Saturday, 31 May 2014

Agents of SHIELD, series 1 review

Marvel's Supermodels of SHIELD came to the end of its first season yesterday, so now's the time for a quick look back at how things went.

Two disclaimers: below there will be spoilers about series 1. This is a bit obvious and I'll keep them as minor as possible, but as there are significant plot twists I would advise anyone wary of them to stop reading now and check this review when they're caught up. Secondly, my knowledge of the Marvel world from both the films and the comics is less than many people, so I should be able to provide a decent everyman “Will I like this series if I've not watched the films?” perspective, but less inside/detailed knowledge than a serious Marvel fan.

The utterly spoiler free and concise summary would be: bit of a slow start, but worth persevering with and the second half has some great twists.

Below there be spoilers.

The story follows Agent Coulson, a high ranking agent of SHIELD (think CIA against supervillains), and his team as they fly around the world on a plane fondly referred to as 'the bus', picking up alien artefacts and tracking down dangerous individuals with strange powers. As the series progresses (there are 22 episodes) it starts weaving together a tighter plot arc and shifts away from a monster of the week approach.

The main antagonist is referred to as the Clairvoyant, who always seems, fittingly, to be one step ahead of Coulson and able to accurately predict what SHIELD will do. His identity remains a mystery for about ¾ of the series, and I won't reveal it here.

As well as Coulson there's Agent May, an arse-kicker, Agent Ward, also an arse-kicker, FitzSimmons (technically two people, Fitz being an engineer and Simmons being a rather lovely scientist), and new girl Skye, a hacker who becomes poacher turned gamekeeper.

Grant Ward turns out to have several shades of grey, unlike most of the main cast who tend to be almost entirely good (as you might expect from the 'good guys'). Trip is an agent who joins Coulson later on, but is never really fleshed out. That's the only real weak spot that stands out from the second half.

The first half of the series (there was a mid-season interval) is clearly the weaker of the two. It took a little while to develop the characters and get the group dynamic going, and the mentions of Coulson's holiday in Tahiti (he was meant to be dead, but he got better) were too frequent and disinteresting. It was never bad, but it felt like a slow start.

From around the midpoint onwards the series improved dramatically. Not only were there several clever plot twists, the writers were willing to have significant characters knocked off or reveal themselves as evil. Mike Peterson's character arc was particularly interesting, going from confused but decent to good, then being dragged into unwilling evil, and it was credibly done. I'm sure we'll see more of him.

As the Clairvoyant's plan unfolds, and we learn what Coulson's holiday in Tahiti actually was, the pace of the main storyline improves and (to use a videogame analogy) the sidequests of the early episodes give way to the main quest of the latter half.

It's not perfect by any stretch, and the start was lacklustre, but I very much enjoyed the second half the season and I'm glad it got renewed.

The season ended with Coulson as Director of SHIELD, tasked with building it back up after the significant setbacks it suffered during the course of the season. Whether Fitz will return was not made clear (bit surprised by that).

Marvel's films have been going from strength to strength, and having a lengthy TV series act as a backdrop to that was always going to be tricky. It's off to a decent start.


Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Polygraph – a work of science fiction

Good news – Marvel's Agents of SHIELD has been renewed for a second season. In a later episode (no spoilers) the programme includes 'the most advanced polygraph in the world'.

Polygraphs are used in real life, and labelled (incorrectly) as 'lie-detectors'. It's easy to see why they're so popular in fiction (in Homeland, it's been used a few times), but a magic box that tells truth from deceit is just that: magic. It doesn't have a basis in science.

So, how is it meant to work, and why doesn't it?

The polygraph measure autonomic physiological responses. They actually vary quite a bit with some models being more advanced than others (if you're doing one, for fun, which has a belt around the chest try leaning back in your chair. It may alter the signals and make the tester think you're a chronic drug user). The basic operation, however, is identical.

Aspects measured include things such as how much you sweat, heart rate, and that sort of thing.

Initially, you'll be asked a couple of Yes/No questions. I believe (I did my research on this about a decade ago, so small errors are possible) that they'll be mostly truthful for the set-up phase, to establish a baseline of what your readings are when you're honest.

After this, they'll ask you a series of Yes/No questions about the matter at hand (have you been having an affair, do you know who stole the nukes, why did you watch Eurovision last night, and so on).

There's just one small flaw in an otherwise ingenious device: it doesn't work.

A report by an American intelligence agency (which, I hasten to add, was freely available when I was at university) found that the polygraph was barely better than tossing a coin, and that its only real value was to frighten idiot criminals who believe in magic into confessing.

We all know some people are better liars than others. Some people sweat more. Some are very calm. The polygraph can't tell between sweating due to nervousness because you're a serial killer and sweating due to nervousness because you've just had a shitload of wires attached to you and have been asked by a stern man in a suit whether you've killed several people.

There are also various ways to deliberately fool it. For example, entering a Zen Buddhist trance. That's quite tricky, but easier methods include a copper coin under the tongue, or a drawing pin in your shoe (just prick your toe when giving an honest answer. It'll cause your readings to spike, and then, if they do when you're lying, they won't look beyond normal).

This is actually a serious issue. Leaving aside the artistic licence of fiction writers to exaggerate the polygraph to make it something that actually works, it's used in the US and, sadly, has started to be used in the UK.

Paedophiles let out of prison undergo polygraph tests to 'prove' they have not reoffended. Brilliantly, paedophiles are up there with psychopaths as the best liars in the world. Terrifyingly, this gives a stamp of 'scientific' approval that they've not abused any children lately, even though the polygraph is worthless as a lie-detector.

The polygraph is a triumph of marketing over science. If policymakers paid more attention to science and a little less to fiction we wouldn't use the damned things at all.


Monday, 5 May 2014

Historical revisionism

I'm really not a fan of historical revisionism. Rewriting history to take account of new facts and plausible theories is one thing, but seeking to impose modern morality, social norms or geographical boundaries is quite another.

The Wikipedia page for Alexander the Great claims he was a king of the Greek Kingdom of Macedon. That's a steaming pile of horse manure. His mother was Olympias, an Epirot (from Epirus) and his father was Philip (a Macedonian). Macedon had a Hellenistic religious perspective but it was not Greek.

Now, ancient Macedon doesn't exist anymore. Lots of countries can lay claim to bits of it (Macedonia is technically called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia because the northernmost political division of Greece is called Macedonia). Albania also has a claim. But you can't superimpose new political divisions to ancient maps.

Consider Constantine the Great and his mum, Helen (who found the True Cross). She was from 'Yorkshire' (or the bit of England now called Yorkshire), and he was made emperor there, so could be considered an 'honorary Yorkshireman'. But here's the thing: neither are from Yorkshire. Because you can't impose modern maps onto ancient lands.

Ancient Macedon is partly in modern Greece. But back in the 4th century BC Macedon was a separate, distinct kingdom. And it's no good claiming it was just one more city state. Leaving aside the fact that it was of comparable size to the whole of Greece (naturally the size of Macedon varied quite a bit over time), the two lands were distinctly different. So different, in fact, that Eumenes of Cardia, the excellent and very capable secretary to Alexander, was unable to gather much political support after Alexander died because he [Eumenes] was a Greek, not Macedonian like Lsyimachus, Seleucus, Antigonus or Ptolemy.

Alexander was not Greek and his kingdom was not a Greek kingdom. Claiming he was is even less sensible than when Jacques Chirac, president of France, claimed England winning the rugby world cup was a victory for 'Europe'.

BCE and CE are perhaps even more irritating. For those blissfully unaware, BCE and CE are attempts to expunge Jesus from the Christian dating system. The years are identical to BC and AD (ie based around the approximate birth of Jesus), but instead the letters stand for Before Common Era and Common Era.

It's politically correct idiocy.

There is no 'common era'. The world didn't send representatives to sit around a campfire singing Kum Bay Ya and all agree to a diverse and lovely new calendar. It's dated from the birth (more or less) of Jesus, so not referring to him and trying to rebrand the Christian calendar as some sort of secular, neutral thing is palpable nonsense.

I should stress I'm an atheist, so I don't have a Christian dog in this fight, but I loathe revisionism and this is just PC nonsense. You can't use a Christian calendar and yet remove references to the central figure upon whom both the religion and the calendar is based.

Likewise, we cannot judge gladiatorial combat by modern standards of health and safety. The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.