Yes, work interferes with blogging. But I must confess, it's not just work. I started playing Star Wars Galaxies, Sony Online Entertainment's latest MMPORPG ("massively multi-player online role-playing game," to you unwashed infidels!). At least this time I can tell myself it's time productively spent. Honest.
Okay, I have made use of my gaming, and even gotten paid small change for articles and such occasionally (more than from my poetry, less than from my fishing writing). Mostly, I admit, what's resulted from it has not been renumerative, though it has on occasion been satisfying. I was googling (verb: to google, to search the web using the Google search engine) on my name as I do occasionally, not out of vanity, no, but to see what sort of grimey fingerprints I'm leaving on the virtual whitespace. Some of the expected listings popped up, and some unexpected, but the one that made me smile was the re-listing of a scenario (Slash & Burn) I created for Civilization II (generation 2 of what is now 3 generations, following Sid Meier's hall of fame original game), and its "award" status among Civ fans. I did put a lot of work into it. I did a lot of graphics and sounds, added some original photos to the splash (Dad's pictures from the Amazon), and added notes on the setting and "logic" of the scenario. It was a labor of love.
Sadly, my second big effort, a scenario based on the golden age of piracy, never got released. It was playable. I should have released it as it was, rather than letting it languish in a directory on my hard drive.
Asides aside, my googling also turned up some articles and guides on other MMPORPGs that I'd forgotten I'd written and had no idea were around. It's amazing how conservative the web can be.
But in the process of poking around I came across an article by someone else on the economics of virtual worlds, such as those in which I live some of the time. I was aware that "virtual" funds and items were traded for "real" funds on auction sites, but I wasn't aware that this had drawn the attention of any academics. The only articles and papers I had come across were social in nature, not economic. The economies of some of these worlds, figuring in man hours, rate larger than those of some real world economies. Edward Castronova, PhD, Associate Professor of Economics, Cal State Fullerton, is one such academic who has a website with his studies of ebay activity involving the trading of goods and funds from virtual worlds for "real" funds.
I'd scratched my head (bad habit when you have as little hair as I do) over how to make a bit of money online, but I hadn't seriously considered trading virtual items recently. The markets, and the virtual worlds, were too underdeveloped when I last daydreamed scenarios in which I could move online. The last time I gave it serious thought was back in the very early days, 15 years ago, or so. Then I played a game on Compuserve called Island of Kesmai.
One gamer and student, Julian Dibbell, has already done a proof of concept test, but his involves trading more than labor. I can see that with a pool of capital (virtual and "real") one could study markets, as he has, and buy low and sell high to wealth (comparative), but my interest was more in whether the virtual funds could be created in game, then "exchanged" at the market rate for "real" funds.
It's a fine point, and smart trading, whether in the real world or the virtual worlds, is always more lucrative than production.
Julian Dibbell, at his blog, Play Money, is chronicling his journey to a 2004 tax filing in which he plans to list his primary source of income as "the sale of imaginary goods." I hope the IRS has enough humor left (excision of the humor organ is a pre-requisite of promotion) to recognise that he does not mean fraud. He's tracking his status in virtual gold and real dollars weekly, and he also tracks the trading on ebay. His estimate of the annualized trading activity on ebay of the items in the game he's "working" is $3.3 million, at current rates.
Julian had an article in the January 2003 Wired on the topic of trading in Ultima Online (UO). In that article he claimed UO qualified as the "79th richest nation on earth." He calculated the hourly wage at $3.42 at that time.
I'm not sanguine that that rate is possible without resorting to macros and computer farms. (With those, of course, it can be surpassed.) I figure 2-3 computers can be managed simultaneously by one played, with sufficient attention to respond to others in game. This prevents accusations of away-from-keyboard macroing, a no-no in most games, and a bannable offense.
As I work on this entry, another computer is dedicated to mining asteroids in Eve Online. That's an activity that (done mostly AFK) doesn't pay well, but it is producing while I am actually working (or writing) on real-world projects. It's a mostly unattended activity, and boring, when done in a safe sector (no pirates to warp in and start shooting due to heavy police presence), requiring only occasional retargetting to a new asteroid, or a trip to a station to unload. How much does it pay? Not much, but it's something. I estimate about 150,000 isk per hour. Isk is currently trading at around 250,000 per dollar on ebay, so that's 60 cents per hour. It's background, not really profitable.
On the other hand about 20 hours of that covers my monthly fee for the game. Abother 80 hours of one-time work covers the cost of the game itself. At that point this silly hobby is paying for itself in cash flow. That sounds like a lot of time, but remember it's multi-tasked time. It runs mostly on its own.
I could mine a lot faster, but that takes attention and multiple ships. Ships that mine fast can't haul much; ships that haul a lot can't mine fast: it's a designed-in Catch-22. When I actively play the game, though, I prefer to trade commodities. There is a limited amount of supply and demand generated daily, so the opportunities (while somewhat random) are limited. I usually pull in 3-10 million more per week trading a few hours a day. I had a good run last week in that I found a big supply of booze cheap. It took me a week to sell it all off to the steady trickle of demand, but I netted around 8 million from the whole deal.
I don't know what kind of legs Eve will have though. It's a smaller game, produced by a group in Iceland. It has real possibilities, and for a game of its size it has an active trading presence on ebay. But I worry. I will probably sell down my current account of over 120 million and sell off my second account soon. I've sold one lot of 10 mil and three of 2 mil to date, just testing the waters, and have two more lots of 2 mil listed now. So far I'm making $4.6875 per million gross (before auction fees and such). At that rate my current holdings in Eve (excluding the value of the developed avatars themselves) are worth around $550. The two accounts should bring at least $50 each.
My investment is around $80 for the two boxes, and about 4 months of fees at $13 per month. Don't ask me to calculate my hourly "pay." That would involve admitting how many hours I played.
All of this started with my statement that I've started playing Star Wars Galaxies. I wanted to see how it worked a a game, of course, but I also was curious about what opportunities to "profit" might arise in a game on such a popular franchise. So far it does look that great, though it has possibilities. As with other huge games, it's broken into individual servers, so virtual gods are tied to the economy of one server. I chose a new server, which might be strategically sound from a game-play perspective (better chance to become "someone of note" fast, which can help business), but isn't from an immediate opportunity stantpoint. It's easier to make money in an active economy than a struggling one.
A quick search on funds beings traded on that server pulled up a slim list, and the bidding was thinner. So far it looks like credits for at a rate of about 10,000 credits per dollar. The one active aution at this moment, though, has 100,000 credits going for $20.50, so there's hope. Another, older server, appears to trade actively at $2 per 10,000 credits. I've found I can earn around 15,000 credits per hour with a starting character doing donkey-work missions. That's getting close to Julian's number for UO.
And I have accounts, inactive but live if I resume monthly fees, in several other games. I could pay one month's fee to inventory those characters and sell them off, or could take a hard look at the markets there. I know my Everquest (EQ) and Dark Ages of Camelot (DAoC) accounts fall into this category, and others may also. I should at least sell the accounts, as they have developed characters, if I decide not to do some business in those worlds.
Of course, it must be said, I'm not talking about income anywhere near the range for my real world work. It's more than one order of magnitude of difference. But this is fun! And mostly stress-free.
And I can dream.
The good news is that work is picking up. One contract for about a month worth of work is in the bag. A couple smaller ones are very close too. That's good news for my financial status. It's not such good news for this blog.
A lot of what I do involves writing, so that cuts into my writing impulse for here, so my post rate (as can already be seen) is going to fall off a bit. I am going to struggle for 3-4 posts per week when busy with work. When it's not so busy I hope to return to daily postings.
This weekend was a good one. A&E played both Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. Neither had any car chases, or even horseback or carriage chases. There were no gunshots or explosions, no swordfights. Everyone, protagonists and antagonists alike, had English accents. The closest thing to nudity was Darcy without his jacket after a dip in the lake in Prejudice, and one of the Mayor’s workers in his underwear (when he woke up late and was made to get to work dressed as he was). Neither can in any way be called an action flick. Yet both were more engrossing than most films.
Both follow their parent works fairly well, considering the limitations of time and the conversion in medium. The productions values were high. But it is the plot and the characters that make the works.
Had I a choice I would have reversed the order. Hardy is dark; Austen is light. It would have been nice to come off the weekend on a lighter note than Hardy’s bitter pessimism. Still, he always has a somber beauty that grips the throat.
I came to both authors late. I read Hardy’s poems first, some time ago, but it wasn’t until I went back for my degree that I read any of his novels. My Victorian lit class, taught by the prof who later agreed to be my advisor on my honors thesis, had us reading Dickens, among other things. I had read only A Christmas Carol to that point, and I so enjoyed Hard Times that I decided to read them all. Professor Schmidt was amused, when I told him my intention. A quarter later he was stunned when I stopped by and told him I was done. Well, all but for the last, unfinished one. That one I have avoided for some odd purist impulse.
It’s hard to pick a favorite Dickens. Little Dorrit is high on the list. That one is more tragic than most. Bleak House. But looking over the list I find it hard to rule out any. Pickwick Papers holds a dear spot because of Sam. That’s one thing that makes Dickens stand out from Austen and Hardy: he creates unique and uniquely memorable characters. They can live outside the works. Austen and Hardy create more organic works, where the characters and story are tightly coupled. I don’t think of characters, I think of books. With Dickens I think of characters and then try to remember which book they are in.
Reading the Dickens out of that quarter touched off an interest in the fiction of the period, so I went on to Hardy. Jude the Obscure is, to date, my favorite. I think Jude reaches me for the protagonist’s struggle with art. That’s a theme that I find compelling no matter who is the author.
But I can read, at most, one Hardy novel at a time. I tried reading two in a row; didn’t work. It’s just too hard to read in all that darkness. I still haven’t read them all. While I can’t say I don’t become engrossed, and that his mastery of prose isn’t amazing, it’s hard to actually say that I enjoy the Hardy novels. “It hurts so good,” is reasonably accurate. For all that the hurt is good, there’s still only so much hurt I want.
I don’t know how I managed to dodge Jane Austen all those years. I guess we didn’t have any on the shelf in the Amazon, and when I was back in the States there was always so much else to read. I can’t claim prejudice against female writers; I read everything I could lay my hands on when young. That included some ‘romances’ (as opposed to romances such as those Cervantes parodied). So Jane must simply not have been available. I’ve since learned she’s one of Mom’s favorites too, so it’s amazing I didn’t stumble across at least one of her books.
It was when reading criticism that I realized I had a significant gap in my reading. Austen kept coming up. So I finally hit the used book store (always a sure place to get classics cheap) and grabbed Pride and Prejudice. Wow. I read Emma while my hardback set was on order. She’s due for a rereading.
Austen is lighter in mood than the other two. For all Dickens comic antics, he can be pretty dark too. The aptly named Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Tale of Two Cities all fit this category. Austen’s protagonists see some dark moments, the evening sky may red up in scary fashion, but they win through to a promising dawn, something nonexistent in Hardy. All Hardy’s mornings are full of red skies.
Comedy and tragedy, Austen and Hardy: their masks face in opposite directions. Combined they are the writers that are to the 19th century what Shakespeare is to the 17th. Then there’s Dickens. Where Austen and Hardy have strong main characters, it’s in the secondary characters, the supporting roles, that Dickens shines. That is the trait he shares with Shakespeare more than any other: Dicken’s supporting characters can steal whole scenes from the stars. And they usually do it by making us laugh, often through the masterful use of dialect, so we recover, or are prepared for, the pain that is behind the curtain.
The phone rang before I got up again this morning. Okay, I admit I tend to keep weird hours, I enjoy occasional insomnia and terrible reading habits, but what's annoying isn't the mere issue that it rings, it's that I get up, groggy, answer it and one of two things happens: I get a dial tone, or it's someone trying to sell me something or beg charity. The times range from 7:30am to 11am for the last week. Anyone with any sense (aside from my Dad, who's out of the country for a year so sticks to email) knows better than to call be before noon.
All this prefaces the fact that I am on the local "do not call" list, and now also on the federal list. The latter is not yet active, but the former certainly is. I know, it doesn't rule out charity calls and certain others types of unsolicited calls, but still, explain this, why am I now getting more calls than I was a month ago?
Another interesting datapoint came with this morning's call. It seemed my insomnia had barely dozed off when the phone rang. I don't keep a phone in the bedroom, so I dragged myself out of bed, rammed two doors, tripped over a chair leg, and grabbed the phone before the fourth ring. I stated my name and waited for the dial tone. No such luck. A male voice with a South Asian accent replied, mispronouncing my name despite the fact I'd just told him how to pronounce it. He stated his organization's name. I'd never heard of it so it wasn't a call I was expecting or wanting. I hung up and went back to bed. Of course, my insomnia was now wide awake. Standing in the shower I thought about all this.
I can hear some thinking, "just hanging up like that is rude!" Sure, and calling me out of the blue, waking me from a hard earned sleep, then mispronouncing my name isn't? One good turn deserves another. Hanging up was the kindest act he was going to get from me. He really didn't want me to say more.
Once upon a time, before we lived in a world aswim with communications media, cold calling residences made sense. Now it doesn't. I don't want calls at home from anyone but my friends and family. Businesses trying to sell me something, charities trying to solicit my paltry funds, or lawyers trying to get me to join their latest class action law suit (for which I end up paying) can all use email or snail mail. If they call me at home unsolicited, I will never do business with them. Ever. That won't stop them from calling, but if a significant percentage of people would do the same, calling us at home would quickly become unprofitable. They would gain a small percentage of success from the few people that actually end up buying, or giving, but would lose more from those of us who said 'no mas.' Our lost business from today until we rest (phoneless) in the grave would overwhelm the bit they got.
Rants aside, the datapoint was that accent. I monitor happenings in the area of medical privacy. A recent trend is to move certain recordkeeping functions offshore to where labor is cheaper. This mostly means moving it to India since there is a large and cheap workforce there that speaks English. This has implications on HIPAA and medical privacy as those people are not bound by our medical privacy laws. Picture this: National Enquirer opens a branch in Delhi to wine and dine clerks in medical transcription businesses for juicy tidbits on the stars.
How all that will sort out is aside from the matter. What the accent made me wonder, however, was if the phone sales business would likewise move offshore. Communications prices are dropping. It might pay to set up a fiber trunk from India to the US just to handle traffic for phone solicitations. They wouldn't be bound by U.S. laws. Of course, the accents would be a dead give away. (A lot of customer service call handling is already outsourced in this way.)
That is a thought to ruin my sleep.
I have the solution ready, however. I'll just unplug my phone until I need it. Friends and family can email me for phone appointments and I'll plug it back in for those. Or I'll just stick to my cell phone, though how long those will be free of annoying calls remains to be seen. There has to be a massive lobby trying to change it even as I type.
This may be the perfect cure for trans-Atlantic jet lag: I arrive after a sleepless flight, miss connections with Sarah at Orly due to combined schedule slippages and poor planning, explore the nuances of France Telecom, decipher Air France bus schedules to Invalides terminal (aptly named to my mental state), and feel as one more of Ezra's petals to bow before le Metro, before finally arriving at Porte Maillot (not "Torte Maillot," as echoic connections would have it) and achieving conversation with something other than an answering machine at Alain and Sarah's apartment.
Sarah finds me unbeaten, though bowed, outside a mall boutique. I am the image, though not the essence, of nonchalance. From there we walk the several blocks to their apartment. I am developing a blister.
Paris has trees. Long rows of them overlap along the avenues, embracing. There are birds, too, in these trees, and they sing. "Welcome to Paris," Sarah says. We sit beneath a fine old oak in the small courtyard behind the apartment. I drink glass after glass of water. After a while it rains and we move inside to the high-ceilinged living room and continue our talk.
Sarah has returned to school: the Sorbonne. She's taking law. I share my dream to finally go back and finish my degree and then go on to post-grad, wishing I could skip some steps.
The hours flee.
I met Alain and Sarah years ago. He buttonholed me in my company's booth at a trade show in Dallas, pounded me with detailed technical questions for an hour, all while Sarah looked on with eyes that glowed and seemed to pierce beyond my answers. At the time I had no idea they were together. I had to fight to keep focused on answering Alain's questions. At dinner the next night, we all laughed when I admitted my struggle.
It became an annual event. Alain and I spoke on the phone occasionally, but mainly we saw each other at trade shows in the States once or twice a year, had dinner, commiserated over product bugs and customer support inadequacies. Then we got down to serious conversation.
Alain's passion is film; mine is writing. But he writes too, and I like film. And there's always politics, religion, history, music, food, and anything else that occurs to us. We formed our own little Arguers Anonymous on my first visit to France.
Alain arrives. Work and traffic had kept him late. Sarah and I hadn't noticed.
We pack the car and head Northwest, stopping for romaine, veau and porc, and then on along the crest of ridges on which tiny towns lie in the afternoon sun. The overcast has broken. Clouds skid across a deep blue. I gaze out across fields of sun-dappled wheat stubble, plains of bowing sunflowers, and hedgerows of black-green hardwoods.
I gain sudden insights into impressionism. There is a depth to the view and a brightness to the air in the countryside here that I have seen nowhere else. The foggy mornings somehow enhance this impression. I've been struggling to understand the phenomenon since we left the city. While there is the impression of seeing great distances, I see much farther in the grasslands of the great plains. The rolling hills play a part. Perhaps it's the constraints the copses and hedgerows provide to the view, far enough off to give space, but there to provide a measure of distance, after the long, open breadth of the fields.
The villages stand on the hilltops as if they have lost a battle against the fields and woods that crowd their edges and have fled to the high ground for a desperate last stand. Built of stone, steep-roofed with brick tiles, their small wood-framed windows squint down at the valleys and scan the skies. The walls alongside the road show their ages: some are pockmarked from a world war in adolescence; some cringe shyly, pale in the sun of their infancy; others, craggy with their dignity, still heave their bouldered shoulders up despite their sunken chests and withered gates. Character permeates.
We pause at the town boulangerie for fresh croissants for the morning. The baker, or her daughter, a dough-plump lady, flirts with local boys in the lane beside the shop. One waves and tosses us a dark-eyed smile as we drive away.
A bit farther on we see an ancient stone church set against a hill far off beyond a harvested field. "This is Cresnes," Alain explains, "Our town." To the right of the church an old farmhouse, complete with stone-wall-enclosed yard, sits contemplating the afternoon. Just over the hill, among a tight cluster of houses and walls, we pause, Sarah hops out to open the gate. The long driveway skirts the hedge, slipping beside the house through to a spray of gravel. The engine ticks, cooling, as I step out, and stop. Two lush, dark hazelnut trees, set wide apart, bow their heads together, whispering shyly in this stranger's presence. Between them I see a rough sketch of meadow extending out to a fence, and beyond, the gold of wheat stubble slashed diagonally down the hill to a shadowed grove. At the fence two holly bushes give the view depth. The horizon is a quiltwork of light fields and dark trees, a more ordered reflection of the cloud-studded sky. Finally they entice me away from the view. We go in.
The talk extends and intensifies through the dinner of salad with duck gizzards, and later, fried pork loin. The cider's two percent cannot be blamed for the odd euphoria I feel, though I do wonder about the bubbles. I'm in a haze, a comfortable one; there is a tautness at my temples, an almost pleasant prickling. My eyes burn from the accumulated strain, but my mind will not admit to exhaustion. We resort to eau-de-vie to seduce it, but only succeed in fueling more wide-ranging talk. It's midnight before I know I can sleep.
This morning I am well-rested and hungry on schedule. Alain and Sarah have driven to de Gaulle to fetch her father and stepmother and I have for companions the ticking of a clock, the faint sounds of crowing roosters, and dog barks drifting to me on a cool morning breeze. Occasionally a car races past on the narrow lane before the house.
Despite the blister on my right heel, I explore the long yard, discovering an old apple tree, a spray of grapevines above the front door, tart blackberries in the hedge, and everywhere the scent of flowers. The view is best from this chair looking out the back windows, and here I sit. Far out, beyond the trees at the fence, swallows quarter the sky. One white cabbage butterfly is dancing a tarantella in the grass.
Last night I caught a rerun of Columbo and a new episode of Monk. This created a perfect situation for contrasting and comparing the two shows. The Columbo episode is one that I think I have to rank among the best, and the Monk episode was darned good too, so no unfair comparisons there. One difference, that probably does matter, is the length of the shows. Monk is one hour; I think Columbo is two, or at least 90 minutes. This does give Columbo some room to expand that Monk doesn’t have. As a result the Columbo plots can be a bit more intricate, and the crimes being investigated can be set up much more.
The Columbo episode was the one where a supposed ESP guy murdered his partner in conning the CIA and Pentagon. The set up, where the con and the murder played out, took the first half hour of the show. Columbo, himself, never even put in an appearance during that time. I wasn’t even sure that I was watching Columbo.
The murdered partner was a magician who had built a reputation on debunking claims of ESP. In the episode, Columbo, with the help of a 13 year old magician, debunks the ESP act that fooled the CIA and Pentagon reps. As usual, Columbo uses the suspect’s own hubris to convict him, along the way using the criminal as his consultant in investigating the murder. Thus it was the basic template of a Columbo episode, but it stood out partly due to the level of the irony.
An example of the irony comes in the first half when Columbo asks the murder suspect to demonstrate his powers of ESP. Using the standard ESP test cards, he has Columbo sketch a symbol from one of the cards in his notebook. The suspect then names in the proper order, first the one Columbo changed his mind about, a circle, then the one he actually chose, a triangle. Since they were standing face to face, any reasonably observant and intelligent person can guess how this works. Columbo was, of course, very impressed. His comment was along the lines of “If I could do that I would be some detective.” The suspect agreed.
Of course, any regular watcher of the program knows that Columbo is “some detective.” He just doesn’t look like one, appear act like one, or read minds… quite. He reads people.
But the dropping of this sort of ironic line is usual. It’s often hard to guess, and we never really know, if Columbo, the character, means to be ironic, or if the screenwriter is simply doing a good job. In this episode my nod goes to the former because later he replays the scene in reverse. Columbo performs the same trick for the suspect. It’s his way of saying that while he may not have ESP, he knows the tricks and he can make people believe he can read minds. It’s also a way to say he indeed is “some detective. It’s a way to rachet up the stress on the suspect, making his nerve more prone to popping.
The Monk episode was one in which a series of mail bombs is being sent to members of a family embroiled in a battle over inheritance. The overall investigation is much shallower, partly due to the shorter time window, and partly because Monk always has some sort of a subplot going on. While the subplot may have a tie in, in this case it also involved an inheritance issue, it cuts into the depth of the show. Monk focuses more on action than on thought. In this case Monk knew who was the real bomber within the first 15 minutes of the show; the rest of the time was spent proving it.
In that respect the plot was more like Columbo plots than many Monk plots normally are. In Monk very often everyone will be perplexed until close to the end when someone has an aha moment. The someone is usually Monk, but not always. Columbo almost always knows who is the real criminal very early on. He spends the show building a case, often with the criminal’s help. It isn’t always clear to the viewer how Columbo knows, but it’s usually pretty apparent where his focus will be. We later find out what triggered his suspicion.
I find Columbo, the show, more cerebral. But Columbo is not smarter than Monk. I think this is partly due to archetypical differences that are subtle. At first glance I thought the two main roles were parallel. Though they run more or less along the same character lines, there is a major difference. Columbo is master of his fate, Monk is a victim of his.
This importance distinction causes me to call Columbo a wise fool in the Lear sense. His job is to play the fool, but in the process of playing the fool he imparts tremendous wisdom to those who pay real attention. The experienced viewer does; the suspects do not.
In contrast Monk is an idiot savant. He can’t help his idiocy, his abject victimization by his own phobias. Even in the sessions in which he purports to try to learn control with his shrink, he is pathetically incompetent. His true gifts, those of observation and analysis, only engage when he is externally stimulated by a situation that draws his attention at least momentarily. He can read people stunningly well when he notices. But he often fails to notice, so self-absorbed is he.
Columbo plays a similar role, but the key difference is that to him it’s a played role. He plays the dunce, the somewhat obsessive, self-absorbed hick (witness his odd departures on his wife, his car, etc.). But for Columbo it’s a tool to keep the suspect off balance and unsuspecting. When someone makes a derogatory remark about Columbo, it slips right off. That battered old overcoat he wears is actually Teflon. After all, it’s not Columbo that’s being insulted, it’s the “just being Columbo” mask he wears purposefully to provoke exactly the attitude that results in insults. An insult is an affirmation of that role.
Monk has no coat, only micron-thin skin. He is visibly hurt by some of the remarks, though he ignores others when he’s obsessing about some irrelevant, or relevant, detail. Insults don’t always catch Monk’s attention, but when they do they score. What prevents Monk from returning to the job, rather than being an as-needed consultant, is that thin skin. Even with his stunning record of success, he is not capable of working within the constraints of Police Department structure. Too much of the wrong sort of stimuli penetrates, provoking the wrong reactions. It’s even a struggle for him in the independent role of consultant.
Columbo could return to a beat any day. He could write parking tickets or speeding tickets, and would probably end up with new friends every time he issued one. Monk, on the other hand, would self-destruct. He’d ticket everyone and for the wrong reasons mostly. He would be hated, laughed at and spit upon.
A wise fool can put off the role of fool, though in doing so might become less effective. An idiot savant does not have that choice, and whatever role he does find may be the only one in which he can do productive work for his society.
It's interesting that today's detective hero is a victim; the one of a decade or so ago is not.
The recent brouhaha on the DARPA idea to create a market to serve as a tool for predicting world events related to terror amused me. Oh, I understood the immediate revulsion that was the response of many; I felt it myself. But then I remembered who are those guys at DARPA who were instrumental, among other things, in the creation of this once winked at medium, this medium which is the most powerful communications tool invented since writing. I asked myself, "What were they thinking?" not in the shocked fashion that was the fashion, but in the suddenly interested "Why not?" sense.
Then I immediately thought, "But what does the creation of such a tool have to do with government?" The obvious answer is nothing. I thought about pitching the idea of building such a market using the template of the online casinos to some friends. Then I decided we would be way too little and late, as there had to be others already with resources in place who would leap on the idea. Sure enough, this morning The Volokh Conspiracy is pointing to the site that aims to become The American Action Market. (Tyler Cowen thinks it's a prank. Maybe it is. But that doesn't mean someone else won't take it seriously.)
Once I considered the idea, I thought it was brilliant. The idea of using the mass unconscience has been pitched in science fiction, and there's the Delphi model out there, so it's not exactly new. The form of it perhaps is. The basic principle behind it is that most of us have hunches that are most likely comprised of a lot of unconsious observation and correlation of information that does not rise to the level of provable. We tend to make decisions partly on this data. Of course, any one of us can be very wrong. But taken as aggregate, the records of futures markets show that markets operated in a fashion where those who "guess" right are rewarded tend to predict better things that are otherwise very hard to predict. If nothing else such a tool could help governments prioritize preparations to deal with a list of events that approaches the theoretically infinite.
After reflection I decided the ethical issues of this sort of market is no different from existing issues in the stock and futures markets. Buying pork bellies and orange futures is betting the farmers will have a hard time, scarcities are coming, and prices will rise. In a country where we overproduce food, we think nothing of it. In Etheopia it would be a bet aimed at fending off starvation. The principle is the same. We bet on or against the misfortune of others all the time. We don't label it as such. That's the real difference.
That some will use the market to profit from their own anti-social acts is not new either. Criminal have always tried to do (and sometimes succeeded in doing) this with the stock and futures markets, as any casual perusal of the histories of the markets will prove. Betting that terrorist action will kill over 10000 people in the U.S. in 2004 might seem cold, but as we saw after September 11, such actions already swing markets dramatically. All we're doing is moving the measure closer to the actual mark of the events that we are interested in predicting. Those who were short on September 10 in airline stocks made a fortune.
The reason for the market, however, isn't to profit from misfortune. It's to hedge against misfortune in the same way that the commodities futures markets do. Yes, some will profit. If no one is trying to profit the market will not work. But the profits will not exceed the losses. And the information gained by those who study the market will in the long run help us to stave off some negative events, or to prepare better for dealing with them if they do happen.
Sure, terrorists may try to profit on their acts by trading in the markets themselves. We hope so. Remember the stock market has in place controls to prevent insiders from using information to manipulate the market. This is because such manipulation actually can work. But in the case of the sort of market we're dealing with here that is a major goal. We want those who plan anti-social acts to put their money where their mouth is. If they do this they tip their hand. And they don't have to do it themselves, a proxy act using a mule will send the exact same message at the market level. If they are stupid enough to leave tracks, of course, they just handed us one more chance to thwart their plans.
Some will wonder if such a market will not create a demand for anti-social acts of the sort they are planned to measure. That poses an interesting question. My first thought was that this would be an unintended consequence. It might prove to be the case. But my second though was that the market predicts equally that events will not happen. The bets against an event happening will necessarily equal those for it happening, so the demand for the execution of an event will equal the demand for preventing the event. And the net effect, through the predictive information gathered, should swing the balance a finite amount towards the prevention side.
Of course, unintended consequences always result from an incomplete understanding of the future. We can't predict (though the market could help) whether such a market will lead to more terrorism or less. But if it gives us a tiny edge in stopping terrorist actions, or in preparing to deal with them, it will stop some which would have otherwise happened. If it can raise the bar for success in that sort of act, fewer will decide to plan those actions. We can never stop all such acts, some people truly are operating under a set of values, and within such a warped worldview, that they simply don't respond to information in the way that the vast majority of us do. The key is to shift a percentage of the world's population from the "maybe" to the "I will not" camp.
Right now terrorists and populations prone to terrorist acts perceive that they can succeed. We need to do everything we can to change that perception. Once those with that bent shift their belief of success from easy, or possible, to difficult, improbable or impossible we will have won a battle in the war. A predictive market can be one weapon in that war, though as with any weapon, it can also be turned to the enemy's use. We shouldn't stop manufacturing guns just because some will fall into the hands of the enemy.
I admit to a severely obsessive temperment when it comes to games. I'm not addictive, quite, because my interest is more in the system, rather than the operation of that system. This does not mean that I do not play (study!) the one I am playing (when I am playing) to a degree that an independent observer would term an addiction. But addictions are a compulsion that doesn't just go away. Addictions take real effort, and even pain, to overcome. I play intensively for a time (which varies, but seems to be shortening), then I suddenly find myself not wanting to log in any more. So I move on to another, or go back to reading or writing obsessively for a while.
One of the reasons I find multiplayer online games (MPOGs) so interesting is the way in which they model societies. They offer sandboxes of a sort, in which experiments can be conducted. These experiments can be governmental, economic, social, and more.
Poking around in the blogosphere last night I stumbled over some academic papers on the virtual worlds of MPOGs. I choose not to distinguish those classified as "massively" because that changes the scale, but not often the scope.
A common criticism of these "imaginary" worlds is that they are not real. Philisophers have a lot of material in which to delve here. Economists have already weighed in. The economies in these virtual worlds are becoming accepted as real economies. More on this later.
One significant difference between these worlds and the "real world" is the ease with which a player can shift identity. This tends to relax the stigma to antisocial behavior at the player level. This leads to behaviors termed 'greifing' by the community, that is, antisocial behavior for the purpose of disruptiong the experience of others. Of course, this is always to some degree subjective. I may complain I am being griefed while my alleged griefer might claim he is simply exercising his licit right to play the bad guy in a role-playing game. A few articles have appeared on this topic, and a lot of heated words in the various online media have been flung. It's an area where carefully stated and enforced rules of acceptable conduct offers the best hope. How the companies who play "god" to these worlds accomplish this can make or break their commercial viability.
In talking about these worlds, however, it's important to distinguish between the "character," or perhaps more properly now, the "avatar," and the player himself. The former term, "character," dates back to the pencil & paper role-playing games; the latter, "avatar," was probably popularized by Ultima Online, though the Ultima single-player computer games had used it for a decade or so before that. In those the player's character was the avatar of the virtues, or became that, over the course of the game. Another term commonly used is 'toon,' presumably short for 'cartoon.' This might have originated with the Korean MPOGs where anime-like cartoon art is common (and often very aesthetically pleasing).
There might be real social pressure on an avatar to be social, to confirm to norms of behavior. This pressure is often overcome by players by creating alter-egos that are their "dark side." This allows players to easily participate in society using their "good" avatar, while at the same time being able to operate outside society if they chose to play their "dark side" avatar. That is rather more difficult to accomplish in the "real world," though many criminals operate in analogous fashion employing "masks," or in some cases actual second identities (as do spies.)
The motivations for the dark side avatars are many. Some are actually designed to contribute to the overall experience of others by creating an anti-social force against which the society can struggle. They tend to be the smallest segment, though. Others are part of metagaming schemes.
When we talk of the metagame, we refer to playing the play of the game. This means using extra-game world means to influence the world inside the game. A common and accepted example is the use of instant message systems, message boards, and web sites to communicate inworld information via outworld channels. A very strict system would seek to limit or curtail this, but that is impossible outside a controlled environment (which the internet assuredly is not).
Another common, but less accepted, metagame tactic is to have "mule" avatars. Games often impose limits on how many items an avatar can hold or store. So players (myself not excepted) often create characters solely to hold more items that we would prefer not to dispose of. Those interested in preserving some sort of fiction, preserving the integrity of the virtual world, will treat these as individuals, not objects. They assume the roles of homebound relatives or other rather fixed residents.
A generally unaccepted metagaming tactic is to attack the integrity of the virtual world with extraworld technical techniques. These can include social engineering to gain advantages from those who operate the game, hacking the game client to gain more (and more timely) information than the game design makes available, or attacking the security of other players' accounts to attempt to steal either the account or the inworld possessions of that account's avatars.
The inworld economies allow for the typical range of illicit business practices. These should be dealt with inside the world, but they often explode outward to, at least, the extragame communications channels. Beyond those, however, there are also extraworld scams, or hybrids. The extraworld scams fairly clearly fall into the domain of real world law enforcement, though that remains a new area for law. The hybrids are very interesting as they involve blending, somehow, two worlds and their value and ethical systems. And example of these a transaction involving the exchange real world dollars for the inworld cuurency in which one party reneges and retains possessions of the other party's goods.
What has brought the metagame to the fore is this "universalization" (versus globalization, since more than one world is involved) of the inworld economies. If you do a search on eBay, you will find thousands of listings of "virtual" properties for auction for real world currency. Those quotes are meant to show that the term virtual has fallen into question. In a sense currency itself is a virtual marker for labor, or other real goods. But we also routinely exchange one currency, one virtual marker, for another currency. In this sense it can be argued that there is no difference between a currency market and these auctions on eBay. Economists are beginning to make these arguments. Most of the papers I stumbled over pertained to this area.
There are reports in the news of very large numbers of what Korea considers to be computer crimes involving these transactions. One such crime involves goods valued at over one million dollars. The actual trading on eBay is proceeding at a pace of around $500,000 per month for all the games being tracked by one economist.
I want to write iat more depth about a lot of the topics I just touched on above in the future. I'll cite my sources then. I'm no trained philosopher, nor economist or social scientist. I have a long history in games, and degrees in English Lit. Yes, these games also deserve to be explored as a new medium of "literature" in the very loose sense. In fact, many of the earliest games in the genre were text based.
I intended this to be a sort of introduction to the topic, or at least a definition of my terms and the concepts to any who may share an interest in the topic.
I knew there was another piece on Potter I'd read recently, but I didn't bookmark it and forgot where I read it. Trying to find a specific thing on Potter using search engines is difficult. The list approximates infinity.
But when I cruised Polytropos, which I read looking for game-related content, I found Nate had responded to my "Potter's Missing Numinosity," and when I read his post, "Numinous Potter?" I found the missing link. Nate wrote it. I probably missed finding it because the title was a bit obscure, "ASB vs. JKR". I wish I'd tracked it down again so I could work Nate's thinking in to mine, but I've got it now, and will probably come back for more " prattling on about Potter" before too long (like when I manage to pick up books IV and V.)
I'm still chewing on an idea that the lack of depth, forward and backward in time, to the Potter panorama may be contributing to the absense of the missing numinous. Books, rather, series of the sheer size of Potter often look backward millenia in their history. Despite having the advantage of being able to tap the real world's history, or maybe because of that, there is not the same sense of historical location for the part of the Potter books that makes them Potter (ie. the non muggle part). That positioning may be instrumental in creating the feeling of importance that contributes to the summoning of the numinous. Potter lives in a much narrower slice of time than does Frodo.
One niggling doubt I have about this thesis is that I haven't read much C.S. Lewis, so I don't know how the Narnia works fit into this. I can speak for much of the spectrum of modern popular fantasy, though, and haven't found obvious exceptions so far.
But even if this does prove out, I should not infer that there is only one way to affect the summoning of the numinous. At best I can say that this method or structure is common to many, or even most, works of long fantasy; Rowling does not use it (at least in the first three books); her books lack the numinous.
Now back to book 5 of Wurts. Blogging is cutting into my reading time.
I was looking out my back sliding doors this morning and feeling somewhat pleased with myself. This is my first house. Before this it’s all been apartments or condominiums, and I had no real yards, only driveways. As a loner with little patience for maintenance tasks, they made sense. No yard work. But I also like gardening, at least on my terms.
When I bought this house I bought it partly for the trees. It’s probably an artifact of the jungles, but I have this need to have trees around me. While the lot isn’t all that large, only 1/3 acre, the back yard has about thirty trees: a dozen shagbark pines, three or four huge tulip poplars, a couple large sweet gums, a few small hickories, a couple dogwoods (which are not doing all that well), a couple small red maples, and a handful of something I haven’t identified with these little berries and a propensity to spread from their roots. Those latter are annoying. I have to mow them to keep the jungle at bay.
From the list you can guess, it’s a shade environment. This posed an interesting challenge. I wanted green, not the brown of dead leaves. But the previous owners had built a boche ball court back there, sweeping the ground and killing off all the undergrowth. They forced some grass along the edge between the house and trees, but it struggles. Most grasses like sun.
For some time I haunted garden shops and bookstores looking for solutions. I didn’t want pure green, I wanted a bit of color, but mostly I wanted life beneath the trees themselves. I also wanted to enhance the sheltered feel, the sense of privacy, beyond what the plain board fence offered. I didn’t particularly want to look out my back windows into those of the neighbor behind me, even if that house is half a block away.
So I hardscaped a bit, adding some raised beds along the fence and a couple of trellises about eight feet tall. I dropped a couple Japanese maples in strategic places to fill in the gap between the main trees’ foilage and the fence. And to add a bit of color of their own. I planted wisteria on one trellis, and three different creepers that like shade on another, then put two grapevines on the third on the side of the house that does get sun. I also put a trellis sort of thing over the gate on that side, and added a climbing rose, but all that is not visible out the back windows.
For some structure in the central areas, I put in some shrubs. My favorites are the two different viburnums that bloom in the spring and scent the whole backyard for a week or so. Tucked in there are a couple of hollies, a few oleanders, a camelia, some spirea, nandina and a couple hydrangeas. I could use more plants in the shrub class. There are still too many gaps.
I picked a couple of shade ground covers and planted them experimentally. The pachisandra looked good the first year, but it spreads so slowly the vinca minor has won out. It’s covered a whole section about 200’ squared now. I also put some ivy way in the back on a slope and to climb those trees and the fence. It’s spreading slower than the vinca minor though. The vinca minor blooms lavender to blue mostly in the spring.
What has really turned out well are the mixed hostas and ferns. I like hostas, probably because they remind me of the jungle, but without the thorns. I started with some of the cheap, common varieties, but progressed to where I probably have thirty or so types now, from the very large to the tiny. Their foliage varies in hue from guacamole, chartreuse, forest green, through to a smoky blue-green. The leaves on some are broad, on others small spears almost like a wide grass. Some are solid colors, others are mottled or striated. The blooms are mostly white, with the occasional lavender. Most are scentless, but some are very nice. The hostas bloom in succession throughout the year. That’s due to the mix of types, and to the difference in amount of sun they get. The ones on the borders tend to get more sun than those in the deeper shade, and that appears to bring the border ones to bloom earlier.
In the far back on the slope, I mixed them with ferns of a half dozen types too. The contrast of broad solids with frothy works nicely. I bought some of the ferns, the others I gathered down in my parent’s swamp. Results are about the same. Some do well, some don’t; depends on the shade and moisture levels mostly. Ferns seem not to like the raised beds. After two or three years settling in for most of them, they are pretty well established. The density isn’t where I want it yet, but if I get ambitious and split some of the plants, that will come.
Last year I added a couple of patches of “monkey grass” of the larger sort too. That’s doing very well in the shade, and I want to add more. It will give my ground covers more variety. It’s starting to spread and is all in bloom with lavender flowers right now. It too contrasts nicely with hostas, especially the larger ones.
I picked up a hybrid phlox three years ago, and planted a semi-circle around the pedestal birdbath. The flowers were white with pink or lavender insets originally. They got sick. They struggled for two years, and I saw no blooms the second year. This year they came in strong, and bloomed, but they are mostly pure white, except for a couple that are pure pink. I preferred the original scheme, but it’s nice to have the additional flowers, finally.
I also dropped in a few less hybridized phloxes. One is a shade variety, woodland phlox or something. It’s doing pretty well back in with the slope hostas and ferns. The flowers are blue and it seems to be creeping, though not as fast as I’d like. I have hopes I can use it as another ground cover too in the longer run.
I tried geraniums of the cranesbill sort in some of the raised beds, but they haven’t done well. I’m not sure why. The few I planted at ground level under the trees have done a bit better, so maybe it’s due to a difference in moisture levels. Or maybe the soil I added to make the raised beds isn’t to their taste. The ferns seem to suffer in those beds too.
The day lilies, of the short types, do well on the borders, but the oriental lilies are struggling. The orientals do nicely in containers, though, so maybe I’ll move them into pots I just set under the trees. The ones on the patio do fine. I planted a couple of toad lilies and those are doing well. I haven’t seen blooms yet this year, but I think they are a fall bloomer. The toad lilies seem to do well in the raised beds, so may have to mix those with hostas there, rather than ferns.
I also dropped in some lilies-of-the-valley. I had a few flowers this year, they are tiny things, but they smell nice. I’m hoping they’ll spread well making another ground cover. They too seem to fare poorly in the raised beds.
One ground cover I like, but that doesn’t spread much, is asarum, wild ginger. I have a couple varieties, all doing just fine, but they are a bit static. I wish they’d spread like vinca does. One batch over on the side in a raised bed is doing fine and holds its own in its role there. Another back in under the trees is doing even better, though they don’t make much of a statement. It would take about three times as much as I have to make a real statement with them, but the plants weren’t cheap and I am. I get a lot more coverage for the dollar with hostas, even the more expensive sorts.
In any event, the effect of all this horticulture is substantial, if not yet quite what I aim for. It’s not yet completely green, but the immediate impact is that. And it’s varied enough that it’s probably contributed to the wildlife population there. I have birdfeeders in the small bit of lawn between the back deck and the real shade and I get a steady stream of birds. I also have too many tree rats… err, squirrels, a few chipmunks, and the occasional stray bunny. When I first moved in I had squirrels, and a few titmouses. Now, in addition to those, I have a regular population of Carolina wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals, goldfinches, house finches, robins, towhees, brown thrashers, mockingbirds, flickers, red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers, and more.
Along with the flora and fauna, my secret goal was, of course, to decrease my maintenance. I’m working on it. Most of my plants are perennials, so once they’re in, they can be largely ignored. At least that’s my plan. Now I need to figure out how to replace most of my small front lawn with perennials too.
Along the way I’ve picked up a lot of books on shade gardening, perennials and particularly, hostas. The Ortho series Home Depot carries makes up most of them, but a couple deserve mention. Larry Hodgson’s Perennials for Every Purpose is encyclopedic. In addition to extensive listings of perennials for every habitat, it has a large opening section that deals with growing perennials. (I really shouldn’t be thumbing through it…) It’s published by Rodale Organic Gardening which is and has been at the forefront of organic gardening research for some time. I see the book is now out in trade paper too. I have the hardback.
The other is The Hosta Book by Paul Arden. It’s in its second edition now, and is a trade paper. It is a comprehensive text on hostas, their origins (Far East), cultivation, and includes a long list of modern cultivars with color photos of many. Hostas are popular because they are very versatile. Their original habitat was shady rain forest, but they adapt even to direct Georgia sun and fairly dry conditions. They do love water though, even if many are fairly drought resistant. The rain here takes care of mine just fine, especially this year.
It just started raining again. My hostas are happy.
Perennials for Every Purpose
The Hosta Book
I came across A. C. Douglas’s Harry Potter And The Literary Elitist a couple of days ago. His review of them is very similar to mine: “rather charming (which is, after all, only fit), even engaging (I read all four books -- some 1800 pages -- within the single span of some five days; for me a record of sorts). J.K. Rowling is clearly a storyteller of considerable narrative gift who immediately calls to mind no-one so much as the Conan Doyle of the classic Sherlock Holmes tales, and a writer of a not inconsiderable fantastical imagination.”
I admit the A.C. Doyle comparison never occurred to me, perhaps because I haven’t read any Sherlock Holmes in a long time. I did read the Brigadier Gerard stories in the last few months though, and I don’t see much in common there.
Douglas goes on to add “The Harry Potter books are, for the most part, a clever and skillful patchwork of fairytale, saga, and mythological motifs and devices intelligently and imaginatively applied, with a soupçon of Star Trek and Star Wars, and a fair bit more than a soupçon of English boarding school movies cum Nancy Drew and Andy Hardy.” I can find very little to argue with in that very nicely put summary.
I find his criticism, shared with A.S. Byatt (Harry Potter and the Childish Adult) on the issue of a missing numinous interesting. I immediately wondered in what sense they mean numinous, since the first dictionary definition is simply “supernatural.” Magic is that. But Douglas seeks a “deeper mystery behind the up-front magic,” which suggests more of the last definition, “spirituality.” It’s odd, I could argue that’s there, but I agree with them that it’s not there in “feel.” By that I mean I can make a case for its presence within the archetypal conflicts, but that is an analytical case, not an emotional one, and the numinous, in the sense meant, is emotional in experience. Byatt calls it "the shiver of awe."
There are other books in the fiction genre that share this lack, but most of them are shorter works. In raw page count the Potter series is an epic. But it is not an epic in most other ways. Potter has a very short back-history and little sense of future beyond Harry himself. Fantasy epics tend to be grander in scope and have elaborate and long histories against which they are set. Tolkein is exemplar, but all the other modern fantasy series I’ve mentioned in posts below share this characteristic.
I no longer have the huge library I once did, so I can’t go pull some examples (I can search Amazon.com!), but in this way Potter fits more into a humorous fantasy group that depends on cleverness and wit more than story and world building for its success. I think Robert Asprin and Terry Prachett would be good examples of this group. But Rowling is such a good storyteller that she can sustain the tale long past where most writers would falter and look for a way to pen finit. The numinous is not a characteristic of this group (unless really wicked puns invoke chills).
Where Douglas “left with the feeling one has somehow been cheated at the trough,” perhaps I did not because I never expected the numinous, and was pleasantly surprised to find the intelligent use of archetypes and symbols. Perhaps, since I have read extensively in fantasy, my expectations were steered by previous experience with works of similar tone. While Potter climbs above those others on his Quidditch broom, I didn’t expect him to. When he doesn’t quite grab the golden snitch, I’m not surprised. I’m just surprised, and pleased, that he got into the game at all.
Jim Henley over at Unqualified Offerings posted on dislogue's (re)appearance and as a result I’m seeing a few hits. Walter at Walter In Denver picked up on Jim’s post and said some nice things that also brought some hits. Thanks to both.
I see Google also has me indexed now.
The flip side of this is that backtracking on the hits I’ve found some new blogs I like. Which has me reading more than writing again. It’s a constant battle. I’m trying to avoid the blog list bloat syndrome. It’s probably futile.
To clarify, dislogue was never really launched the first time, though it was accessible to those who knew where to find it. I had a few posts, but decided at that point that I really didn't know where I wanted to take it. So it sat. Then I had two PCs die on me. Etc.
I’m still tweaking the format of the thing too, so you might catch changes in progress. Hit reload if things look strange; I fix them, or revert, fast.
Our friends the French, particularly the suave, debonaire Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, suffered a small embarrassment recently, one that I mourn, not for his or their sake. Their embarrassment came from a diplomatic faux pas deep in the Amazon of Brazil. Seems the French acted a bit unilaterally in attempting the rescue of Green Party candidate for the presidency of Colombia, Ingrid Betancourt, from the FARC guerrillas. (I say “seems” because surely appearances must be deceiving, the French would never act unilaterally.) They seem to have neglected to mention their plans to Brazil or Colombia, before sending in Secret Service agents and at least one “high government official” on a mission to rescue, recover, or ransom Betancourt. The French actions resulted in anger from both Colombia and Brazil.
There are a slew of articles on this, here are a few:
Rescue Mission Ends in Red Faces
Bungle in the Jungle
French Amazon Mission Wild Goose Chase, Rebels Say
French minister denies bid to save female friend in Amazon raid
The reports are confusing and confused. The whole thing may have been a hoax; FARC denied all knowledge of any offer of ransom. Reuters says that “The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which grabbed Betancourt at a roadblock 17 months ago as she campaigned for Colombia's presidency, said they had never planned to hand her over to a French "humanitarian mission" in the Brazilian Amazon.”
The whole episode may have been a publicity stunt by the FARC. International attention might create pressure on Colombian officials to comply with FARC demands that Betancourt be exchanged for imprisoned guerrillas. In either case, France acted unilaterally in attempting to deal with the situation deep within Brazil with an eye at the Brazil-Colombia border.
The French connection to Betancourt dates back to her education in France, her first marriage, and continued through a family friendship with de Villepin. Betancourt holds dual Colombian and French citizenship.
Ms. Betancourt was abducted along with her campaign manager, Clara Roges, while campaigning back on February 23, 2002. FARC has made the kidnapping and ransoming of politicians, foreigners and businesspeople into big business. Betancourt’s platform for her presidency bid included promises to fight corruption which FARC and the drug cartels use as avenues to ensure their immunity to arrest and prosecution. Possibly due to that or perhaps simply because she was a “high value target,” she received many warnings that the rebels, FARC, was looking to abduct her. Despite the warnings, she continued campaigning, even in areas nominally under FARC control.
I read her bio a year or so ago after spotting it on a new books display. Her name caught my eye because Dad had flown a Columbian Secretary of State, or something, with the name Betancourt, on a survey flight up in the same area that FARC now rules. This was back in the late 60’s or very early 70's, so my memory is a bit hazy. I might be crossconnecting the name of a Brazilian official he flew on a similar flight. It turned out she wasn't related to anyone he flew, as far as he can tell. In any case, I saw the name, read the back flap, then bought it.
I feel a certain closeness to Colombia, as I do to Brazil, due to growing up down there on the border. (Oddly, I don’t feel the same towards Peru. But then the Peruvians called us “gringos” and treated us differently than did the Colombians.) A couple of my first crushes were on Colombian girls from Leticia, a few miles across the big river.
Partly as a result of that background, I also feel a bit more national guilt, personally, towards Colombia, for what this country’s appetite for cocaine and marijuana have done to it. If we’d get serious about solving our problem, we wouldn’t infect our neighbors. Demands, not supplies, drive markets.
My review of Ms. Betancourt’s book, Until Death Do Us Part: My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia, is mixed. It was interesting reading. I respect her courage and willingness to risk her life for what she believes, and I believe that she really wants to make a better country for her people. I’m not sure that what she proposes would work, but it could hardly be worse than things are there at the moment. And I would, of course, love to see her freed.
But is this the proper way to go about it? According to reports, France thought it was dealing with FARC for her release. It must have expected a request for quid pro quo of some sort. FARC is not comprised of nice guys who suffer attacks of conscience and release ransomable captives out of the goodness of their hearts. At least they weren’t last I checked.
France denies any negotiations. The mission itself cannot be denied as its existence is supported by physical evidence and direct testimony of a Brazilian pilot hired to take four “explorers” to a village to meet a boat bringing four more people. He recognized the four as men who disembarked from a French Hercules parked at Manaus airport (about 700 miles from the Colombian border, distances are large in the Amazon). The pilot’s suspicions were aroused by some odd questions, and he slipped away to report his concerns to police, which triggered the diplomatic incident.
All this results in mixed feelings for me towards the French actions. I admire and applaud their willingness to take action to protect a citizen. I question their methods. Considering the shrillness of French screams of “unilateral!” not long ago, and the ongoing whining now towards the U.S., it’s hard not to see their actions in this incident as anything other than the grossest hypocrisy. It’s okay for them to act unilaterally and covertly, invading (or at least operating illegally in) one country, Brazil, and ignoring the greater interests of another in the case, Colombia, all to attempt to save one dual-citizen (who happens to be a friend of a Mr. de Villepin) from terrorist guerrillas. It’s not okay for the U.S., acting after a unanimous Security Council vote of censure of Iraq, acting to enforce cease fire obligations agreed to by Iraq upon the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, in conjunction with several other nations who agreed it must be done, to invade and topple a totalitarian despot known for torture, genocide and other human rights abuses.
Of course, one thing explains the odd French logic. In both cases they were looking out for themselves first. French interests in Iraq are well documented. In itself, self interest is understandable.
But in the old Greek sense a friend is an “other self.” That is the way we Americans try to see our friendships. Sadly, to the French the U.S. has never been, and probably never will be, “us.”
The Greens have a Free Ingrid site up here. I can support them on this one issue, at least.
There is also a Canadian Free Ingrid site here.
I guess we'll see how effective they can be.
Paul Greenberg used TV’s Adrian Monk as lead for an article on Iraq a few days ago (Monk and the Case of the Iraqi Maze ). I’m no Monk when it comes to cross-connecting unconscious observations and instantly arriving at a seemingly brilliant conclusion, so I’ve been shoving my thoughts from left-brain analysis over to right-brain nonsense, turning puzzle pieces every which way, trying to fit my thoughts into a coherent picture.
Okay, I failed. Since that didn’t work I’ll just have to try to write my way through it.
First, here are the salient parts of what Greenberg wrote:
“When does detective fiction rise to literature? Answer: When the detective becomes more than a stock figure, and the intricacies of the plot become only background. People don't read about Sherlock Holmes to solve the cases.
In a great detective story, it is the central character that enthralls us. Someone we could watch forever. Like a Columbo, an Hercule Poirot, or the latest classic, Adrian Monk on the USA Network.
This newest object of our fascination is a total obsessive. He shrinks back from holding hands, or must sterilize everything in sight, or arrange his furniture just so. He is so frightened by things that don't frighten us. We are amused — and feel superior.
Yet his obsessiveness also makes Monk superior to us. His sensitivity is such that he can separate all the clutter and discern a central theme. He can separate the multiple threads in the fabric of a story, and spot the single one out of place.”
I immediately want to argue with several statements made here, though, admittedly, they probably do not bear directly on Greenberg’s aim in his essay. While the Iraq situation is of interest to me, I’m mostly not interested in writing on it. Too many others are doing good work there. The statements, however, do bear on my obsessions that involve what is literature, and what makes literature, and television or films, “good.”
Greenberg begins by making a debatable statement about literature, specifically the genre of detective fiction. I agree that the detective’s character, personality, voice, well, the fact that the detective is truly an individual is important. The detective must become a living, breathing, thinking, intricate and complicated person in the reader’s mind. I disagree that this relegates the plot intricacies to “only background.” More on this later.
Next Greenberg makes a leap he doesn’t justify: he calls television literature. No, he doesn’t say “television is literature,” but continuing his argument of that first paragraph he says it is the central character that enthralls us “in a great detective story.” He then he cites examples, all of which are characters in TV shows. I concede, Hercule Poirot is Agatha Christie’s great detective, but dropping him between two purely television detectives makes it plain that Greenberg is referring to the character in the TV program, not the one in the books.
By any definition up to this time, literature is a written work. While it is true that many TV programs spend part of their evolutionary process as written scripts, the written words play a secondary role to the final product. That product is a presentation as much based on visual images as on spoken words (since the advent of talkies). Very rarely are any written words even employed in the final product (except for titles and credits). The medium is different.
Thus the weighing of the greatness of a detective TV show by the standards of a work of literary detective fiction is not necessarily valid, though due to the shared “detective” theme might be to some degree. Both should be evaluated as their own genre, placed within their own media. If any doubts this I would point to the common result of making a movie, or TV program, based on a book. How many times (short of Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare films) is even the majority of the action in the book included? How often are the characters cast as they are described in the book? How often, even, are all the characters retained? A director will insist that it’s necessary, it all cant fit in, or it all can’t be made to work in a film (or that they don’t like the political implications in the book, but they can ‘fix’ that), and that’s exactly the point: the medium is different.
At this point I tell myself I should stop getting so annoyed at what directors and screenwriters do to good books. They can’t help it. Sometimes that is even true, though not often in the cases that annoy me most.
So, looking at detective TV by no standard other than its own, what can we deduce? We can compare the programs to each other and see what they share and to what degree, see what they do not share, and correlate those to their popularity and the critical response (and our own likes).
First we have to define what is the detective TV genre. The margins get blurry and there could easily be some bleedover from Law & Order type shows, even the X-Files: FBI agents are detectives, as are police detectives. Another recent program that might slip in is Peacemakers. That gains a bit of Sherlock Holmeseque flavor due to its period setting, but its central character is not a detective, though he does do some practical detective work himself, in parallel with a Pinkerton agent, in the couple of episodes I’ve seen so far. Also deserving consideration are the medical-examiner type shows. While Quincy and Jordan are not detectives in title, they are detectives per se.
I would draw the line between single-detective protagonists to teams, though. That rules out the Law & Order and clones, X-Files and Peacemakers. Muller and Scully are too close to equals. Peacemakers central character just isn’t detective-y enough, and his ex-Pinkerton sidekick’s detective work overshadows him too often. Crossing Jordan has similar issues to Peacemakers. Team plays a major role, especially the teaming with her retired-cop father, with whom she often role-plays crime reenactments to solve the cases.
Making the distinction that to be a “detective program” there must be a strong, independent detective figure as central character makes Greenburg’s argument for the importance of the central character a tautology. He might not do this, but I just did.
Monk’s Sherona is no where near Adrian’s equal in stature as a detective, even if she does tell her Mom she’s his partner and does often contribute something to the cases. Colombo spends most of his programs working alone, often against the opposition of his leader figures who fall prey to political pressure. Hercule Poirot fits into this group well, too, I think, though, frankly, I haven’t watched it that often. I don’t find it as engaging as the other two. Why I don’t may be interesting in this exercise.
To really be able to understand what makes a detective program good, though, we need some examples of bad ones. We’ve drawn lines (somewhat arbitrary, but arguable) to exclude many programs that share some commonalities, but don’t have a detective program that meets the criteria that is exemplar of bad. I’m drawing a blank.
Rather than stall for lack of bad examples, let’s push forward with Greenberg’s statement that plot fades into the background.
Would any of these programs be worth watching if there was no plot? Would there remain sufficient material of interest to engage the viewer? Would the show fall from good to just okay, or would it fall to bad? I would argue the last case.
The plot is an inherent part of the detective story. It must be sufficiently involved, at least in the unveiling (if not in the actual execution by the criminal, as dumb luck can make for a hard case to solve), that the detective is posed a real challenge. If we excise the plots from most programs, though, the plots aren’t all that interesting on their own. So plot alone cannot make a good detective program (though it might work for one show and could make a good film).
One of the things that makes a recurring series involving the same detective good is that we come to know the detective’s ways, his strengths and weaknesses, to some degree, and we try to apply those to the same knowledge he has and beat him to his conclusion. Of we succeed too often, though, the program fails. If we can beat him at his own game he can’t be all that special. Some of those examples I can’t think of at the moment of bad programs will fall into this category. Their formulae are too obvious.
So, I’m arguing that people do watch detective programs at least partly to see the solution to the case. Likewise we read detective fiction for the solution to some degree. This is one characteristic the detective program shares with the detective novel, or short story.
One of the ways programs prevent us from out sleuthing the sleuth is to give him some sort of exceptional ability that we cannot share. Thus we have Monk’s supernatural powers of observation, and the uncanny ability he has to correlate those observations unconsciously. He solves cases with an Aha! One that we often can’t share because we simply can’t see what he sees, and even if we do, we can’t make the connection. To some degree this is “cheating.” The program gets away with it because we accept that Monk is weird, really, really, far-out-there weird. So weird we do feel sorry for him. We don’t really even want to outdo him at his thing, as a result.
Columbo has an analogous thing going. He’s a bit of a slob (can’t accuse the program of cheating with this, I’m a bit of a slob too!) He’s also innocuous to the degree that his targets of investigation rarely recognize that he’s a detective, if they even manage to spot him at all before he’s introduced. He has a way of seeming far less than he is, at least partly due to his modesty, but perhaps also as a deliberate and useful tactic in dealing with criminals. His criminal opponents, almost by definition, are immodest. They believe they can outfox the foxes. They usually cling to the belief of their superiority right up to the instant when the cuffs are slapped on their wrists.
Columbo doesn’t depend on the “aha” as much as Monk does. His style is much more methodical, but he shares the ability of observation. Columbo is more prone to using his opponent’s sense of superiority to actively trapping her into proving herself guilty. His approach is more psychological than is Monk’s. (Monk has more psychology incoming than outgoing!) The program Columbo “cheats” a bit less. We more often have all the information that Columbo does. What gives him his edge is that psychological snare he sets to catch the guilt of the criminal in front of witnesses. But we, the watchers, can’t see into Columbo’s head to see his planning. We can see some of the arrangements he makes.
One thing these two programs share is an idiot savant sort of main character. Greenberg points out well how this works with Monk. We have a similar embarrassed fascination with Columbo’s social stumbling about. He turns faux pas into high art or brilliant tactics, and we know he’s doing it (after we’ve gotten to know the character), yet we wince in empathy. But, like an autistic child gifted with an innate ability to crunch numbers, we know he’ll convert that seemingly unmanageable sequence of social blunders into a snap that mousetraps the bad guy. He’s inferior (at least to people who aren’t slobs), yet he’s superior.
I can’t speak as well on Poirot. I have sat through a few of the programs, the quirky personality of Hercules catches my eyes, but it never holds it. I rarely have any idea of what is the plot he tries to unravel. I just don’t pay enough attention.
Is this an argument that he isn’t a strong central character, or one that the plot is too opaque for my viewing tolerances? Yes. Probably both. To become involved I need to be engaged sufficiently that I must watch it. Hasn’t happened. (Yet both elements, and more, must exist in the books.)
Columbo and Monk stop my channel surfing cold. I even have a tolerance for reruns, though the former is more apt to get that nod. I watch Poirot when I can find nothing else.
I have a theory on why this is. Columbo and Monk are made for their medium. Poirot is adapted. It’s of more interest to those who have read and love the Agatha Christie novels, than to those of us who have (to date) missed that pleasure. But having read other detective novels, and learned to love them, I can theorize.
An important difference between the two media is this: literature can allow us to listen in to the character’s thoughts. Rules of point-of-view and narrative voice may constrain this, but it’s not uncommon for this to be a major part of a literary detective novel. The tension between this voice, the voice of thought, and the spoken voice, the dialog among characters themselves, adds a layer of complexity lacking from the more visual television and film media. At times they have played with voice-overs of that thinking voice, but this is rare. I think it could be made to work with detective programs, but it would be a departure from the norm (which might turn good to great).
Beyond the possibility of direct access to the detective’s thoughts (which makes the ‘fair play rules’ of disclosure of information darned strict), there is also the tension between the narrative voice of the book, and the voices of the characters. Again, this is not impossible in the visual media, but it’s rarely employed. It’s certainly considered ‘artsy,’ and many audiences have low tolerances for that, preferring a more straightforward style. This also applies to readers of books.
I consider the tension between or among all those voices in detective fiction to be what raises mere writing to literature. Analogously, in programs it is the tension between the weirdness of the detective and the brilliance of his detection that makes the central character unique. The idiot savant is, so far, more important to the visual media than to the literary. Literary detectives don’t often engage that inferior-superior response from readers, or at least its importance is less.
To achieve true greatness requires more than one great element, however. A great detective is one part of the equation, a great plot is another. With television programs production values, casting, supporting roles, all enter the picture along with other things. The first two are the most important, but the others all matter.
With books, similar, analogous “production values” are involved. Some already mentioned are choices of point-of-view (analogous to, but perhaps more extensive in implications than the choice of camera shots), narrative voice (who is commenting on the action, and how does that interact with what the other voices say), the line level writing and choices of words.
The divergence between these “production value” items is what makes translating a great literary detective story into a great television program nigh impossible. The character and plot transfer reasonably well. But not much else does. All those ‘extras’ are simply lost. New extras are added that are appropriate to the medium of visual art. There is, however, no translation table. One can very rarely turn a pun made by the narrator into a visual pun before the camera (assuming the two would have equivalent effect, which they probably would not as language is handled very differently from visual stimuli in our brains).
Bottom line is a detective novel is different from a detective program. I also judge that the best detective programs as less sophisticated than the best detective literature. This is not because the medium of writing is inherently superior (though I sure knee-jerk in that direction!), but because the audiences are demanding different things (mostly). Hercules Poirot is an attempt to elevate the television detective work to the level of the best literary ones. It fails because it isn’t true to its medium; rather it’s an adaptation, a translation: Hercule meets Frankenstein.
As Frost says, poetry is what gets lost in translation. What makes a masterwork is the perfect fit of all the elements of the work, making a Coleridgian organic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s hard to do with borrowed organs.
Okay, so chocolate results from an emulsion of ground up cocoa, which is not grown by Swiss maidens in alpine meadows. Cocoa originated in Central America where bloodthirsty, endocannibal Aztecs may have made the first hot cocoa, though we probably wouldn’t recognize it as such. I think they mixed in chili peppers. They may also have added in the burnt and powdered hearts of especially strong enemy warriors. If it doesn’t quite meet our current ideas of a wholesome bedtime drink, it must at least have been truly hot. (There remains controversy over whether it should be considered the first energy drink.)
Coffee is properly known as caffea arabica, but the name is yet another bad lead. Coffee seems to have actually originated in Ethopia, not Arabia (does anything grow in Arabia besides camels and oil wells?) Word is a goatherd got curious when his goats started skipping and twitching and refused to sleep at night. When he stayed awake the next day and watched them he discovered they were eating little red fruits growing on bushes. He chewed a few himself.
Hey, they aren’t bad! The seeds are bitter, but the skin and skinny pulp covering them is sweetish. They sort of share that with cocoa which also has a sweetish pulp around the seed from which the cocoa powder is actually produced, though the cocoa “beans” are a lot bigger and come in big bunches inside pods about the size of papayas. If a coffee bean drops on your head, you barely notice. If a cocoa pod does it can get messy.
Somewhere in here an Imam decides the little red demon berries are evil and consigns them to the purifying fires. Thus we got the first real connection between books and coffee: both were burned by religious zealots who recognized their inherent dangers to the status quo. Burnt coffee beans, however, have it all over burnt books. Burn a book; sniff the smoke: yuk. Burn a coffee bean; sniff the smoke. Cream and sugar?
Arabs traders brought expresso back to Arabia sometime around the 6th century C.E. By the 13th century the coffeehouse was the hot spot in Islamic culture. Coffee has had its place in Western culture, and as an excuse not to write, for ages. Hang on… (Had to make a pot.)
Since its origins were closer to Europe than China is, coffee beat out tea in the race to become a European staple, barely. Coffee arrived in Europe around 1615. Thus we have that great institution of the arts, the coffeehouse, not the teahouse. (Trust me, the T-shirt is another subject entirely!)
But tea… tea is old. Tea has a long and noble history. Legend has it in 2737 B.C.E. some leaves blew into Shen Nong’s pot of boiling water. He drank it anyway and decided the taste and smell beat the normal brew of dilute vegetable and animal wastes. Instead of teetee, tea! (Actually, probably from ‘tay’ while other languages picked up on the ‘cha’ or ‘tchai.’) Somewhere along the line lemon, cream and sweeteners entered the picture, but I’m told by avid afficionados that all are optional.
Pete Stuyvesant hauled the first tea leaves across the puddle to New Amsterdam in 1650. We aren’t certain whether he spent any time reading them, but that, along with tea’s prominent role as a party staple (de rigueur for Boston tea parties, especially) would become important to Americans before long. Reading tea leaves is what gave our Forefathers the insight into the future that led to the thinking behind the Declaration and Constitution, I’m certain. Of course, when it came time to actually write they drank coffee. Later a certain Teapot Dome would also achieve prominence.
Tea’s final development, however, and its most important evolution, is, of course, “swate tay,” as it’s properly pronounced. Richard Blechynden (which cannot be properly pronounced in polite company without spitting in everyone’s tea) is credited with inventing the iced form, also known as Nectar of the Belles, at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. He had planned to serve hot tea, but a premature bout of global warming destroyed the appeal of that idea. (It also, co-incidentally, created a new expletive, “blech!”) In desperation, and suffering from heat exhaustion himself, Rich (as he was ever after called) dumped a small iceberg into his surplus of fresh-brewed tea and tried serving it cold. Not only did it cure heat exhaustion, it sold!
Later, mint was paired with iced tea when it was discovered that while tea didn’t mask the smell of illicit sips of bourbon, mint did. Simply chewing mint led to suspicion among teetotalling wives (so called because the sum total of their liquid refreshment was tea). As a result an especially inventive husband took to spiking the supply of iced tea with mint so he could mask the evidence of his tippling with a tall glass of refreshing, licit and perfectly innocent iced tea. This innovation resulted in the eventual end of the Great Depression and started the rise of the South to its present glory.
Still later a husband with a weak bladder took to spiking his bourbon directly with the mint. While this innovation did point out the one downside to iced tea, it did not decrease its popularity.
I'm still working my way through Wurts's 5th book in in the big myriadology (The Wars of Light and Shadow). One thing I was going to gripe about is the deadliness of combat in her books. In the first major battle, around 8,000 of 11,000 engaged were KIA. Not casualties, dead. This was a battle on land, not at sea, where very high rates are understandable due to the drowning of otherwise unhurt men when ships go down. In the second big battle at Vastmark, a similar number of the host of 30,000 dies. I think I remember it was 24,000.
Magic wasn't exactly deployed in these battles so there was no weapon of mass destruction, per se. There were very good tactics and as the battles were defensive (on the part of the "good guys", though Arithon, the commander of the defenses worries about all casualties, not just "friendly" ones) the defenders made extremely good use of defensive works and kill zones. Large chunks of the dead came from big traps where a dam was broken to drown a division in one case, and a rockslide released to wipe out a comple of others in another.
Both of the traps were a bit unusually effective as traps go, but they can be justified, perhaps, by Arithon's scrying of future possibilities in the planning. Arithon didn't get credit for being a tactical genius (and a strategic one, for that matter). No, he got credit for wiping out whole armies using dark sorcery. Lysaer's propaganda is very effective.
Wurts called these levels of casualties "decimation," which grates on my nerves. I suppose she's correct by modern usage, though. Decimation is a term created by the Romans who used it to discipline (punish) legions that turned tail. They would put the cowards into formation and execute every tenth man. Thus "decimation." I would called what happened to these forces in Wurt's book "destruction." The involved formations simply ceased to exist. The few survivors were absorbed into other, much less severely damaged, formations.
All that leads up to a new book I just stumbled across and must read. The review begins: "What is more dangerous: A brace of F-18s with laser-guided bombs and AIM-9L air to air missiles, or a group of men with pitchforks and improvised clubs? Think carefully, the correct answer may not be the obvious one."
War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (review at The Mackenzie Institute) compares primitive battles, and casualty rates, to modern battles. While modern warfare may have the capability of killing many very efficiently, it also rarely has a need to kill a large percentage of the hostile forces or population.
One major factor is discipline. Primitive forces are generally poorly organized and discipline dissolves in the heat and blood of battle. When one side breaks, the other pursues and slaughters those fleeing. Then they go on to butcher non-combatants. This may happen at times with modern forces, but as a percentage of the totals involved the resulting casualties may be lower than in primitive wars.
One comparison the book makes is between Normandy and the battles of the Tutus and Hutsis in Rwanda. Both happened in the modern era, but the latter were primitive battles involving some guns, but mostly machetes, pointy sticks, and clubs. The daily death rate for the latter was 2-3 times that of the Normandy campaign, which was pretty bloody as a result of the beach landings. This isn't exactly a fair comparison since the whole war in Rwanda involved two peoples totalling about 14 million in population, while World War II involved most of the world's population and actually had a daily death rate of 7-8 times that of Normandy on its own. In fact, I'm not sure that the numbers for the overall war are lower, as a percentage, than that of the Rwanda war, but World War II incoporated a lot of primitive warfare on some fronts too, so can't be treated monolithically as "modern warfare."
The books cites other contrasts and apparently concludes, "On a proportional basis, the soldier in combat may be safer than the civilian in a massacre, or some other form of non-trinitarian warfare."
But going back to Wurts's combat and casualty rates... they don't look quite as out of line as I first thought.
A major factor remains the professionalism of the forces involved. The greater the professionalism of command and line soldier, the lower will be the overall casualty rates. I'm not convinced that weapons matter. Napoleon held with the value of morale, which may have referred to discipline, but at least incorporated it. I refer to not just the willingness to obey orders (a somewhat overrated form of 'discipline'), but the overall stick-to-the-purpose, stay-on-goal attitude that permeates planning, training, and execution. Professionals conserve resources, whether they be bullets, meals, hours, or men. They don't waste time, ammunition, momentum or lives.
That means they fight fewer engagements and fight them smarter, resulting in more dislocation of the enemy and less casualties. As Sun Tzu would say, "a war won without fighting a battle is the ultimate goal of the leader." That rarely happens, but with that as the perfect war, wars fought by professionals will tend to have far fewer amateurs than those fought by rank amateurs and mobs.
Arithon is a professional (except when his curse kicks in, and he fights to control when that might happen). Lysaer, due to his self-willed blindness (and the influence of his end of the curse which he doesn't fight well), while not a total amateur, counts too much on mob psychology and emotion to ever rise to a professional leader. Lysaer may deploy some professional units (and he has some good ones), but he mostly sees them destroyed en masse because he misuses them.
I keep coming back to Hitler as I think about Lysaer. It's not a perfect analogy, but the two share many characteristics. It might be intentional on Wurt's part. Certainly Lysaer is an Aryan ideal. Perhaps Arithon is a Protocols of Zion sort of shadowmaster.
"It's raining, the sky is dark, and it's cold. Who wants to be out in this?" she seems to glare. Alan Colussy, an anthropology major at Georgia State, is having trouble with his Harris hawk, Merriweather. It's Saturday noon and we are walking along a trail in a wooded area north of Piedmont Park. It is indeed raining, gray and cold, but we humans have a disability that forces us into these situations: we think we are in control. The hawk is supposed to be following us in the trees, moving from limb to limb alongside or overhead, instead she is sulking. When Alan calls her name and whistles, holding up his gauntletted left arm, she shuffles on the trunk fallen across the trail, raises her wings slightly, then subsides. At first I don't realize the low, soft whistling that seems a background to Alan's calls are coming from her beak. The sound seems anachronous. I think of hawks making only those piercing shrieks. It is the first of a long series of things I thought I knew that will be exploded.
This all started millenia ago, probably around 1000 B.C. in the area of what is now Pakistan. In the 13th century, when Marco Polo returned from the orient to his native Venice, "he was more interested in the birds than in gunpowder and all those things that go boom," Alan claimed. These birds, falcons, hawks, and eagles, but owls and others too, were trained to launch from an arm to capture game for their masters. The exact origin of falconry, the training and use of birds of prey as instruments for hunting, probably cannot be pinned down, but the earliest texts were written in what is now Pakistan. Peshwar, a modern Pakistani city, remains the world center and holds the largest market for the birds and accoutrements of falconry. Many of the gauntlets, hoods, jesses, and other tools are only handmade, often of handtooled leather. Alan has visited Pakistan and brought back tales of hunting with the local masters of the sport, who often go out in large groups on horseback with dozens of birds, and accompanied by packs of dogs. They hunt not only the smaller animals we associate with the sport, rabbits, squirrels, and small birds, but deer. The falcons and hawks slow the deer so the dogs can catch it, then the master of the hunt dismounts, walks over to where the deer lies held by the hounds, unsheathes his knife and cuts its throat. "How cruel!" you probably wince. Perhaps. But more so than nature?
As we come across a rise in the trail, a place where the ground falls away up ahead, there is a rustling in a tree and a squirrel scrabbles quickly upward and around the bole of an old oak. Alan shouts, "Get it, Merriweather!" and swings his arm slightly forward, and the hawk launches with a buffeting of wings and curls off and around the tree. My eyes struggle to follow the path of the squirrel, but lose it. Merriweather drops onto a perch on a limb about forty feet away. "Did you see where the squirrel went?" Alan asks. All I can offer is, "Somewhere over towards where Merriweather is."
The Harris hawk is a native of the Southwestern North American deserts and of an area in Brazil, but the two races of hawks are a bit different. The desert version hunts in groups called "casts"; the Brazilian hawks hunt solo. The desert birds are so gregarious that the young don't immediately leave when sexually mature, they hang around and help their parents raise a family or two of their younger siblings. Merriweather is from the race of desert birds, but she results from several generations bred in captivity. She is an unusually large Harris hawk, and she does not like, at all, other birds of prey, including her own kin. Alan aquired her when a friend who had gotten her with her brother, decided she had to go as she was constantly trying to kill him. Among birds of prey the female is the larger. She had a considerable size advantage.
Another bird flies towards us. At first I think it's a mourning dove, and wonder if Merriweather will go for it; then I see it's a hawk. "Oh no!" I hear Alan moan. There's a flurry of wings, the other hawk wheels and flies off. "That was a Coop! A Cooper's hawk. I was afraid we'd have a fight. Merriweather must not have seen it." Or she was too wet to care about fighting, I can't help adding mentally.
The squirrel we saw has vanished, but Merriweather (whose name is becoming more and more ironic) doesn't seem to care one way or the other. She sulks a while on her limb, then is enticed back to Alan's glove by a bit of raw chicken. Her talons knead the thick leather of the gauntlet and Alan exclaims, "Ow! Stop it." The nails are long black curved daggers and the toes, though slim for hawks, are strongly muscled.
We decide enough is enough and head back to the car.
Alan visited England this past summer and hunted with the lady who is possibly the world authority on the sport, Jemima Parry Jones. They had some discussions about Merriweather and theorized that her odd attitude towards other birds of prey may reflect the real genetic predilections of the species. The Brazilian version of the bird may be the more "normal" one, a solo hunter. The desert birds may result from adaptation to local conditions. It may be that dominant genes are reasserting themselves through Merriweather's inbreeding.
Falconry may be the first "official" sport which in which both sexes could participate together. There have been women involved in the sport for many centuries. Mary Queen of Scots is another notable recent example. One of the early texts in english on the sport was written by Dame Juliana Barnes. Some other notables who were great lovers of the sport include Kubla Khan, who once lost a battle from which he was absent because he was off trapping birds, Akbar, the first mogul ruler of Hindustan who wrote a treatise on the subject which included a statement claiming that the sport was "more exquisite than the enjoyment of women." and Louis XIII of France, who wrote a ballet about falcons.
The sport probably arrived in England on the arm of the returning crusaders. In 1486 the Society of St. Albans text was published; this dilineated who could have what sort of bird based upon their rank: an emporer could own a golden eagle, a king a gyrfalcon, a prince a female perrigrine, a duke a rock falcon, and so on. The death penalty could be exacted from those who rose above their proper station. And yet the sport was looked upon with such respect that princes were required to help falconers from their horses.
Besides reinforcing the class structure of the English society of the day, however, the St. Albans text also displays some of the early environmental concerns of falconers. It dictates how many chicks may be taken from a nest, which ones must be taken, and assigns responsibility to the falconer who takes a chick to protect the nest and the remaining brood. Today falconers remain in the front of the ecological movement. Many of the birds of prey are threatened or endangered and the falconers are not only well aware of this, they work actively to reverse the trends. The release projects of birds of prey into the wild have always been spearheaded by practitioners of the sport. Alan himself has participated in a project involving perrigrine falcons, which adapt well to the cliff-sided modern building, here in Atlanta.
Over a cup of tea in Alan's kitchen, trying to warm up from the damp chill, I had to ask, "So, how did you get into this sport? You aren't a city boy, are you?" He laughed. "I am. But when I was twelve or thirteen I saw a movie, My Side of the Mountain. The main character runs away to Canada and becomes a falconer."
He fell in love, but with a sport. He discovered that in the United States one must be 14 to get a permit. When he turned 14 he took the test, got his permits and became the youngest falconer in the U.S.A. That was six years ago. Since then he has owned ten or eleven birds including red-tailed hawks, the most common of the North American hawks, screech owls, and his current Harris hawk, Merriweather.
From Alan's hunting backpack a laminated white card dangles. When I look more closely, I see it's a United States official document. When I ask, he tells me, "falconry is the most regulated sport in American. I have to have both Federal and state permits, and a hunting license, to practice the sport."
He brought out, with a stack of catalog an magazines on the sport, a sheaf of paper about an inch thick. The sheaf represented all his legal paperwork, permits, forms for transfer, capture, and release of birds, and other "red-tape." The aspiring falconer must find a Master and serve two years apprenticeship before becoming a General falconer. The regulations dictate that the first bird, and an apprentice is allowed to keep a single bird, must be a red-tail or a red-shouldered hawk, or a kestral, none of which are threatened species. From the General, which can keep two birds, one can move up to Master status, which entitles one to possession of three birds, and permits one to take on apprentices. There are severe penalties for not following the rules. One can receive up to five years in prison for possession of even a single feather of a bird of prey without the proper permits. (Falconers often require feathers to repair the flight and tailfeathers of their birds.)
He told me tales of his constant skirmishes with local law authorities who know nothing of the sport. "You can't do that," is the gist of the typical opening sally. "Yes I can, and you are interfering with a Federally regulated and sanctioned action," is the general sense of the reply. He enjoys telling of his encounters with the law.
"I was trapping birds up in North Carolina. We take a trap, a cage with a gerbil or mouse in it and covered with snares, and drop it out the window of a car when we spot a bird alongside the road. In this case I'd dropped off the trap and was watching it through binoculars when a local officer pulled over and said, 'I don't know about down in Georgia, but here in North Carolina we call that littering.' I had to point out that poeple who litter don't generally sit around in their cars and watch their litter through binoculars, and if he'd like we could walk down there and he could examine the 'litter' more closely and see that it could only be my intent to retreive that 'litter' once its job was done, especially since that dot way up there in the sky was a hawk I'd been trying to trap until he came along and interfered..."
Georgia has reciprocal licensing agreements with its neighboring states, so Alan's papers were in order, but the local authorities wouldn't generally know whether they were or not. The Federal document that dangles from his pack impresses upon them that he does know, however.
Alan normally hunts with his birds down in the area of Lake Jackson, though he will hunt in the city's wooded areas, especially if the weather is such that pet-owners aren't out walking their pets. Birds of prey don't particularly understand about "pets," though they themselves easily adapt to the state. There's a Gary Larson cartoon that explains the situation better than I can, though he may not have known what truth it was he drew. A sign across one side of a park, separated from the other side by a line of trees, proclaims "12th Annual Tea Cup Poodle Fanciers' Picnic." On the other side are several falconers with birds on their arms, preparing to lauch them. The cartoon is captioned, "Trouble Brewing."
That isn't, however, the Larson cartoon I first thought of when I had the opportunity to write this piece. The one that lept to my mind was this: a drawing of assorted hawks sitting around in trees wearing shades, and captioned, "Birds of Prey Know They're Cool."
I last saw Merriweather, perched on a bare branch in her mew, feathers slightly ruffed up, glaring through jet eyes at the wet world outside. I like to think I know how she felt. Some days the shades just aren't enough.
Somewhere I picked up this odd fetish. I want to know the origins of food. No, it’s not a sort of Monk-esque phobia where I can’t eat anything I can’t place. I just like to know. So when it occurs to me, and I happen to be wandering my local library or Barnes & Noble, along with books on CCS, fly-fishing, science fiction and fantasy, hostas, and poetry, I browse books on food. Along with an appetite, I pick up some esoteric trivia.
Most of it is counterintuitive, so guessing is pretty hopeless, though it can be fun. Never trust a label. Take potatoes, for example. If you remember a bit of history, you will probably think of the potato famines and Irish potatoes. That was when some fungus or virus attacked the potatoes that fed the Irish peasants, so lots of them starved when their crops failed. So, Irish, potatoes, we have a link… potatoes come from Ireland, right?
Nope. First, those plant plagues tend to happen when something is taken from its normal habitat and transferred to an alien environment where it’s exposed to diseases for which it hasn’t developed immunities or resistances. If anything, historical events involving plant diseases let us know the plants involved probably did not originate where the event occurred.
So that leaves Idaho potatoes! Lots of potatoes grow in Idaho, but they didn’t originate there. It seems potatoes originated somewhere in the Andes, probably in what is now Peru. The Spanish conquistadores dragged them back and somewhere along the line spread them on towards Ireland and Idaho, to central Europe for wodka and latkes. (Oddly enough vodka was first made from rye, not potatoes. But with the advent of the potato and its easier fermenting, vodka was forever changed.)
Then there’s the case of that faithful companion to pasta, the tomato. Is it possible Italians ever lived without tomatoes? Was there life before marinara sauce? There must have been. The Romans had no tomatoes and the Romans are generally considered to have lived, even lived well at times.
But it wasn’t until an annoyingly obsessed and persistent Genovese (Genoa wasn’t exactly a part of Italy then, since Italy didn’t exactly exist yet) talked Queen Isabella of Castille into funding a wildly speculative voyage of exploration straight out into the Atlantic that the Italians-to-be got their tomatoes so they could sauce their pasta with marinara. Maybe it was the tomato that unified Italy!
Tomatoes appear to have come back pretty early in the Spanish explorations from the area of Mexico. The current theory is that they too originated in the area of Peru with potatoes, but trading between the Andean and Central American peoples probably moved them north. Even though the Castillians were fabulous bureaucrats and kept records of almost everything, they didn’t always make notes of which ship brought back seeds for which sort of plant. Mostly they recorded where the gold and silver came from. Maybe the fact that most seeds don’t look much like the plant, or fruit, they produce had something to do with it too.
One of my favorites is the chili pepper. It too came back, possibly with Cristoforo Colón on his return from his first voyage. What’s amazing about capsicum, though, is how fast it conquered the world. Those little, red, hot peppers made Atilla the Hun and Genghis Khan look like sluggards. They haven’t relinquished a square foot of soil either. They first caught my attention, and scortched my yet innocent lips, miles back off the main river in the Amazon. I didn’t know then that those little bird peppers, hotter than fire, were probably natives, but I would have assumed so. They were so far away from civilization that it would have been hard to believe they arrived by trading. Current theory is that capsicum originated in the area of Bolivia, not all that far south of where I first came to feel their burn.
Now, peppers extend around the world and have become irreplaceable in many “native” cuisines. Try to imagine Chinese or Southeast Asian cooking without hot peppers. Okay, okay, maybe you’re one of the wimps that never eats anything that bites back, but, trust me, they’re vital. Paprika, that staple of Hungarian goulash is, yep, nothing but ground up peppers. Where would Cajuns be without their Tobasco? Where would Mexicans be without their molés?
But another world traveller that did not originate in South America also had penetrated those jungles. The banana is ubiquitous in the Amazon basin, even as it is in Central America, home of the “banana republics,” and many other tropical areas of the world. It’s a tropical plant, and doesn’t much like freezing temperatures, so it hasn’t conquered the world to the degree that peppers have. It’s gotten around though.
I always assumed bananas were native Americans. I assumed wrong. Bananas reached Europe before tomatoes, potatoes and peppers. They took the land route from somewhere in southeastern Asia, it seems. Seagoing peoples carried them into the Pacific and down as far as Australia too. They made the trip across the Atlantic in the opposite direction, probably from Africa to Brazil. By the time I was wandering the backcountry of the Amazon they were everywhere and seemed native.
Their companion in the tropics, papaya, on the other hand, did originate in the Americas, probably in Mexico or Central America. Papaya didn’t conquer the world even to the degree the banana has though. It has made better inroads in recent years. Papayas are pretty delicate, even more so than the tougher varieties of bananas, so maybe their delicacy had something to do with their slow spread. Not enough people were exposed to the fruit, healthy as it is, to drive the spread of the plants themselves. Or maybe they are even pickier than bananas when it comes to growing conditions.
It started in one of those rambling flyshop conversations at Atlanta Flyfishing Outfitters. I think we took a wrong turn after talking about the article Grays ran on fishing for carp with dry flies —how some western fishermen were sneaking out to use them as warm-ups for bonefish. Matt dropped in, as an aside, how he'd seen a lot of big carp in Peachtree Creek. It was late summer. It was a hot summer. The mountain streams were running tepid and the trout were seriously stressed. Even the 'hooch, with that bluecold water coming out from beneath Lanier, was steaming. We'd seen heat advisory after heat advisory and it was getting to where taking a hot shower in the morning was the coolest part of the day.
I'd given up my plans to spend my month off from school in Florida trying to learn how to fish in salt-water after losing, the first day, my whole chain of keys in the gulf. Some things are just signs. I came home with the single spare key I owned —a car key I kept in my wallet— and settled down to a spree of lock changing before getting that antsy feeling that means I need to go fishing. It really wasn't the heat that got to me. At least I don't think it was.
Anyway, catfish came up in that conversation. I think I mentioned how down at Dad's lake they would come up with their whiskers waving as they vacuumed food down from the surface when Dad fed them. I probably wondered aloud what one would be like on a fly rod. That was when Matt shrugged and said, "I've caught catfish on flies."
A line like that can change lives. Mind you, it's not that I have anything against cats —catfish, that is— I've caught lots, and big ones, some as big as I was at the time. But never on lures, and especially not on flies. Always it was trotlines, big nets, spears —okay, okay, this wasn't in the USA. I grew up in the Amazon, but that's a different story. I just didn't associate cats with active hunting. I also thought of them as hunting by scent, or taste, rather than by sight. I wasn't sure a fly, despite the possible presence of organic material in the feathers or fur , would be quite to their taste.
Matt went on and explained immediately—as would any fisherman careful of his reputation. He'd been fishing for bass and brim with poppers on one of the reservoirs, Lake Jackson I think he said, and he saw a disturbance up in a little cove. With visions of hog bass dancing before his eyes, he laid his popper right up in there and to his delight saw it disappear in a swirl. But the fish acted weird. It pulled strangely. It dove with an odd sort of throbbing. It didn't do one of those line-zinging sideways curves that spells big bluegill nor did it come up for one of those gill-thrashing sort of lumbers that bass-fishermen call jumps. Well, you know the punch-line. It was a cat. He admitted he'd caught a few others in similar circumstances. All accidents, of course.
But it got me thinking.
That weekend I went down to Dad's lake. He was off in Papua New Guinea, but I hadn't planned it that way. I just decided that in hot weather it was probably better strategy to fish for warm-water fish. You know, bass, bluegills —not catfish.
The lake was a bit sluggish. As evening came on things picked up a little. I was taking a few decent bluegills on my own version of a wooly bugger, this thing I tie with bead-chain eyes, a bit of crystal flash, and not too much lead, usually in olive or black. My sister, Kanda, and her husband, Chuck, showed up about then with their big iron and set out cruising the lake in their little bassmobile, so I tracked down a paddle and piled into Dad's Grumman canoe, elegantly perching far in the stern so the bow rode about two feet above the surface. It was peaceful. They use an electric motor so the only noise was me dropping my paddle onto that bare aluminum. They were far enough off that I couldn't see any looks shot my way.
There's always a bit of competition between my sister and me. Nothing major, just this gentle teasing from me about proper ways to fish. There's also the implicit "I can catch as many fish with this weenie fly-rod as you can with your big ugly stick." Sometimes I do too. She doesn't let it bother her; she just matter-of-factly holds up each bass, not quite in my direction, before she lets it go.
I'd decided, not because she was there, but just because I was tired of bluegills, to go looking for some bass, so I tied on a larger version of my Bead-Chain Crystal Bugger ("BCCB" for short) and started casually chunking it at stumps and other bits of cover associated with bass. Fishing was slow. Kanda had only held up one yearling she'd dredged up with a plastic worm or some other monstrosity.
Then I saw this sort of half-splash, half-swirl just off the point of Dad's one island. I think he left that island there on purpose, for aesthetic reasons, but Dad isn't the sort to seem concerned with those kinds of things, so I haven't dared ask. I was afraid it might embarrass him. In any case, he has a wind sock out there for when he has to fly a floatplane in or out. Right in the shadow of that sock something moved in the water. The place had bass written all over it; and I seemed to remember Kanda mentioning to me that there is usually a nice bass hanging right around that point. She lives a half mile away; she has home-lake advantage: she knows these things. I figured it would be nice to sort of hold that one up in her direction.
My cast was okay. My BCCB blipped into the water about a foot from where I saw the swirl. Or where I told myself I saw it after seeing where my cast landed. I watched as the leader was slowly and evenly pulled under as the fly sank, then it sort of zipped a bit with that dart that says fish and I tightened up and felt a weight on the other end. Now, it could have been a snag; there was certainly a lot of brush right there in the water, that was what made it look so fishy. But there was that zip. That said fish.
I'd been having real trouble with the bigger bass in the lake. I usually fish a little 4 weight since that makes the big bluegills fun, but I always have a hard time setting up solidly on bigger bass with that rod. I'd switched to a 6 weight thinking a bit more spine might help me seat the barb. Now I reared back and socked it to what I hoped was a fish. I'd also gone up a few sizes on my leader; as a result I didn’t immediately catch six feet of my leader with my face. I considered a second or two, then I banged it in a couple more times. It is definitely not a limb. It is charging off to the left with a steady pulsing vibration that spells fish. These thoughts were swirling around in my mind as I was slowly swirling around and around in circles in that canoe.
From somewhere out there outside that spiral I think I remember hearing, "I think Dan caught one." It seems it was Chuck's voice, but I was a bit dizzy so I may have imagined it. I heard some chuckling anyway.
The fish was not coming up as bass usually did, and it was not sizzling off in a bluegill's sizzling arc, but it had not yet quite occurred to me what was happening. I was still imaging holding up a nice 4 or 5 pound bass to admire backlit against the sky (not in Kanda's direction) before, wistfully, letting it go. The fish was definitely headed to the bottom. I could feel it rummaging through the junk down there, looking for the perfect snag to wrap me on. I knew when it found it too. I felt it swerve and surge and then my contact with the fish got that feel it does when the fish has found a fulcrum with which it plans to move the world. Since I was in the canoe, which was spinning with both the wind and the forces equal and opposite to the fish's tow, my problem was not at all complex. All I had to do was hold on. And worry. I visualized what was happening those few feet down; I find it's easier to worry effectively when one visualizes what is going wrong. When I felt that change, stories from old Field & Streams issues floated up from my muddy memory: there were all those wonderful tricks the masters had used to stir up big fish that had found hidey-holes where they planned to wait things out. I picked one. I started strumming on that wire-tight line like it was a one-stringed banjo, and darned if that fish didn't respond to a little fiddlin’. It was soon out in open water again, where it had room to maneuver properly —and it went right back to twirling its partner, me, around the floor.
But I knew I had it now.
Fighting fish has phases. First there's that worry over establishing that the connection is real. Then there's the tentative struggle over who's going to control the relationship. Finally comes the waiting for the inevitable. We both knew now I had it —though it still looked like it had me from the way it was dragging me around the lake. But its circles became gradually more shallow and finally it was pushing a wake. I couldn't quite see the fish itself yet; the combination of a late afternoon sun and my position almost beneath water level insured even polarized glasses weren't enough to penetrate the surface. Then something odd happened: the line appeared in front of the wake. There was a second of wondering how on earth the fish managed to cook up that huge tangle of leader —then I realized I was seeing barbels.
I laughed at the inevitability of it all.
It wouldn't fit into my net so I towed it back to shore, beached both the canoe and the cat, then ran to the car for the Polaroid. The BCCB was set solidly in the fleshy corner of its mouth and I almost had to resort to surgery to extricate it. But finally the hook worked free. I knelt and let the cat slip back into the lake. It sashayed off, head high, whiskers waving.
Kanda and Chuck were calling it a day, slapping at mosquitoes as they loaded their bassmobile onto the back of Chuck's pickup.
"So, how big was it," Kanda asked.
I shrugged as I calculated, then added a pound. "Three or four pounds."
She nodded. "Nice fish."
I grinned, then walked over to show her the ghostly image of the cat appearing through the gray on the film.
She raised one eyebrow in a way she must have learned from Star Trek reruns, "A catfish?"
If I hadn't had that fly-shop conversation, if Kanda and Chuck had not been there to witness the water ballet, if Dad had not been out of the country (he loves eating catfish, so I wouldn't have been able to let it go) the poetry would not have been there. Yeah, catfish, poetry, the perfect pair.
I waved goodbye, then loaded my own gear and headed off, turning on the dome light occasionally to see how the Polaroid shot was turning out.
(published in May/June 2000, Fly Rod & Reel)
It sounds like an oxymoron, I know, but then so does "magical realism." The latter is very much into the grit and grime of day to day life, but with a blurred edge where reality crosses past wishful thinking into fantasy. The impossible is not in magical realism.
In modern fantasy fiction there is a sort of equal and opposite move. Classical fantasy tended towards a sort of antiseptic alternate reality. There was some dirt, and blood, but it was not matched with its commensurate burden of dirtiness and pain. Evil was archetypical, not a byproduct of stupid stubbornness beyond reason. Beauty, both descriptive and of action, was pure, not grimed with mixed motivation and unanswerable questions of which act was more, or less, "right." These are, of course, generalities.
But there seems to be a shift in progress, or maybe done. Sometime in the 1990's science fiction started running a bit dry. Swords and sorcery was stale on the whole. Then bigger, in many senses, fantasy books began appearing on the shelves. There was already an appetite for long sequences in fantasy. Tolkein's works are an example dating back to the mid-20th century. But this move wasn't to long "books," as we might call these epic series extending out past five or more 500-page works. These long epics probably stemmed from reader feedback begging, "more, more." (The science fiction and fantasy "genre" has long had an excellent feedback channel in "fandom.")
No, the move to which I refer is one from moral simplicity to complexity equal to that in the best mainstream fiction. Fantasy became serious. I mean serious in the sense that it seeks to ask unanswerable questions in a sophisticated and provocative manner. Science fiction has long explored these questions and thus it was the more "serious" (as those who have not read much science fiction may be shocked to hear) of the paired genres in the "science fiction and fantasy" category on the bookshelf.
One common thread pointed out by Paul Howard is that of the other. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye remains the first book of this sort I think of, but Orson Scott Card's Ender series perhaps deals with the question more in depth, and certainly at greater length. As I mentioned below, Janny Wurts's long series also engages these questions, among others. More on this in the future.
Another trend is away from "grit and violence light" to a sort of realistic treatment that would do the writers of 19th century realism proud. Wurts has her share. Her characters endure terrible pain and privation, and it seems they barely heal from the last wound, or recover from the last bout of extreme cold, when they encounter something as bad or worse. When George R.R. Martin, Terry Goodkind, and J.V. Jones, are set beside her, I wonder if fantasy writing hasn't been usurped by a cult of sado-masochists. (All that leather and chainmail at conventions may be influencing my thinking here...) These are ruthless writers. They routinely spend whole books engendering a deep love in their readers for characters that endure a great amount, and then finally allow the "one more bout" to kill them. A reader simply cannot tell from the early going what character will or will not survive the ending of the epic.
Martin leads this class. Not only does he ruthlessly burn, behead, or pincushion with arrows characters that appear for whole books to be essential, he turns antagonists into sympathetic characters through a long and painful process of growth and change. There are moments when I hated him so much for what he did to some of his children that I nearly threw the book against the wall. But I couldn't stop reading even while my throat slammed shut like a drawbridge. I missed the sunrise more than once, and not because I was asleep. His fourth book of the series (A Song of Ice and Fire) is out in hardback now and I'm not sure I'll be able to wait for the paperback edition.
Martin's series is based on whole royal, or at least noble, families. Some are predominately sympathetic; some are not. But within each family there tends to be someone sympathetic, or, at least, someone that becomes more and more sympathetic over time. Each family also tends to have its black sheep. Some die, some change. So far no family has entirely died out, but that possibility exists. The hatreds, which in some cases predate the first book, are deepening and widening and becoming intricately complicated.
Most of the other writers I mentioned do have clear protagonists and antagonists, though it isn't always clear which is which. These are huge epics and many characters draw our attention. Wurts, for example, appears committed to Arithon and Lysaer (through five books), but no one around them is immune from sudden, or slow and excruciating, death (except, maybe, the "Fellowship" of near immortal mages). Some of those "secondary," supporting characters feel just as important as the primary ones, at least for a long time. And I can't even say for certain that the two apparent protagonists will survive the end. I haven't read the sixth book (yet), and I'm not sure there won't be more books either.
If you got the impression I think Martin is the best of the crop, I must be communicating well. He's the best writer of the batch, so far. That said, I'm not sure he's the most interesting from a literary angle. In rereading Wurts I'm finding a lot of provocation to thought. Martin is so involving it's hard to get enough distance from the immediate (and long-term) concerns of his characters.
I spend a lot of time comparing these writers to Steven Brust. I think he's Martin's equal as a writer, but his sort of story is very different. He's far more interested in manners and mannered prose. His writings are acutely self-conscious in a wry, ironic way that keeps me smiling. Brust is an excellent storyteller, but he's equally interested in the question of how stories are told. Thus, while all the others listed above use third-person, omniscient (or near omniscient) and reliable narrators, Brust prefers first person narrators who are not unquestionably reliable. Brust's books have personality in a way the others do not. The books themselves, rather than the characters, have a personality since the narrator has his own voice, whether or not he actually serves as a character in the "story" of the book.
While Brust isn't of the sado-masochist's school of fantasy, isn't as messily realistic, his books make their own bid to be taken more seriously than the typical fantasy of the mid to late 20th century. With a few exceptions (Tolkein, most notably) fantasy is ignored in literary circles. Even more so than science fiction has been. If this trend towards realistic fantasy continues, fantasy will have to be taken more seriously.
I want to comment on Clancy, but not quite yet. I recently came across this article on him though: Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan Replaced by Gen-X Version.
It mostly deals with the question of whether Clancy's actually writes the Tom Clancy books. I know he collaborated early on with Larry Bond, but comparing Clancy's books to Bond's books makes it look like Bond wasn't the key to the writing. Bond's books are okay. Clancy's books, the ones with just his name on the cover, are generally pretty good. Both are pretty good storytellers, but I give the Clancy books a fairly solid edge on the writing.
I admit the question over whether Clancy wrote Clancy does decrease my urge to write about the books seriously. Irrational, I know, but there it is.
The difference between a bad politician and a good politician is not that one lies and the other does not. All politicians lie. The good politician does not waste a lie when the truth will do; the bad politician can't remember which is which but says whatever would seem to be what her audience wants to hear.
After I wrote my Apologia Pro Potter, I stumbled over this piece by Paul Howard on National Review Online: Magical Clarity: Lord Voldemort beats out Magneto, hands down.
I haven't yet read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix due to a squeezed book-buying budget resulting from underemployment (as you can probably guess from some of the times on these posts), so I can't yet comment on that one.
I agree with much of what Howard says. The moral clarity is clear at the macro level, though I would argue it gets a bit fuzzy towards the micro end of the measure. Potter and Co. are pretty free about breaking rules, and the rules they break by no means are all silly or questionable. Some are good rules, and not in the way of their pursuit to thwart evil, they're just being kids. That is fine, realistic even, but it doesn't always contribute to moral clarity. This is not per se a bad thing, however. Too much moral clarity makes things preachy, and not many enjoy that. Too much moral clarity (in fiction, at least) also discourages thinking about the moral issues.
"Fantasy novels, in contrast to science fiction, have traditionally embraced these classic moral archetypes."
One thing interesting about modern fantasy, a fairly new trend, is a move away from the classic archetypes. I want to write more on this soon, but I'll toss in one example.
I'm rereading Janny Wurts's series The Wars of Light and Shadow now, and Wurts does not conform to the classic archetypes. She nods to them, then takes a post-modernish turn and subverts them.
Wurts is a solid storyteller, but she isn't as easy to read as Rowling is. Wurts's prose tends towards ultraviolet, and as a result reading her is work. It's roughly equivalent to reading 19th century prose in difficulty, and I don't see that the odd choices of words and the stirring in of extra modifiers do more than cloud the tale itself. I admit to sometimes skipping whole paragraphs at the beginning of chapters to avoid a lot of description.
But I am rereading the five I have in the series, and just picked up the sixth today, so you can see I like her storytelling.
"In the X-Men universe (and much of American academia), fear of the "Other" (racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia) is the original sin that inevitably leads to genocide..."
Wurts certainly pulls in the fear of the other. Her big "other" is comprised of those who use magic, and to a lesser degree those who were seen as allied with the mages and magicusers are also treated as others. So, if this is a shift in fantasy (and I think Howard is on to something), Wurts is there.
After delays, partly due to launching another, work-related, blog, I return to trying to make something of this. Okay, I plead guilty, there was also a sort of paralysis brought about by a lack of clarity of my intent involved. So I took more time to explore other blogs (always a major temptation) and think about what I wanted to put into a blog. I hope I have a better idea now of what I want to do to make this interesting for you readers, and different. I want to be freshly masticated, not regurgitated, natter.
Voice, acknowledgement of what is different in the perspective I bring, and not writing unless I have something to say will be my aim. There may be some gaps in routine as a result (once there is a routine to gap and gouge).
I am writing this, and what comes before "pre-launch." I hope to sweep aside the electronic veil soon, once there is something here that might actually engage you more than this does.
With Baptist missionary parents, I have in my circle of acquaintances those who consider the Herry Potter books from the extreme fundamentalist perspective. To them the books promote witchcraft. Or as those who think more than feel (thinking by "feeling" is a common fault, the path between is very narrow and easy from which to stray) might say, the books desensitize us to the real threat of evil that exists in the practice of witchcraft. These are almost opposite stances, but both end up against the books.
With the recent publication of yet another in the myriadology, I spent some time thinking on the merit, or lack of merit, in these positions. Rowling is, it is said by at least one critic, of the Inkling school of writers. This is a group of English writers with a stated goal of producing "Christian fiction." Included in its roster are such names as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein. I have done little biographical study of the authors themselves and only very light reading of criticism, but I have read a fair number of their works. From my reading I would say that they lean towards the writing of fanasy that "teaches" (in the sense of Horace's dictum) Christian philosophy including sacrifice, redemption, and generally fighting the good fight even when victory appears impossible. In these works evil is the turning away from good, a clear analogue to the Christian teaching that sin is the turning away from God.
With this in mind, I first re-read Tolkein's great trilogy. I would have been hesitant to employ that adjective before this last reading (my third or fourth). Since the prior reading I have completed a B.A. and an M.A. in English, and while now even more sparing in my use of "great," after delving deeply into the canon I feel more comfortable that I have read what lies at both extremes of the qualitative spectrum. Tolkein's trilogy must rank with only a short list of works for its quality of writing and content. This isn't meant to be a critical work on Tolkein, however, I simply wished to establish my regard for his work so that I might use it as a measuring stick.
I then read the first three Potter novels. They are well-written. They are great fun. It was a second or third read.
Before I say more, I wish to bracket them with yet another fantasy work, one with which few will be familiar. Steven Brust is in my opinion another superb writer of fantasy. There are good storytellers, and good writers, and some who are both. I treat the two separately as much as possible, as that explains how I can wince at the writing in a book which I cannot put down. If the story is compelling enough, I forgive laxity in the writing. If the writing is beautiful and compelling enough, I forgive lapses in the storytelling. For a work to push its author up into the ranks of the few, both must be present. Five Hundred Years After achieves this. Again, my intent here is simply to establish some poles for reference, for myself as much as for you, as I needed to help myself place the Potter books.
Five Hundred Years After is not written (to my knowledge) by one seeking to join the ranks of Inklings. It certainly enthrones some virtues for their own sake, but it is more secularist and pragmatic in general feel. Characters often display selfish motives and whether those produce what might be called good results or bad results is ambiguous. Brust's interest is removed from that aspect. In fact, his interest is more in the posturing of his fictional author, whose voice dominates the telling and the tale. This "author" is writing a work of history. This is actually analagous to Tolkein, since the trilogy is being written by Bilbo, Frodo, and finally Sam as the story progresses. The voices of those fictional authors in The Lord of the Rings are not prominent in the "writing," however. The voice we hear is Tolkein's.
Here we have a significant difference between Tolkein and Brust's works on the one hand, and Rowling's on the other. Rowling's work is simpler in structure. It is straightforward narrative. It is also more in the mystery genre than are the others. It depends for much of its effect on surprise and knowledge withheld (through appropriate use of point of view) from the reader (and the protagonist). As one who loves the layered complexity of Hamlet or the self-conscious parody and posturing of Don Quijote, I cannot help but deduct literary points from Rowling. But I admit the love of literary complexity is an acquired taste. It matters less to a general audience than to a critic.
Rowling sticks to a third-person narrator, as does Tolkien. Both use a limited narrator. What the narrator tells us is what the point-of-view character (of the moment) knows. This form of narrator is fairly ubiquitous in modern fiction. The chief failing of a writer in this form is to slip and have the narrator withhold knowledge the point-of-view character has available, or its opposite, to tell something that character does not know. Either is what I call "cheating." Rowling does no glarling cheating that I see.
Rowling's storytelling is rolicking good fun. Though her target audience is made up of adolescents, adults read her also for the delight in her plot twists, her over-the-top (almost campy) characters, and even her expert (and fun) use of language herself. And her target audience reads her. Anything (almost anything, at least) that gets kids, especially young boys, to read is A Good Thing in my eyes. But it's that "almost anything" aside that is the driving question.
Rowling's work has literary merit, more than most other works published. It cannot be dismissed as "trash" in that sense, as some might wish. The writing goes beyond what is needed to relate the tale itself, though not as far as my measuring sticks above. She also creates her own parallel world which she populates with imaginary things and beings, some borrowed, others not. Her world impinges on the "real world," however. While her task is more complicated than that of the writer of a mystery and manners novel set today in today's world, it is less so than that of Tolkein or Brust, who create whole new worlds with no real linkage to ours. Her world inhabits an analogous world to Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth, in which ghosts and witches are real beings, and magic does work.
It is that point, that of magic working, that raises the objections to the works in the more Fundamentalist circles. It's odd that Shakespeare mostly escapes condemnation on the same charge. And Tolkein ("Who's Brust?" they would ask.) I was visiting with my parents this weekend past and discussed this with them.
My first question to any who condemn is "have you read any of the books?" Once we have established that I have, and they haven't, we can go on to discuss their objections which are mostly based on fallacious information. Hearsay is a weak position from which to argue.
With the few Fundamentalists who have read any Potter at all... well, that's a pleasant fantasy to date. I haven't found one. I know they exist and I'd love the chance to discuss with them their criticism. Since I haven't been able, I have to postulate their side for them.
The first thing that strikes a reader is the tone of the writing. It is humorous. It is hyperbolic. People aren't just fat; they are so fat they overlap their chairs. People aren't just cruel; they are so cruel that they make young, orphaned boys (our protagonist!) live in a closet ("cupboard") under the stairs with spiders. The tone, to any moderately skilled reader, clearly shouts "this is fiction, this is all made up, it's like a fairy tale!" Those who haven't read any Potter, of course, don't read this intralinear message. I called the tone "near-camp" in my conversation with my parents. Then I had to explain "camp."
I argue that this tone establishes that the trappings, which are treated hyperbolically, and which include magic, wizards, witches, are meant to be taken unseriously. They are used for fun effects. If they are not taken seriously by the author (as to my eye they clearly are not), surely she cannot mean for her audience to take them seriously. Yes, we enter the nebulous realm of authorial intent. But there is no contradiction here to any spoken word of the living author, or the appraisal of literary critics. From what evidence we have available, her use of wizardry and witchcraft is not meant be in any way suggestive that magic works, or that one should take it seriously, or, most importantly, that one should try to do it. So those who claim Rowling in advocating witchcraft are simply wrong.
But to some, that is not quite the problem. They would argue that witchcraft is, and is evil. It is condemned by the Bible. Books such as the Potter books, they would say, are problematic because they make a real evil seem to be nothing, a game. This is a more interesting argument, but not a compelling one. If someone insists on holding to this line they presumably also do not read Shakespear, who by their standard must de-evilize fornication, adultery, and other acts that are clearly designated as unacceptable behavior in the Bible. They also must avoid all but the news on television, watch nothing Hollywood produces, avoid most or all fiction, and... live lives detached from day-to-day life in this world God created. That is an extreme stance, one extrapolated from certain excised portions of the Bible, but hardly modeled on Jesus's example. Jesus got out and rubbed elbows with the world, though he did not become as the world. Whether he would or would not read fiction as we know it, or write it, is another whole subject. He did speak in parables, which certainly are a sort of fiction. They conveyed Truth, while playing freely with facts. That is the historical claim of fiction.
Wizardry and witchcraft, as portrayed in the Potter books is not "real" and is not, per se, "evil." If there might be some harm in this (in their point of view), I would argue it is overwhelmed by the good.
The good, as I see it, in the Potter books is that they are encouraging a wave of reading. The very ethic, on which most of Fundamentalist education is based, is that education is good and necessary. Since we have free will to choose good or evil, it is necessary and important that we educate ourselves sufficiently well (can we ever be sufficiently well educated?) to know good from evil to make the proper choices. To those who would argue all they need is The Bible I can only say they are fortunate. While it is the foundation, it is impossible to operate effectively in this world without more knowledge and education. The Bible gives no practical guidance on how to drive a car, brush one's teeth, or type on a keyboard. But, I admit, the reading of fiction isn't often a large help in these areas either. Why we read anything other than how-to works is a whole other subject.
The way to learn to read is to read. The more one reads, the better one reads. Reading anything is better than reading nothing, as far as polishing one's reading skill goes. Reading better writing is better exercise. Reading things that make one think, rather than just watch the narrative unravel is even better. Reading lies presented as facts (as opposed to as fiction) might hone one's skill at reading, (and at recognizing lies... if one does), but can certainly introduce problems (be wary of newspapers!) Of course there must be balance.
To overprotect children from the world is to leave them unprepared for the world. I was not raised isolated from the world. My parents did exert some control over what I read and saw on television, who my friends were, and what I did or did not do. But my parents mostly spent their time trying to teach me how to judge things on their merits. To do that I needed both information, and training in how to evaluate information. My parents did observe many of my choices, and they sometimes questioned me on them. But they mostly allowed (and sometimes forced) me to make my own decisions, and to live with the consequences in some fashion.
Aside from other literary merit, I find the "teaching" of Potter fuzzy. Before allowing this to appear as some sort of condemnation, most modern fiction shares this attribute. What's more, I consider the greatest literature to perfect it. By not quite taking a position, or by presenting alternate positions, the choice is left to the reader. This allows, or forces, the reader to exercise choice. Exercise is how we build strength. Consumption alone produces fat; only by both consuming and exercising do we build muscle, whether physical or mental. So I do not consider Potter's fuzziness a bad thing, though it's not clearly as good a thing as in the greatest literature.
Rowling's characters break the rules often, and while there are sometimes negative consenquences, the breaking of rules is often justified by the results. I can make argument that she is Jesuitical in her thinking: the ends justify the means. (This is a fallacious correlary of "by their fruits shall ye know them," snce all acts are "fruits," not just the end results.) On the other hand loyalty is elevated, as is, to some degree, sacrifice. This produces some fuzzy ethics in areas where they come into conflict. It could be used to produce some instructive thought and discussions. Rather than seek to ban the Potter books, concerned parents would serve their children better by reading the book to or with them. If there is something with which they disagree, they can explain why. They might themselves learn from that exercise as they did so.
Few today are learning that reading is fun. Few today read for enjoyment at all. Yet reading is the best method of continuing learning once formal schooling is done. The spoken word is far less considered and perfected than is the written word. This is why formal speech is usually read from pre-written text. The practice of reading (and it takes practice) is of utmost importance to the development of educated minds. To discourage kids form reading something they want to read for fun is the greater evil.
There is indeed magic in any words that kids want to read, good magic. If we had more such wizards of words we wouldn't have to fight to teach kids to read.
"Unless you think hard about political questions in our culture, you are liberal by default. You have to think your way out of liberalism."
That's from an interview with Heather MacDonald that was an inateresting read. I'm not sure how she meant that, it may have been flip, but in a PC-dominated culture it may have substance. All of the PC positions I can think of are liberal in the modern sense (and some in the classical sense too). Therefore, if you don't "think hard," you will probably just come up with the stock, politically "correct," position.
But it's really a matter of your environment. If everyone around you is conservative, you won't move towards liberalism or libertarianism unless you actually think there. The Big Lie effect tends to make us regurgitate the answer we hear most often to political questions unless we actually dig around in our bags for our thinking caps.
Of course, a typical day's television watching will drum in liberal PC answers to the 100 most commonly asked political questions.
I, Dan, rose from the waters of birth with a rod in one hand. From the hospital my parents took me immediately to the Thornapple River. There I caught my first fish, a bluegill, under my Grandmother’s osprey eye. For four years I called that my home water, then another kind of fishing set my life off onto a wilder trajectory. My father, being a fisher of men, took us off to the wild backcountry of Brazil, more commonly known as “the Amazon.” (My parents are missionaries for A.B.W.E. In fact, they just went back to the Amazon for yet another term since there is a shortage of pilots.)
Over the next twelve years I learned every form of fishing known to man. (Well, I did miss out on ice fishing, and I refused to try dynamite, though I did try firecrackers once.) Somehow I also found time to learn to read, and developed an interest in electronics, along with the usual things. I spoke Portuguese from the time I was four, took the first grade in Portuguese, then shifted to an English mix of correspondence courses and missionary boarding schools. I had a total of four years of schooling, of my first twelve, in American schools, when we were back in the States on furlough (in the 4 on, 1 off pattern).
I was back in the States, we’d settled in Atlanta, for my senior year, and I enrolled in Georgia Tech. My interest in electronics mutated into an interest in computers and programming. I dropped out after one year though. I was bored. I had been working as a weekend announcer at a small radio station. I took a mailroom job at a regional brokerage firm and worked both. Two years later, after a series of rapid promotions, I was moved to Wall Street to help open a clearing office there for the brokerage firm. Fourteen months later they moved me back to Atlanta to run the stock transfer department. I wanted to automate most of it, but they didn’t believe I knew what I was doing, so I made a couple of calls and quit to start my own company. I wrote accounting software for the then emerging microcomputers for the next five years, developing a full accounting system for hotels along the way.
I sold out of that and took a job as a systems engineer with a computer firm and did the high-tech, rat-race thing, moving into networking, then internetworking companies. Somewhere in this period I started writing a bit and hanging around with writers. I suddenly wished I’d gotten the formal education I’d missed. So I started taking night classes at Georgia State, mostly literature and writing. When, after yet another job move, an upheaval wiped out my manager and changed the complexion of that company, I just quit and went back to school fulltime. When the degree was in sight, I sent out the apps for grad school. University of Chicago gave me the nod, so I went there for an M.A. I considered a Ph.D., but… maybe later. The politics in the academy are not attractive and I was losing my joy in reading too.
Coming out of that I promptly jumped back into the rat race (after a bit of fishing and frolicking in virtual worlds). This time it was network security companies, then consulting. I’m currently underemployed. I’m doing one ongoing job producing a monthly report on the medical privacy landscape and waiting for some contracts to close. Meanwhile I work at writing and fish less than I could.
Besides reading (almost anything) and writing, I’ve had a long and deadly relationship with computer games, mostly of the more strategic sorts. I’ve played most of the online games starting way back in the dark ages of hourly charges for 300 baud connections. I can’t resist checking out the new ones, but I am jaded now, and burn out fast. I did a google on my name today and found out that a scenario I did for Civilization II has won fan awards in the meanwhile, which is pretty cool. I also turned up some references to old (bad) poems I published and strategy articles for games. It’s amazing the junk the web preserves.
And now I blog when the urge overwhelmes me. I like the immediacy, I admit. Were I a “real” writer, I’d work a series of essays into a book. Maybe I can do that through the backdoor of blogging. I sure won’t do it the traditional way.
Jim Henley asked in an email, "What is 'dislogue?'" In the process of naming this thing, I early on decided it would have to be a coinage. Every word I tried was already claimed in the registries. Eyeing the blogrolls, however, I noted that a lot were coinages, so I thought, "why not?" Since a blog is something between a monologue and a dialogue, and a lot of bloggers (myself included) tend towards the cranky, I thought of 'dis.' The pun worked on several levels, so it stuck. It really wasn't just the obvious pun that named this (b)log.
My aim for dislogue is one post per day. I hope to do longer pieces that let me explore whatever I write about at some length. The mix will probably be a lot of book talk, occasional fishing, comments on other media and culture, a bit of doggerel, and some personal essays.
At the moment I’m not traveling at all so it’s a pure discipline issue. That could change if work picks up.
Comments always welcome.