can only imagine the nightmare it is to claw through the web of negativity.

As a heterosexual, semi-white male I can't put myself in Graslie's shoes but I can listen and empathize. She features lots of exceptional scientists and role models and lots of them are women. Her show and success is an example of the way hard work and a great attitude can make dreams come true. In the blog post I linked to above, Graslie says, “Network executives want to have a male host because their primary audience is male, so in order to be relatable to their male audience they want to have a male host and so they further reinforce the maleness of their audiences and the male prerequisite of the host”. While I'm certain that she's right about that I reject the idea that I can only relate to someone with the same genitals. I enjoy watching her because she's smart and passionate and funny as hell. Graslie is an exceptional educator and a driven producer and her body of work deserves a place on every educational playlist.

If you're still reading this then it's time to start watching. Subscribe, buy a t-shirt, leave a positive comment, donate (under 'Designation,' put 'The Brain Scoop'). Watch The Brain Scoop with your kids or your siblings or your parents or your students. Or watch it by yourself. It's a helluva ride and it's only getting better.