Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Just Checking


Testing out Blogger's new picture upload method. Nothing much to see here.

One Star to Bind Them All

Or something. Fans of the LOTR movies might be interested in this.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Quotation from a book in progress

From Shows About Nothing by Thomas Hibbs:
For all its undisputed contributions to our understanding of the universe, science often undermines the dignity of the individual so prized by modern political theory. Think of the way Darwin's theory of evolution demotes human beings from their traditional rank in the universe, or of the way Freud's theories reduce conscious, rational life to the sub-conscious and irrational, or of the way contemporary biology explains all our apparently free decisions in terms of physical-chemical processes. If there is nothing especially distinctive or noble about human beings, then on what grounds do we celebrate their intrinsic dignity?

Further complicating matters is the stance of Enlightenment science toward the world. One of its fundamental goals was succinctly articulated by the seventeenth-century French philosopher and scientist René Descartes. The end of science, he writes, is to "render us masters andpossessorss of nature." This ambitious, one might say hubristic, project has given rise to numerous crises, not the least of which is the insoluble question of the place of humanity in nature. To master and control nature would seem to entail our standing above or outside it, even against it. Where do we fit in? Do we have any place in the natural world? And what, if any, are the limitations to our project of mastery? The result of modern science's view of nature as raw material, to be disposed of at our discretion, is the alienation of humanity from the world.

Here we confront the "dread chasm that has rent the soul of Western man ever since...Descartes ripped body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts its own house." [Love in the Ruins, by Walker Percy] Consider, for example, the Human Genome Project which has been described as the "grail of human genetics...the ultimate answer to the commandment 'Know Thyself.'" [Walter Gilbert, speech at a meeting of the Department of Energy] In this case, knowledge is equivalent to power. By knowing our origins, we can determine our future. The irony, lost on the scientists, is that in the process "we" will have vanished. If the self is but a genetic code and if the code can be altered at our discretion, then the self is something even less substantial than Descartes' ghostly ego. In his comical lack of self-reflection, the scientist fails to ask the questions: Who or what is knowing the code, and who or what is deciding how it should be emended? Wouldn't it be an embarrassingly hollow answer, demeaning to the dignity of the scientist, to say that a code is being known by a code?

-p. 39-40
(All ellipses are the author's.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Books

Been zooming through the books lately. This has been helped along by a couple things. One, is that the books I have been reading have been easier and shorter than, say, Grant's Memoirs and my daughter has been sleeping somewhat better. She still doesn't sleep more than a few hours a time, but she is taking those longer naps a bit more frequently than she was.

Since I last posted, I've read five books. Agatha Christie's Sad Cypress was first. It wasn't bad, but the key clue was very obscure. It was something that I noticed, but I didn't have the requisite knowledge to make the connection necessary to solve the crime. I very much doubt that most people would, though I suppose the murder could be picked another way. It is an interesting story, and the characters are well done and the murderer is fairly convincing. A good book.

Next up was Hercule Poirot's Christmas which I had read before under a different title. It wasn't too bad, and had a very unusual solution. Dame Christie did play fair and provide the clues needed for the reader to solve it on his own, but she didn't make it easy. A couple of her red herrings are ridiculously implausible and violate Poirot's own dictum that each murder has a single coincidence. The key to solving this mystery would be, I think, to considering each suspect in turn. When you get to the right one, things will fall into place.

Third was Dumb Witness which, unfortunately, featured Captain Hastings that irritating Watson wanna-be. This book got me thinking that the way to pick out Christie's culprits is to choose the most ridiculously unlikely person and that one is, invariably, the villain. This one relies, I think, overmuch on the "psychology" of the murderer and makes the solution rather difficult. A couple suspects are rejected by Poirot because they have not the temperament to kill. Frankly, I think that's cheating.

The fourth and final Christie book was The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories which wasn't too bad. Several featured a detective of Christie's that I hadn't met before. Parker Pyne is a sort of jack-of-all-trades private eye. Think of The Equalizer. Poirot and Miss Marple also get some time. As with any collection, some stories are good and others less so, but none are awful and none stand out. Pretty average, all in all. A lot of the solutions are standard mystery fare and a couple are pretty unreasonable for the reader to expect to get since they rely in large part on something observed, and if the author mentions it too obviously it becomes a red flag and the solution is too easy.

The last book was one by an author which I had not read before, Ngaio Marsh. I do not know how to properly pronounce that first name. The book was called Colour Scheme and I picked it because it was the earliest of her books that was on the shelf at my library. I chose it because I saw a DVD of one of her mysteries at the library. It looked to be set in the first half of the 20th century, when almost all my favourite mysteries are set (Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout). The book itself read much more like a straight novel than a mystery than I thought. The victim doesn't buy the farm until two-thirds of the way through the book, though it is obvious from almost the first page who is marked for death. The solution was difficult, but it wasn't impossible. I came close, but I didn't quite get it. It was definitely an intriguing story and I'll have to make it a point to read the rest.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

To sleep, perchance to dream

Which is something that my wife and I have been devoutly wishing for lately. (The literal sense, not Hamlet's figurative one!) My daughter has decided lately that she won't sleep more than 30 minutes or so at a time unless she is in contact with one of us. Not that she needs to be held, no. I can set her down on the couch with me while I read, and as long as she's next to my leg, she sleeps just fine. But put her down without any physical contact...and she's awake and fussing in 30 minutes or less. Guaranteed! When I'm home, it isn't a real big deal. I can sleep pretty easily on the couch while I hold her, but my wife doesn't have the same luxury. My daughter's noises that she makes in her sleep from time to time wake my wife up right away. So during the week my wife's sleep is often fitful and much interrupted.

Which is why there will probably be fewer posts this month than there were last month. (Seventeen by this time last month. Six this month, counting this one.) Because when I'm not working or sleeping, I am often trying to get my daughter to go to sleep, or stay asleep.

Fan-fic

On the radio on the way to work, there was a discussion about fan-fiction. I heard about 10 minutes of it, so I don't really have anything to say about the radio program itself, but it got me thinking about fan-fiction in general. I hope everyone is wearing shoes? Because some people may have their toes stepped on.

Let me get this out right now. I don't like fan-fiction, or fan-fic as it is often called. Moreover, I think that fan-fic is awful. Much (most?) is very poorly written, ridiculous in content and style and primarily an exercise in literary onanism (and I'm not merely referring to the pornographic fantasies that fan-fic writers often concoct).

First of all, let me dismiss and be done with right away the fan-fic that is primarily concerned with sexual gymnastics, bizarre sexual practices and perversion among fictional characters that are obviously foreign to anything the original authors/creators ever dreamed. This is literary pornography, plain and simple, and however well the dialogue is constructed, whether or not the style is refined, it is smut and not worth the time of a moral person. You may well have a First Amendment right to create it and post it on the web (we'll have the censorship debate later), but there is no earthly reason that anyone else has to pretend that it is worthwhile or of any value.

All fan-fic is derivative, and not in a good way. Even when the fan-fic writer does not violate authorial intent and make sexual perverts out of characters who had no such thing written into them by the original author, or even if the fan-fic writer creates her own characters the fan-fic writer is still stealing the work that the original author did. Let us take Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) as an example.

Tolkien's LOTR is, in many ways, a derivative work. He draws many things from many places. People see pieces of Wagner's ring cycle, chunks of Beowulf, names from the Elder Edda and other things from other places. But this derivation that Tolkien does is very different from that of fan-fic authors. Tolkien does not tell his readers up front from where he draws his inspiration and information. One approaches LOTR (those who have not seen the movies first) with, essentially, no knowledge about the world that Tolkien is attempting to create. Tolkien, therefore, does the work of creating the rules by which his world operates. Dwarves, hobbits, elves, men and everything else have to be given life and depth by Tolkien. Though it does derive elements from elsewhere, it is a creative and original work and does not depend on the reader being familiar with the works from which it derives ideas.

Fan-fic writers, on the other hand, use Tolkien's world and work and merely paint a veneer over building that he has constructed. They do not work as much or in the same way that Tolkien had to, and indeed, they steal his effort for their own purposes. When one who has read LOTR reads a fan-fic set in Tolkien's world, the fan-fic writer does not have to give any background on elves for their readers to understand what is meant by "elves". There does not need to be any explanation of elves being similar to men, not being small winged sprite-like creatures, the fan-fic writer does not have to explain the relationships between dwarves and elves, elves and men, etc. The fan-fic writer does not have to be creative, but merely corrupts the work of another to the writer's ends. The writer uses the work and creativity of another and subverts it to their own purpose without regard for the original author.

All fan-fics have the fault of excessive derivation. And most have other, lesser faults as well. Most fan-fic writers care little for accuracy, either in fact or grammar. Most also care little for authorial intent even if they are not choosing to eroticise the characters in question. And finally, of least importance from a literary view, but very important legally, many fan-fic writers ignore any conception of copy-right. That is, fan-fic writers use the creative work that others have done and capitalise on it without thought to any injury or damage their infringement might have upon the original author. Fan-fic is not, by any means, a legitimate literary art.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Chess Quote

The quote of the day over at ChessGames.com is interesting, I think.
Chess is so ancient that, by that distinction alone, it seems taken beyond the category of games altogether; and it has been said that it probably would have perished long ago, if it had not been destined to live for ever.
-Henry Bird

The drowsy stillness of the afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like G. K. Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin.

If you don't find that funny, then your sense of humour is deficient. I just recently finished reading Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum and it has put me in a mood to read more of Wodehouse's books. My goal is to eventually own the complete set of his works that is currently in the process of being published by Overlook Press.

McCrum's book had been on hold with my local library for some time, but it was well worth the wait of several months. Even for someone who knows a fair bit more than the average person about the life of Wodehouse, this is still an extremely informative book. It covers in detail Wodehouse's time in Germany during World War II (he was interned after being captured at his home in France) and is exhaustive in trying to analyse the circumstances that surrounded his infamous set of radio broadcasts. In the end, McCrum finds (much like George Orwell) that Wodehouse was a fool, a dupe and perhaps even a collaborator to some degree, but he was not a traitor. It was a pretty complex situation, and Wodehouse was a very unusual man. For those interested, I would strongly recommend that you read the relevant chapters of McCrum's book.

Wodehouse was an amazingly prolific writer. Not only did he write a novel or two a year for many years (he ended up with somewhere around 100 books to his credit), but he wrote short stories for the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's and others, he contributed to Punch for decades and (along with Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern) transformed Broadway in the 20's and 30's. Wodehouse created enduring iconic characters that people still recognize today, though sadly, fewer people than such a literary giant deserves. If you haven't heard of Psmith, Lord Emsworth, Jeeves and Wooster or Mr Mulliner, then hie thee to a bookstore or library right speedily!

He even has his own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary
Wodehousian, n. and a.
A. n. a. A typical character in one of the comic novels of P. G. Wodehouse. b. An admirer or an habitual reader of Wodehouse's novels. B. adj. Pertaining to or characteristic of Wodehouse or of his works.
To close, let me mention a few names of Wodehouse admirers: Gerry Adams, Douglas Adams, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, Dorothy Parker, Salman Rushdie, Ludwig Wittgenstein, John le Carré, Stephen Fry, Arthur Balfour, T.S. Eliot, Kaiser Wilhelm, W.H. Auden, Dorothy Parker, Hilaire Belloc, Ogden Nash, H.L. Mencken... And I'm certain that with a bit of effort one could find one's own equally long list of names that could be appended to my list. Charles Williams (of the Inklings) also seems to have been a fan. And, finally, for political junkies, people with such diverse opinions as Lew Rockwell and Christopher Hitchens can find common ground with Wodehouse.

National Review

Some good stuff in the National Review for June 20. Theodore Dalrymple on how the Michael Jackson case is an example of the confused state of society's sexual mores.
Those future historians (assuming that an interest in the past survives) will be struck, I suspect, by the confusion in our society concerning sexual boundaries. On one hand, almost no casual sexual display is forbidden, and the most casual of liasons is perfectly normal; on the other, university professors dare not be alone with a female student for fear of accusations of sexual misdemeanor, and in some offices the most mildly flirtatious of remarks is taken as little short of rape. Extreme licentiousness thus coexists with a Puritanism that out-Calvins Calvin. One minute we are told that anything goes, and the next that we must carefully censor ourselves for fear of permanently traumatizing anyone who might overhear supposedly salacious remarks. At last, Herbert Mancuse's concept of repressive tolerance makes sense: We can do what we like so long as we live in fear.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Books

I decided recently to do a bit of research and find the Poirot mysteries I had not yet read and read them. So, with the help of my list of books I've read and this bibliography of Agatha Christie's novels (handy site, by the way), I've started to request them from the library. In the last four or five days I have finished The Mystery of the Blue Train, Poirot Investigates, Death in the Clouds and Thirteen at Dinner (aka Lord Edgeware Dies).

They were all pretty good books. Death in the Clouds was probably my favourite. I figured out most of it as it went along, and though I made a correct guess as to who the murderer was, I failed utterly to determine how it had been done. It's always nice to have some part of the mystery revealed to me at the end at the same time as it is revealed to the characters in the story. Likewise, I don't like to feel too stupid or that the presentation of the facts was done in a sly, unfair way intended to deceive the reader. Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers were both very good about providing the reader with all the various facts that the detective uses to solve the mystery.

The Mystery of the Blue Train was pretty decent, though the characters were less interesting. The clue to the murderer's identity was terribly obvious, though the method again escaped me. (Though, in my defense, I have to plead the fact that I played a game of Monopoly and a game of Scrabble while I was reading and didn't have my full attention focused on the book.) The characters were mostly your standard mystery boilerplate. The master criminal, the female love interest, the competing male suitors, the American millionaire, etc. It read somewhat like Dame Agatha just phoned this one in.

Poirot Investigates was a collection of short mysteries. Each chapter was a mini-mystery, most were murders but one or two were of other sorts. Most weren't too difficult to figure out, though a few were posers. In large part, the ease of discovery stemmed from the brevity of the tales. With so few words, very few characters had time to be introduced and few complications could be added to the solution. Most were still fairly entertaining, however.

Thirteen at Dinner was probably the easiest mystery to figure out. As soon as I had read the description of the killing I knew who had committed the crime, and though I had a few doubts introduced with the red herrings that came up, I stuck to my guns and it turned out I was right. On the other hand, the characters in this book were very good. They seemed more real and three-dimensional than the characters in some of the other books. Dame Agatha didn't descend to maudlin sentimentality so much as she sometimes does (and did at the end of Death in the Clouds), and even though this volume was narrated by Captain Hastings (who is even more annoying than Doyle's Watson) it did not irritate as many of those books in which he appears are wont to do. (The American title, Thirteen at Dinner, makes far less sense as a title than the British version, Lord Edgeware Dies.)