Sunday, November 1, 2009

To Mr. Ray Comfort: A Lesson on the Proper Use of Metaphor in Argument

So, if you don’t know who Ray Comfort is, be glad. Comfort is a religious man who for the last couple of years has been providing arguments for Creationism/Intelligent Design. You might know him as the banana man.

Recently, Mr. Comfort decided that he would issue a version of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species with a foreword of his own. He intends to hand this out at universities. Mr. Comfort’s Origin has caused a bit of a hoo-ha, especially among the skeptical community which opposes people like Mr. Comfort.

This post isn’t actually about evolution or the evidence for it. There are many people who are much more qualified to explain why evolution works than me. The only thing I would like to say that Darwin and the Origin of Species is not the be-all end-all of evolution. A 150-year-old text is not the only thing you should be reading if you want to learn about this subject.

But, as I was saying, I am not going to talk about evolution. In this post, I will respond to a pair of grievous errors in Mr. Comfort’s forward to his edition of the Origin of Species. I feel qualified to respond because they relate to stories and writing.

Here is the text, so you can read it for yourself, if you wish.

After a brief biography of Darwin peppered with dour photographs of the man*, Mr. Comfort’s forward begins: “Darwin’s work has helped fuel intense debates about religion and science…” a mild and even-handed beginning. The end of the foreword, however, sounds like this: “…there’s nothing more important than where they will spend eternity. Thank you for reading this.”

From these quotes, you can tell what happens within this foreword. It goes from introducing Darwin to an extended argument for becoming a Christian of the same type as Mr. Comfort. It is in this section that Comfort makes his two errors.

The first is a mistake in storytelling. Comfort makes a common mistake of many people who are not particularly familiar with storytelling. I see it a lot among young people who aren’t very strong writers. They overlook a crucial detail that is there in their head, but somehow never made it onto the page. The result is nonsensical to the reader.

Both of these occur later in the foreword, when Mr. Comfort has started his conversion attempt.

Here is the quote (pg 44):

To say that there will be no consequences for breaking God’s Law is to say that God is unjust, that He is evil. This is why. On February 24, 2005, a nine-year-old girl was reported missing from her home in Homosassa, Florida. Three weeks later, police discovered that she had been kidnapped, brutally raped, and then buried alive. Little Jessica Lunsford was found tied up, in a kneeling position, clutching a stuffed toy.

How do you feel toward the man who murdered that helpless little girl in such an unspeakably cruel way? Are you angered? I hope so. I hope you are outraged. If you were completely indifferent to her fate, it would reveal something horrible about your character. Do you think that God is indifferent to such acts of evil? You can bet your precious soul He is not. He is outraged by them. The fury of Almighty God against evil is evidence of His goodness. If He wasn’t angered, He wouldn’t be good. We cannot separate God’s goodness from His anger. Again, if God is good by nature, He must be unspeakably angry at wickedness.

What is missing? Do you know?

Comfort begins by telling a story. He goes onto to draw the conclusion than God is outraged by this. But he doesn’t give the bit of the story that tells how we know that God is outraged by this. I’m not entirely a proponent of show-don’t-tell, but in this case, I feel that it would be a good thing for Comfort to look into when telling his stories and making his argument.

The way it is at the moment, it sounds like Comfort knows somehow that God is angry, but that that’s it. He was angry. Surely there is more to the story, Mr. Comfort? Or it seems God is about as good as any one of us who are equally and impotently outraged by this incident. God in Mr. Comfort’s world begins to look like this guy, and surely that’s not what Mr. Comfort was going for.

The second mistake involves metaphor and is another common mistake. Metaphor is great for making arguments because it creates a story that can be used to clearly compare arguments. However, it does contain one pitfall we should all be wary of. Many people, and Comfort is one of them, get so into their metaphor that they forget that it is just an invented metaphor—they start to get carried away.

Comfort’s metaphor compares death to jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet. In this metaphor, Christianity is a parachute (sorry, I spoiled it for you) and—to give another example—Islam is flapping your arms as you jump. You get the idea.

But Comfort begins to take this metaphor and draw conclusions from the metaphor as if it were the argument itself. Saying that you would regard a parachute as crucial in this situation (pg 47) demonstrates what you think of Christianity, but it doesn’t mean that this metaphor can be turned around the other way to prove that Christianity is like a parachute and Islam is like flapping your arms. Metaphors should only be used to convey an idea in a clear fashion, not to make arguments themselves. They only come out of the argument—the argument cannot come out of them. Ray Comfort has made this mistake in his foreword.

In conclusion? Don't forget to take this into account when you are writing using metaphors. Be sure to use metaphors only to illustrate and not to draw conclusions from. In addition-- read over your stories. Have you got all the necessary details? Especially all the cause-and-effects. Without them, your argument, like Ray Comfort's will have nothing to hold it together.

Finally, in parting, a little quote that’s slightly amusing also taken from this metaphor (pg 47):

You know that the law of gravity will kill you when you jump.

* Another side note. Darwin is a favourite photograph of people who wish to dismiss the theory that he proposed. There is a particular photograph of him as an old man, looking a bit sad, a bit pensive, aged, tired, cynical. This is what happens, we are meant to believe, when we become atheist and/or believe in evolution. Lawl.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Disney to Remake Yellow Submarine

Yes, you read correctly, Disney is going to remake the beloved Beatles-song-based animated film, Yellow Submarine.

I'd like to start off by saying, not all remakes are bad. Some take an old film or an old idea and bring something new to the table. Perhaps new technologies and situations have changed the way something would play out, or the older film just wasn't living up to the potential of the plotline. There is room for remakes and homages, and some of them are excellent films.

But there are certain films for which remakes seem not only unnecessary but actively negative and stupid. I would like to suggest that Yellow Submarine is one of these films.

Now, I have a soft spot for the film: Yellow Submarine was the film my parents put us in front while they had to focus on packing for family holidays. But it goes beyond childhood memories. Yellow Submarine is not just a psychedelic movie set to 16 Beatles songs, it's indicative also of a time of a place and an artistic vision that simply no longer exists. It all came together in 1968, and I doubt very much it can all come together now.

I think that all artists sit around saying, "I wish I could do something like what was done with Yellow Submarine/Casablanca/1984," but it's only major companies like Disney who can afford the rights to the exact songs and the voice actors to actually take the ridiculous step. Other artists have to use their imagination to pull out something 'inspired by'-- and end up with something new and relevant, rather than something that's simply the most thoughtless remake.

What is Disney thinking, really? What can possibly be driving this desire to remake something so intrinsically tied to a date over fourty years ago-- using much of the original film? Is it money? Are they really going to make significant money on this project? I have no idea.

To me, this marks the end of Disney. Nothing about this suggests that there are intelligent people behind the decision making process at Disney. I hope this movie contains jumping sharks, because that would be its only redeeming factor.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Review: Warehouse 13 (Pilot)

It's pilot season again!

For those of you not paying attention to this kind of thing, you may not have heard that the Sci Fi channel, in a desperate bid to attract more viewers, recently rebranded itself as "Syfy" with a cheerful purple, vaguely feminine colour scheme. The idea, I think, is to attract all those women scared off by the "Sci Fi" label.

You can watch their rather hilariously sparkly! promotional commercial here.

Warehouse 13 is the first of the new shows to come out of the Syfy name. The concept is a reasonably simple one: somewhere in South Dakota there is an enormous warehouse containing a large collection of magical or historically advanced artifacts and technologies from all over the world. Two Secret Service agents are recruited to "snag, bag and tag" stray artifacts causing hijinks across the United States.

I enjoyed this show. I want to make that clear from the beginning, because I have a feeling a lot of what I'm going to say is going to be negative. It was fun, watchable, light, and never made me want to turn it off. I liked the characters.

That said, it was more along the lines of a warm cup of tea that a piping hot one.

I have said that the show was light. I think that most of this episodes luke-warmness stems from its failure to capture the right balance of darkness and light. The writers were Rockne O'Bannon (The Twilight Zone), D. Brent Mote (not very much) and Jane Espenson (Buffy, Battlestar Galactica). Jane Espenson brought you some of your favourite funny Buffy episodes and her kind of undermining wit was very obvious throughout the episode. I think, though, that these three writers together lacked the gravity to bring the show down to Earth.

There were plenty of moments where I think seriousness was intended to take over, but I think overall they were too brief for any kind of tension to build up. Scenes that I think were meant to be eerie were cliche and campy and never allowed to progress for very long before someone broke the silence. Moments where a character was genuinely shaken were steamrollered over by humour. Wit and humour can be used to great effect but without establishing a base, too much humour is like too much helium in a hot air balloon. Once the show gets too high off the ground, anything serious (and there were some moments that could have been very serious) is lost.

The characters, although likeable, were part of this helium pulling the show up. The two agents were played by Joanne Kelly (right brain character) and Eddie McClintock (left brain character). Both characters, despite having traditionally dark reasons for being the way they are, lacked a genuine darkness or seriousness in the way they acted or the way they spoke. Nor did they convince me as Secret Service agents.

Saul Rebinek, playing the kooky milk-drinking keeper of Warehouse 13, curiously managed to pack more of a punch than either Kelly or McClintock. He did manage to scratch the surface of gravitas. However, it was not enough to undo the bumbling, strange-gadget using way his character was written. With Rebinek, however, I felt that there were depths we hadn't plumbed and so of the three main characters I found him most convincing.

I don't think the writing and acting was helped by the direction (Jace Alexander, who directed the Burn Notice pilot). From a waitress going around a genteel occaision calling "champagne!" quite loudly (although, who knows, maybe that's how some genteel parties work?) to editing misdirection that was a felt too deliberate once you realised it was misdirection, I think that it was slightly off. The light, fun writing needed someone who would work to find the gravity in the situation, and I'm not sure Alexander really managed to do this.

Aside from the lightnes, there were a few other issues, mostly plot related. There were things that didn't quite hang together, especially with regards to the way characters interacted with each other and their environment. I think more attention needs to be paid to reality and logic as well as to the fantastical side of the show.

But for a show with a simple premise, Warehouse 13 coughed up a few memorable things-- mostly moments of humour. It's got definate potential, and I feel that there is certainly space for darkness, should a writer or a director go looking for it.

What would I like to see? I think I've answered this question already! A little bit more gravitas from writers, director and actors (or, just two out of three), and a little less corn, would be lovely.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Review: Star Trek (2009)

There are a few spoilers in this post, that do mention a few plot details, but nothing huge.

I heard so many good things about this film. Rotten Tomatoes gives this film a whopping 96% Fresh rating. How could it not be good?

I did not like it. I'm sorry, and I realise this puts me in a tiny 4% minority, but although I started out being reasonably open, although not blown away, the more I watched of the film, the more I started to dislike it. I left the theatre in a frustrated hurry. I hated this film.

Why, in the face of such overwhelming support?

Let's start at the beginning. The opening of the film is a good fifteen minutes long. A starfleet crew is faced with an enormous, terrifyingly ridiculously designed Romulan ship that dwarfs the starship. After the ship is crippled, he submits to the Romulan's demands to come aboard, leaving the ship in the hands of one Kirk (!). Kirk, after ensuring his very pregnant wife (and newborn son) is safely away, employs the time honoured technique of Ramming Speed in order to destract the Romulans for long enough to save the lives of the remaining crew members. In his final moments he Christens his son: James Tiberius Kirk.


A representative of pretty much everything that annoyed me about this film occurred in these fifteen minutes. However, at the time, I was still--although not impressed--looking forward to the film.

This intensely action-filled opening did not engage me in the slightest. I felt no emotional connection with these characters. The action, the desperation, the tenderness of the Kirk family moment, the loss of the lives of the crew... nothing had any meaning. I assumed, at the time, that this was because the characters were just placeholders. But I'm afraid this emotional connection was, for me, almost entirely absent throughout the film.

Perhaps this was because the film had the feeling of a poorly written thriller, where 'exciting' sequences (however meaningless) must occur at regular intervals simply because we haven't had one for a while. After a while, you can predict them. I've said it before and I'll say it again: action sequences do not make a film exciting or tense. Twice, Kirk found himself clinging by his fingertips, Mufasa style, on the edge of a cliff.

So, this film was not exciting or tense, unless you like action for action's sake. Never once did I fear for the life of a character. Weirdly, I feel like they tried to avoid the trap of all prequels, that none of your favourite characters can die, by creating an alternate universe in which all bets were off. And yet, of course, still none of the characters could die. The result: I never once imagined any of them would die, except the Very Obvious Redshirts, who, I may add, were dressed in red. (And never mourned).

Which brings me to a third complaint: unoriginality. Again despite the alternate universe thing, the script was still endlessly bogged down with in-jokes. That is to say, jokes and references that were plucked straight from the fandom of the Star Trek universe. Most of the actors were tied inextricably to their previous incarnations, still repeating the still lines, still treading the same path. When they stepped off it, they stepped off without any real background-- for example Uhura's sudden heartfelt (so to speak) need to help Spock was so sudden and baseless, the film gained nothing from their interaction.

So we come to comedy, which was plentiful. This would ordinarily be great: Star Trek has historically been funny. However, I found this film too funny. Moments of seriousness were so short lived in between the humour and action that no depth was ever achieved.

On top of that, the comedy was poor: In his television show Studio 60, Aaron Sorkin wrote a line I feel applies to this film. One character, struggling with a comedic line about passing butter, asks why she isn't getting the laugh she got before. "You asked for the laugh," her writer tells her. She asks what she did before. "You asked for the butter," he says.

Well--half of the time, the characters were tied to the old jokes and then it's hard not to ask for the laugh, because there was really no other reason for the inclusion of the line. However, this also applied for every other 'new' joke in the script. Again and again, the actors asked for the laugh-- I'd say about a fifth of the people in the theatre laughed. Director's choice; director's mistake.

One actor didn't ask for a laugh, although he had to deliver a few unfortunate lines. Leonard Nimoy, reprising his role as an elderly Ambassador Spock, brought emotional depth and strength and sheer class to the role and to the film. Karl Urban (of Lord of the Rings fame) comes in second place by managing to capture Dr. McCoy beautifully: he, above all of the newcomers, had depth and believability.

The rest of the actors? There was nothing to them: they brought nothing to the role beyond what was written on the page. And there wasn't very much written on the page.

I'm a writer, so for me, films tend to sink or sail on their writing. And this one sunk: it was emotionally dead, sacrificing emotion for action. It lacked logic: as emotional moments shrank to nothing, the movie seemed to seek out what was exciting, rather than what was logical. The biggest, newest, most shiny ship in the fleet has no one more senior than James T. Kirk, who hasn't even graduated from school yet, to take up position of first officer? I'm sorry, you lost me.

Ironically, one half of the film revolved around Spock's 'ongoing mission' (ahem; apparently it's not 'continuing' anymore) to reconcile his Human and Vulcan halves: his emotion and logic. This was swamped by the action-packed mindlessness of James T. Kirk's plot, who's character lacked even the convincing intelligence of his former incarnation, let alone logic or emotion.

I've neglected to mention the driving force of this film, the director and producer, J.J. Abrams. When I heard all the good things about this film, I thought-- maybe he's done it, maybe he pulled it off somehow, after all, it was written by other people, not by Abrams (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman). But this film has Abrams' hamfisted character-numb cliched paws stamped all over it, and that's not a good thing.

You want emotion and logic as well as action and adventure in the Star Trek universe? Do yourself a favour: watch The Voyage Home.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Why Renew Chuck?

The lives of one of my favourite television shows, Chuck, hangs in the balance. NBC, true to its Major Television Network name, is umming and erring over whether it should renew this show for the next year. Chuck falls just below the typical cut off for renewal. Fans of the show, myself included, feel very strongly that Chuck deserves renewal. The star of the show, Zachary Levi, led 600 fans to Subway (the sandwich restaurant chain) in order to demonstrate the sheer weight of support behind this show.

But why? Why is Chuck a better show than its ratings suggest?

Chuck is that rare animal, an all-around, good, light-hearted dramedy. It takes a ludicrous premise (young, intelligent but going-nowhere geek gets implanted with top secret knowledge and is thrust, unwillingly, into the super-awesome world of international spies, hijinks ensue) and makes it work. It makes it work every week.

Not many shows do this, not as smoothly as Chuck has for every one of its thirty-six odd episodes.

Chuck sustains what is, for any tv show, an immense cast. Aside from the main character (Chuck) there are more than ten characters who could be considered secondary characters (Sarah, Casey, Ellie, Awesome, Morgan, Lester, Jeff, Anna, Big Mike, Emmett, Orion), plus others who don't appear in every episode. Every single one of these characters has a solid personality and a story of their own. None of the characters do you begrudge any screen time-- all are great characters, played by excellent actors. There is never a sense that there are too many characters. It works, seamlessly and without gimmicks, in every episode.

Chuck melds comedy and drama. It's often more comedy (Adam Baldwin) than drama, but never devolves into complete silliness. There are moments of tension, and moments of genuine emotion (Sarah Lancaster). None of the characters is so continually silly that you lose track of them as a real person, and none of the characters is so serious that the humour in the show is lost whenever they come onscreen. In a world (In a world...) where the measure of the intelligence and quality of a show is often how relentlessly dark and gritty it is, Chuck proves that this is not the case.

Yeah, because it's intelligent too. What else could it be, with so many characters to keep track of and so many threads to weave together? This is not an thin show because there's nothing in it, it's a show that keeps its physique no matter how many doughnuts it eats.

Because it eats plenty of doughnuts. There are cliches aplenty, and all kinds of opportunities for the show to become bogged down in struggling relationships or neverending suspense, both the crutches of many a tv show running out ideas to keep people hooked. But Chuck does not suffer from these pitfalls. Cliches are handled so innocently they're as fun or gripping as if it was the first time we saw them. Chuck stays a slim, fast-moving show.

When you think of Chuck, you may not think of a brilliant show (clearly NBC does not). It seems easy going and light-hearted, a fun Monday evening's fourty minutes. But, as if we are watching a gymnast effortlessly doing back-flips, Chuck is deceiving. It does what is very difficult and it makes it look dead easy every week for thirty-five episodes.

It's solid, which is the best compliment I can give to any show. There is nothing I would change, nothing I wish was done differently, nothing I think is dumb, no character I want to die off (out of like fifteen!) or get shipped to Greenland, no plotline I wish would be over. It may look like a ball of fluff, but it's the best thing on television at the moment.

And that is why NBC should renew Chuck. You can do it, NBC! The sales you will make on DVDs, on associated material that could ensue while other shows disappear without a whisper once they are over, will make up for Chuck being a marginally lower-grossing show this year.

Save Chuck!

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Pirate Bay Conviction

In February, I wrote an entry about The Pirate Bay, the torrent tracker on trial for providing easy access to illegally copied files. Today, they were convicted. Will this win media companies such as the IFPI reduce the number of people using torrents to access games, movies, television and music?

My guess is no. It might deter a few potential users, but it will attract more.

As I said in detail in my February post, The Pirate Bay is one of the least of those responsible for the chain of file sharing. There are many .torrent sites who are far more responsible for making file sharing possible: members of "The Scene" who provide the actual rips, members of Topsites, and private .torrent sites who provide much more hands-on service than The Pirate Bay does. None of these people will be affected by this conviction in any way.

Nor will it affect the consumer. As many people have pointed out, searching for torrents on Google is just as effective. Even if The Pirate Bay goes offline (which it may not, even with its owners in jail) there are many other torrent sites, although few as classily designed as The Pirate Bay, around.

The Pirate Bay was an easy target. It is large, well-known, has a provocative name and logo and arrogant young people running it. One of the people, convicted Peter Sunde, said this:
It's serious to actually be found guilty and get jail time. It's really serious. And that's a bit weird.
I think Sunde is feeling pretty weird about being convicted. I'm not surprised: what he and his three friends do probably doesn't feel like crime at all. They effectively run a specialized search engine. There are no dark corners in their world: no vast amounts of money being accumulated, no violence, very little sneaking around (if any!). No other criminal activity runs like this. Sunde goes on:
The court said we were organised. I can't get Gottfrid out of bed in the morning. If you're going to convict us, convict us of disorganised crime.
It was probably a bit of a shock to realise that they are doing what the world might call "organized crime". This trial gives new meaning to the phrase. And yes it is kind of bizarre (although not entirely incorrect).

So what do the spokespeople for the prosecution say? They must have known that The Pirate Bay is just a flag for any number of operations that they could never ever hope to quash completely. The Chairman of the IFPI, John Kennedy, provides some answers:
There has been a perception that piracy is OK and that the music industry should just have to accept it. This verdict will change that.
I'm sorry, Mr. Kennedy, but I don't think it will. I think you're sort of missing the point. People don't download illegally because they think it's legal, they do so because it's so overwhelmingly convenient compared to other methods of getting media. Illegal media is unparallelled in its variety of content, size, quality and format, in its ease-of-use, and, of course, in its cheapness.

This is not, I think, the case of illegal vs. legal that the IFPI thinks it is. I think it's a case of supply and demand; product and consumer.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Review: Dollhouse (Pilot)

SPOILERS, but nothing you can't get from a summary of the premise of the show.

Revered television writer Joss Whedon's long-awaited new show Dollhouse, starring Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Eliza Dushku aired last week and I finally got around to watching it. (Sorry, that was quite the sentence).

It wasn't great. Pilots have never really been Whedon's strong point-- even the Firefly pilot was slow to get started. However, I felt this lacked the extra spice that made shows like Buffy and Firefly, to steal a phrase, shiny.

Whedon can weave great stories and create great characters. And I did like the characters... but I felt all of them seemed to be not quite themselves. Perhaps that is due to it being early in the show-- many shows lack centered characters at the beginning. But Whedon has historically been pretty good at getting characters right first time, and I didn't get that from this episode.

Dushku plays Echo, one of a set of men and women who can be programmed into being the perfect whatever-- the perfect assassin, the perfect cello player etc. Whedon wrote the show for her to play the lead, but I think that at some point along the way in the development the character slipped from her into someone else and left Dushku's conception of the role behind. I think that the finalized role would have been better off in the hands of a newcomer who came to the role as an outsider, rather than Dushku. Not only did she not manage to quite capture the complete transformation of the 'programmed' characters, she also seemed to lack the qualities that made her a convincing and intriguing blank slate when she is between roles.

Echo's disjointed life makes it difficult to pull her together, perhaps, but the other major characters, among them her handler and the scientist behind the dollhouse project, also seemed to not really have a good sense of who they were. Someone described this as the characters not seeming to have lives that extended beyond where the camera was pointed and I think that's an apt description. The characters lacked the details and consistency that gave both the audience and, most importantly, the actors, a sense of who the character is.

This is especially problematic given the unstable main character-- but I don't think Echo had to be quite so disjointed. I think she needed some minute anchor that is enough to hold her together. This could be some uneraseable feature or something as simple as having the other characters begin to form a predictable reaction to her: some exchange of dialogue. The desire of her handler to create some kind of relationship with her, for example, could help to define even a totally unresponsive Echo while at the same giving her handler a key personality feature.

Although I did not notice this while I was watching the episode, I realised that there was no humour. Humour has always been a key part in the formulation of Whedon's characters and perhaps because this show demands a more serious outlook (especially considering the main character cannot crack jokes) the characters ended up a little blurry and bland.

I think what the show lacked was reality. By "reality" I don't mean gritty darkness, I mean the little details that make characters and worlds work. I've already talked about the characters, but this was also true of the sets, which were decidedly undetailed. In a world as complex as the one of Dollhouse, the sets need to have more practical and imaginative thought behind them than just 'girl's bedroom', 'broken down cabin', 'party', 'futuristic living space'. They need to contribute actively to the story, rather than being a passive (and occaisionally impractical) backdrop.

And finally we come to the plot. The entry was a little ragged, with a lot of disparate threads and backstories coming together all at once-- I do not think quite so many needed to be included; the opening could have been far more streamlined. However, it did hang together and I do think the concept is worth pursuing, and not only because Whedon is at the helm.

It does need work though. The writers need to pin down what their characters are like and give them detailed dialogue. The set designers need to think realistically and creatively to give the world more solid depth and give the actors a further sense of who they are and where they are.

I'm hopeful. Buffy had a start that was less than stunning but proved its strengths over time and I'm hopful that Whedon can give this rather dull show a shine of its own.

Take a look. Don't expect Firefly quality, think instead Dark Angel-- but Dark Angel was watchable, and it wasn't even Whedon.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Pirate Way

Disclaimer: I am no expert on this topic. I have done my best to outline it to the best of my understanding.

You may have read on the news that The Pirate Bay is facing legal action from a variety of media firms. This BBC Article describes the defense of the two fellows who run it. Basically, they claim innocence because they don't actually host any files only the files that link to files. This is the defense their lawyer will use when they go to court.

This is all well and good in the sensible world, but on the internet reality, everyone knows they are one of a small set of people who provide one of the means to facilitate illegal downloading. They do break the law, and they know it.

However, these fellows are only one link in a chain of illegal television dissemination. Sensible world people point to the legal options for music and television downloading as evidence that the media companies aren't simply out of date. However, the chain of which The Pirate Bay is a small lower part outstrips legal downloading companies in efficiency, breadth of content, variety of quality and sheer usability.

At the top of this chain is what is what I'm going to tentatively characterize as The Scene. The Scene is probably the most (self-proclaimed) shadowy internet organization around. One only needs to read the apparently totally benign Wikipedia Article to get a sense of how deliberately shadowy this non-organization is. The article says almost nothing: there is more in the talk/discussion pages-- somebody's rules, somebody's philosophy, and above all the controversial nature of what The Scene actually is (it is not all dedicated to illegality, but even if it isn't). Its unifying characteristics seems to be that it is stoically alternative, libertarian and firmly based on quid-pro-quo.

Nevertheless, whatever variations on different groups within The Scene may define it as, The Scene consists partially of the type of people, formed into Release (or "Warez') Groups, who make up the top of the illegal downloading chain. These are the clever people (always credited at the end of the file name, e.g. "The.Mentalist.S01E01.PREAiR.DVDSCR.XviD-MEDiEVAL" where MEDiEVAL is the group) who turn HD television, DVDs, games and other software into useable computer files. If there are any true Pirates, these are them. They are also part of the reason this system is so efficient-- speed is a mark of skill.

The next link on the chain is Topsites. Topsites are the uberfast FTP-based stock exchanges of the pirated media world. They allow the uploading and quick movement of files between members of Release Groups. They are secret and secure from prying eyes, open only to those in the know both technically and socially.

There is a line here between public and private. Until now, these releases have been elite, restricted to those involved personally in the piracy business which is highly reciprocal-- that is, downloads are balanced with uploads, everyone contributes. As we enter the public sector of piracy, we enter a consumer culture where the downloader gives little back. I have been told that there is a very strong sense of resentment among the more elite towards the masses who leech off the skills and risks taken by people they may not even be aware exist.

Now we have reached BitTorrent tracker sites. Certain individuals-- people who have access to topsites but are not members of The Scene (who tend to be, marginally ironically, highly protective of 'their' files)-- make .torrent files available for public or semi-public download. This is called seeding; all those with partially downloaded versions of a file are peers. The journey to the consumer is very quick: From the end of a television show to seeding on public torrents, a high demand show may arrive in a mere 20 minutes.

There are two types of torrent tracker sites. More elite and generally faster are private torrent sites, generally restricting their users to those chosen by invitation or only opening public sign-ups at certain times. Most popular and far more famous are public torrent sites, which allow anyone with a .torrent client such as BitTorrent or utorrent. Some of these public sites closely control what is shared via their site, and initially seed all content themselves-- for example EZTV, which contains only television torrents, releasing one for each show (whichever is first released by a Release Group). Others are far more lax, providing only the medium for exchange between average joe consumers. The Pirate Bay is one of these.

Other means of exchange exist. For example, some organizations and groups (such as colleges) have their own private Direct Connection groups, which allow direct and rapid exchange of files between consumers on the same network. Again, these small groups value speed.

At the bottom of the chain is you and me: the average consumer, leeching off the energy or skills of the more dedicated pirates above us in the chain. We may be totally unaware of the work that goes into the file we download using our .torrent client. The only remnants of those shadowy upper levels on which we rely are the Release Group's moniker at the end of the file name and the in-built upload/download ratio requirement built into the BitTorrent protocol: We must share in order to receive.

It is bizarre, but perhaps understandable, that it is the consumer and the public torrent tracker that receive the most media attention for the piratical activities. Owners of torrent sites like The Pirate Bay are probably the most public figures in the process: they own vast numbers of servers which process vast numbers of transactions every second, allowing vast numbers of people to connect to each other and retrieve free media. They are easy to find, high profile and making money. They make a splashy, easy to understand story

Yet they are not, generally, the people waving boarding ships. It is the elite who are getting their hands on DVDs before the release date, and encoding television shows moments after they finish airing. Those people are no doubt of great interest to police, but they are the ones who have the skill (and ability, by the nature of their activities) to hide. Neither do they make a good news story, as they have shadowy, complicated, text-based presences.

They are the people who make illegal downloading considerably more attractive than the legal kind. Despite their elite status they are essentially consumers themselves, and so they produce files in formats and qualities they want to use, attach no pesky strings, annoying commercials and DVD menu screens-- and because they are individuals they produce a highly diverse selection of media. Not only is it a completely free product, it is better product. Only when legal sites match the useability of illegal sites will legal downloading become a viable alternative for those who are even slightly technically apt.

I have no doubt that, in sensible world terms, the entire piracy chain is acting illegally as a whole, each contributing a little to a grand scale theft and distribution. I also have no doubt that this is not crime in sensible world terms. They are not doing it for the money or the power. They do it for love of the product or the work, for balance against corporatism, for freedom of information, to screw a rigid system, because it tests their skills, for the sense of importance, for the benefits of the reciprocal culture that defines file sharing and because it's fun.

And why are people like the guys who own The Pirate Bay so brazen? Because the chain of piracy is much bigger than just them. Their involvement seems flashy but is actually negligible. Perhaps the individuals will change their tune behind bars, but the piracy will go on without them nevertheless; perhaps even their own site will go on without them, run by a new set of bright young things with the right passwords. Unless continents shift, the house cannot win.

Likely someday they will. Either some genius will come up with a way to entirely disrupt the chain and/or media companies will figure out how to match it while charging customers-- or, the companies will go out of business and the whole media system will collapse. Until then, the arrest of middlemen will ultimately be a fruitless gesture and one that does not even match the sheer determination and inventiveness that goes on in the admittedly illegal activities of the internet's pirates.