Distributed Mind

"I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves."

Your hosts: J. Lowry, B. Martin.

October 11, 2011

A Different Way of Publishing

by ben

An idea I've been kicking around - various forms of which I've thought of over the years, esepcially with regards to music, but in this case, I'm thinking of the context of (text) publishing. I think we need a non-profit organization whose responsibility would be to give grants to support authors for the time necessary to write a book. The purpose of the funding though is not just to cover labor and other expenses, it is also in part to make up the lost potential revenue from other endeavors in that time period - not to cover it completely, but I think it makes sense to make this more generous than just the strict amount necessary or so.

Though the author may retain the copyright (or maybe the organization? probably the author though), all works funded by such grants must be licensed according to something like a Creative Commons license. I'm not totally sure which provisions are important in a C license for such a thing, but I think it might be good if possible to allow derivative works.

The other responsibility of this organization would be to distribute the work. Distribution would be primarily digital, but hard copies should also be distributed, for something in line with the material and labor costs for the printing.

Money for such an organization would be needed to cover the grants, the distribution infrastructures, and costs for editing, etc. I don't know about editors - would they be freelance for each project? Volunteer? I'm not sure.

I think the organization should generally seek out authors though there should be perhaps some way of selecting some first time authors as well. Or maybe the organization could accept proposals too, not sure.

Also, there should be some way of covering short stories as well. Perhaps they could be covered at like two or more times a reasonable and/or typical rate.

This is all in the context of secular publishing. I think it would be even more interesting to see something like this happen with religious publishing - but then the licensing terms should be even more generous - maybe even public domain?

Ideally, there would be many such organizations (and especially, ones that would be friendly to first time authors). But I think to get started, a pilot project involving higher profile authors, or something, would be a good idea.

(Note also that this is very similar to my earlier proposals about music.)

23:34:17 - Media - ben - No comments

August 19, 2009

Howard Phillips Lovecraft

by ben

After many years, I have finally gotten around to reading some H. P. Lovecraft. I'm quite a Poe fan, of course, but I'm otherwise not much of a fan of horror, so perhaps this is not very surprising. But I've always been intrigued by the descriptions of Lovecraft's mix of the modern and the horrific, and over the years I've read a few things about his fiction, with an one or two stories over the years thrown in. But only in the last few weeks have I read any serious amount of his fiction.

So far the most interesting stories I have read are "The Nameless City," "The Shunned House," and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."

"The Nameless City" is an early story of Lovecraft and interesting for how it paints an interesting setting composed of the dissonant elements of the Arabian desert and the ruins of an ancient city contrasted with some very alien things. Lovecraft also demonstrates his aptitude for integrating real myths and literary references with invented ones. I'm always a sucker for some good verisimilitude. (Though these details sometimes do step on story - Lovecraft weakens part of the suspense of the story by referencing one of his earlier stories and referring to a city in it that existed before "mankind".) The story itself is, in plot, not very interesting.

"The Shunned House" goes a step farther with the verisimilitude - many of the details are apparently references to real people and places in Providence, R. I. (And for this I'm relying on the excellent notes of S. T. Joshi in the Penguin book The Dreams in the Witch House And Other Weird Stories.) Again, the picture painted by all of this is interesting. I think the plot again here is pretty weak, but the rest still makes it worthwhile. It is interestingly a fairly straightforward horror story, which is unusual for Lovecraft, who prefers strange interdimensional aliens masquerading as deities to vampires and ghosts. Some bonuses were the way he works part of Poe's biography into the story, and that I learned some real werewolf lore through one of his obscure references. Another downside shows up though, while reading the notes, in that turns out many of the more horrific details of the story were fairly directly inspired by actual events and legends, so Lovecraft didn't really add that much. Also, the denouement was very weak.

Finally, we have the legendary "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" which lives up to its hype. The plot here is quite good, though there are some illogical details (why not just let the stranger who only knows rumors leave, rather than try to kill him which will confirm all the rumors). But the suspense is real, even though we know the outcome - though there is a big twist at the end which is unnecessary but not entirely uninteresting (whether the story is better without it or not, I'm not sure, though I tend to wish it had not been added). Also, the story is rather grotesque (not gory - there's no gore), which I don't necessarily consider a positive feature. The worst problem with the story is that it brings out Lovecraft's base obsession with bloodlines. Lovecraft has something of a reputation as a racist and anti-semite, and I think it is more obvious in stories like this. ("The Lurking Fear" is another lower-quality example.)

One thing that tends to bother me in general about Lovecraft is his overuse of adjectives, especially non-visual ones. Things are often "blasphemous," for example, for reasons that we cannot quite understand. Rather than describe the images, Lovecraft decides to describe the effects of those images on the viewer, though he does so in a particularly ineffective way, using effects that seem unlikely to occur in reality to most people. Some stories are worse about this than others.

On the whole, though, I think this has been an interesting exercise. I'm glad I finally tried some of Lovecraft's fiction. At its best, it has the kind of noir-horror feel I had been led to expect. That I occasionally learn something from it is also a bonus. (And I want to mention again how helpful I've found the notes in the Penguin editions - makes me almost curious to read some of Joshi's writings about horror.)

I'd also like to read Supernatural Horror in Literature by Lovecraft. I'm also interested in reading some Dunsany, who was a big influence of Lovecraft. Reading about all this early horror fiction has also led me to some even earlier horror fiction, including, for example, the Hawthorne story "Young Goodman Brown" which I don't recall ever having read before. I forget sometimes how delightfully weird Hawthorne could be. We always think of Poe and forget Hawthorne and Washington Irving.

01:25:32 - Media - ben - No comments

March 13, 2007

An Overly Introspective Look at Media Bias

by ben

Do you think you can handle a glimpse into my thought process? If that's too scary, turn back now...

First, let me begin by reproducing here something that I almost posted:

I just read again, for an arbitrarily large numbered time, that CNN is left-leaning. (In this case it was at least in a context where it was admitted that Fox News "leans to the right.") Now, to me, CNN feels very moderate, if not even just slightly conservative, as do most of the established entities in journalism, The New York Times and The Washington Post included. But, of course, I have something of a reputation for radical, leftist views. Now, there are people who study - and actually attempt to measure - these things, and like most things in life, the political bias of various media entities turns out to be rather complex. (And, of course, many people believe that sensationalism, not politics, is the driving force behind most television news. But that's another whole discussion, and it doesn't really deal with printed news sources quite as well.) But, it can at least apparently be studied.

For the moment, I'll leave such arguments to the professionals. In fact, I'm not especially interested in whether CNN or any other source is moderate or centrist or anything else on the right-left political spectrum. I don't find those measures to be particularly useful in this case.

I happen to remember back to 2003 when such supposedly leftist publications as The New York Times and The Washington Post published stories (and editorials, I think) that in my estimation went out of their way to argue for the presence of non-conventional weapons. Now, I've also seen stories that were more skeptical, but on the whole my impression was that these publications felt that the argument for war based on the presence of such weapons was sound. Rarely was mentioned the obvious point that it really didn't matter whether there were non-conventional weapons in Iraq or not. I'm not saying that these publications were wholly behind the invasion, but on the whole, as they have consistently done in my memory, mainstream media sources tended to go along with an administration's argument for war. (In libertarian or anarchist terms, this goes a long way toward implicating the mainstream media as essentially statist. Obviously, I'm sympathetic at least somewhat to that claim, but that's not really what I'm saying here.)

(This is independent, by the way, questions of competence of mainstream sources. This includes the practice of giving "equal time" regardless of the factuality or logic of the claims of two or at most three arbitrarily-chosen perspectives; the practice of reproducing press releases as news stories; shoddy research, especially for science stories. Again, those are all problems with much of popular mainstream media, but largely irrelevant here, especially since they don't apply to the most commonly chosen bogeymen of the large national entities.)

What I'm getting at here is... I don't care if The New York Times, The Washington Post - and whomever else to the right of The Nation that is being accused of being liberal these days - are conservative, moderate, or liberal. Whatever they are, the aren't liberal enough.

Fortunately (or, actually, in a way, unfortunately), many of these news media entities have chosen to take a more independent path, I imagine as a result of the hard times of the Bush administration. And I'm not just talking about war: questions have been raised about extraordinary rendition and torture, privacy abuses in the name of national security, and indefinite detention of suspected terrorists (including citizens like Josť Padilla), and I'm sure other things which escape my memory at this moment. Of course, all the while questions were also being asked about the traditional business of politics (say, Social Security reform and Medicare and taxes and health care arguments and so on) which is not something that "the press" has tended to give free passes on in the past (though, just for the record, I don't find CNN or The Times or anybody else's coverage to be particularly left-leaning on these issues, but again, my perspective is admittedly skewed). What I hope is understood by all, though I recall having seen statements suggesting it is not, is that when media sources raise such questions, they aren't exhibiting liberal bias - at least not beyond what being a news publication in a democratic society entails endemically. What they are doing is their job by any reasonable definition of journalism I can think of. Perhaps first and foremost a news publication's job is to give its readers or viewers the information they need to make decisions, but that certainly entails knowing what one's government is doing, even if, especially if, such doing is likely to raise ethical caoncerns. If ensuring that individuals, whether in this country or others, are protected from the occasional over-reaching of our government is liberal, then so be it. Let the press be liberal.

May violence, injustice, usurption, and oppression always be questioned regardless of place, time, or perpetrator.

I wrote that all out, but I knew I had made some strong statements, and I thought that I might think the better of it later. So I saved a draft and went off to do other things. And then I decided to see if I could find some specific accusations of why CNN was left-leaning. I didn't real find anything (not surprisingly). But wthin about five minutes it had occurred to me why I hadn't felt completely comfortable posting it.

So, why didn't I post it? Well, first off, it's not written all that well, but that doesn't usually stop me. This journal is as much about content as form. The real reasons are that it is (1) likely an overstatement of a claim, and (2) a claim that I don't necessarily know I back completely.

Now, for point (1) that this is an overstatement, or that is to say, somewhat "over the top": I do indeed sometimes make strong, emotive statements, on immigration for example. But for me freedom of movement and human dignity are things that I'm pretty certain are moral absolutes, so I can afford to be cavalier about those things. And while telling the truth and reporting injustices and even perhaps rational inquiry are things that I think are absolutes, the suggestion that journalism should have a certain inherent bias runs more toward a pragmatic claim in some ways, it seems to me (at least, at this moment.)

As for point (2), why am I not certain I believe the press should have a liberal bias in the sense that I presented? Well, in my argument I concerned myself largely with national security issues, where it is hard in my estimation to stick to the truth and morality without being labeled "liberal" or "leftist" (and of course that is by my measure of truth and morality, so...). But, certainly on issues that don't involve killing or dying or search warrants, that is not true. In fact in such circumstances one should be as pragmatic as possible, it would seem, which involves considering all options. And if someone's bias causes them to assume the conclusion, that's a problem. One should be, I would suggest, open to whatever is the best solution (in light, of course, of moral concerns, as always). And that will sometimes result in one being associated with being too far to the left, but also often too far to the right. That's a problem that has been often observed in the context of all moral discourse, especially in the realm of Christianity (I've seen several times statements to the effect that "being Christian" in a moral sense will sometimes entail siding with those on the left and sometimes siding with those on the right - a claim that I've seen even more often in light of much recent discussion about William Wilberforce who is somewhat hard to characterize with modern terms).

So, while perhaps my now-not-posted post might have made some relevant claims with regards to media coverage of national security issues, I don't think it really helps the discussion much in general. So what I'd like to offer instead is a more specific formulation of what I think journalism should be like. The first thing is moral. A journalist should assume that all humans have dignity, for example. Obviously in contested areas like abortion, it's not going to be as clear what that means, but the vast majority of the time it will be clear. And there's plenty of other lesser moral issues. The second thing journalism needs to be is rational. That's sort of like "objective" but that word gets abused so badly I wouldn't stand by it. Besides, that just means the reporter doesn't take sides. But if one side is obviously factually wrong, it should be said. And journalists should be free to do real actual research instead of just relying on things people tell them about things. Sometimes, these things happen. But lots of times, they don't. "Equal time" is not rational inquiry... Now, I tend to think that rationality entails pragmatism (on issues outside of morality, of course). So I'm inclined to think that reporters should be seeking the truth about political issues including what solutions are practical and efficient. Sometimes, if there is a clear side (obviously there isn't always, or else we wouldn't have "objective" journalism in the first place), that may entail a slant that appears to some conservative; doesn't bother me. Follow the trail of what's true and what makes sense, and who cares what they call you, because the people caught up in the game will always call you something, whether good or bad. So, that's more what I want to say than, "be liberal!" (You may notice here that I don't hold to traditional notions of objectivity in journalism, not strictly anyway. What I want are for reporters to use their brains, even if that means taking a side. Some issues require expert input, and some are just too complex, so a journalist shouldn't always - I don't want them to be politicians. But I also don't want them to sit back and assume that the discourse that comes off the Capitol Hill, for example, is somehow the entire body of things that needs to be said about any particular issue. How I wish that politicians were allowed to occasionally not have opinions as well, as a matter of fact.)

Incidentally, what got me started on this whole thing specifically was a post by Patrick Ruffini on Hugh Hewitt's blog (Hewitt of course being a prominent conservative blogger and personality) which makes a passing reference to CNN and Fox and their relative prespectives, as well as the reader responses to the post. I think one of the comments got more directly to the point than I did; it makes reference to sources that are "non-conservative" sources being considered "liberal" or "anti-conservative." And while that might be a slight exaggeration, some of the comments on that post (for example, one questioning Fox's conservative credentials for running a special on global warming) suggest exactly that (not that I think blog readers are strictly representative of conservatives as a whole). But, still it is a claim stronger than perhaps I want to make. As usual, I'm inclined to think that are level of discourse is just too base to really get to the essense of the issues. So, I'm going to stick with my claim for a moral and rational approach to journalism. Give me that, and I don't care about claims of bias.

(More specific examination of what moral and rational journalism looks like will have to wait for some indefinite time in the future.)

03:23:07 - Media - ben - No comments

August 09, 2006

Fantasy Literature as More than Escape

by ben

Alright, I know I've pledged to write on several topics, none of which I have. And, worse, I'm not writing anything now, either. I just wanted to link to a short post by Evan Goer (whom you've probably never heard of, but he's a pretty smart guy) on fantasy literature. He takes difference with someone who suggests that fantasy literature is "almost by definition consolatory and escapist." He even brings up China Miťville, whom I had never heard of, but apparently is a fantasy writer who is also a well-known socialist. I don't think much about modern fantasy literature as serious - other than say Tolkien, and then only as literature proper, or maybe Lewis and his theological explorations. But certainly not, say as having political implications. Not for anything being written in the Twentieth Century or later, anyway. Science fiction is naturally the genre I look to for such things. I have to say that's somewhat ironic, though, as my own attempts at fantasy writing have, as you could probably guess, been loaded with "deeper" implications. Anyway, Goer's post made me think. (And since I don't seem to have much else of interest to say at the moment...)

00:36:37 - Media - ben - No comments

July 22, 2006

Random Thoughts on Music

by ben

Yes, I know; more randomness.

The new Nelly Furtado album, Lost is so disappointing I can barely express my feelings on the matter. Whoa, Nelly! I liked primarily because Furtado stuck her neck out musically and really did something unusual and interesting, combining all sorts of music into an insane whole. She also showed some lyrical promise which came to full fruition on her next album Folklore. Although that album was less exciting musically, it had some great songwriting. But, Loose tosses out almost all of that to go for... well, I'm not really sure what. Sex seems to be the main topic. So disappointing. I know that Ms. Furtado would probably mock me if she read this - many of her songs proclaim her lack of regard for others' opinions, after all - but, hey, just stating my honest opinion. Of course, I don't want to suggest that Nelly Furtado doesn't have the perogative to do whatever she wants musically - she does - I just think her decision is... unfortunate.

I have decided that "Paint It Black" is most definitely the greatest popular song of the Twentieth Century. It's just a quality song both lyrically and musically, but also it manages to convey a sort of aloof grief in a way that just seems so appropriate to the subject matter. What's crazy about this is that I have just claimed that a Rolling Stones song is the greatest popular song of the last century. The Beatles were better (much better, actually), but there is no doubt the Stones had occasional high points as well (they just had a lot of low points too).

Over time, my appreciation for Creedence Clearwater Revival only grows. I mean, I have always like CCR (if "Paint It Black" was the best song of the century, "Down on the Corner" was the most infectious), but I'm really starting to realize how much I like them. They have to be one of the most underrated bands ever. John Fogerty as a song writer, especially, stands out.

I need to buy some Led Zeppelin albums.

I was born late enough to miss out on a lot of good popular music. I need to listen to more stuff by the Byrds. Don't laugh. Another band that has been growing on me is the Police.

And speaking of reggae... (if you didn't get that transition you haven't listened to the Police enough - and no "Every Breath you Take" doesn't count) What's amazing about "Angel" by Shaggy is that musician I don't find particularly interesting took the lyrics to a song I don't like (well, I like the song - but not the lyrics) and the bass line from another song I don't like and managed to make a song I do like. I believe the word is "serendipity."

Having said all of this, I still think the ultimate musical project would be something that sounded like a mix of Chicago and Led Zeppelin, with a touch of Jimi Hendrix maybe. Someday...

There, was that random enough?

(Anyone else have anything to add?

[Update, 18:18: On a couple more listens to Loose I have to admit I feel less negative about significant portions of it. There's still a few losers of songs, but some of the more lyrical stuff isn't all bad.]

22:36:25 - Media - ben - No comments

January 21, 2006

A Reading of the Film "The Fisher King"

by Earendil

(This post copyrighted 2006 Justin Lowry. Permission to link to or cite with reference.)

I have wanted to write this for a long time, but have only now done so in response to a post on IMDB. I intend to edit it for clarity and possible expansion in "the future".


"The Fisher King" is a film that I think deserves a lot more attention than it receives, particularly from Christians.

Though the movie can be understood without working out the "Fisher King" (the in-film parable) or "Pinocchio" references, I think they are very helpful keys. To me, these two stories are Christian metaphors and very likely had their origins as such. Both are about becoming "truly human". In the case of "Pinnochio" this is explicit, in "The Fisher King" becoming human is inherent in the quest. The Fool from "Fisher King" and the Fairy from "Pinocchio" are both Christ-like figures (though in different ways). The Fool has humility (though not inferiority) and responds to the king with love. The Fool is able to find the Holy Grail because he acts out of love alone and not with motivations of fame and fortune. In a sense, the Fool is the humanity of Jesus Christ, living his life in humility and with love. On the otherhand, the Fairy from "Pinocchio" has more in common with the divinity of Christ. She brings grace and forgiveness to Pinocchio and gives him humanity when he wills only the Good above all else. There is another side of Pinocchio that needs to be mentioned: while the Fairy brings grace, Jimminy Cricket brings judgement. He is the conscience that prods Pinocchio and in the end shows how far he has fallen from where he is suppose to be. (For Christians this Fairy/Jimminy relationship is very much like the Law and Gospel understanding of the Word.)

Perry is Christ-like in different ways. For one, he is Christ-like in the more realistic sense that any human being can become "like Christ", he does God's will which in his eyes is communicated to him through the "little fat people". In his relationship to Jack, he is basically the Fool, however for Jack he also serves as a Jimminy Cricket. As the Fool he has no cares for money or fame or status, simply to love and do the will of God and because of this he is more human and can be happy with so little. As the Fool he also does not see Jack as superior because of his better social status and yet at the same time, as the Fool, he consistently responds to Jack out of love and attends to his needs. But when Jack encounters Perry he feels his judgement and sense of condemnation more acutely than ever and feels responsible for Perry and in this sense Perry is unknowingly Jack's Jimminy Cricket (not because Perry judges Jack, but because Jack is faced with his own guilt more fully by dealing with Perry). This prods him into action on Perry's behalf. However, he only "becomes human" when he truly acts *for* Perry (out of love) rather than to conquer his guilt. In other words, Perry as Jimminy Cricket reveals Jack's fallenness yet Jack's response must not be out of guilt (which does not in the end satisfy as he learns), but out of love. Also, Perry as Jimminy Cricket occasionally puts in front of Jack his responsibility to Anne and prods him towards commitment (marriage). Finally, in relationship to Lydia, Perry is more of a Fairy figure: that is to say, Christ-like in the sense that he brings grace and love, not judgement. Lydia is humble but more out of a sense of inferiority. She already sees herself as fallen, she does not need judgement, she needs grace. When Perry reveals that he truly loves her *unconditionally* (this is an ideal, though in reality we can assume that Perry is only coming as close to it as a person can in this world), she feels the same joy that is understood by those who see Christ in the same way.

Jack undertakes the quest for the "Holy Grail" out of love for Jack, regardless of the absurdity of it (I could talk about the importance of absurdity for a while, particularly in connection with Gilliam's film "Munchausen", but this is already a very long post! Hint: Kierkegaard.). By acting out of love for Perry (who is basically God's messenger to Jack) he ends up also doing God's will. Yes, God is a character in this film. One might think God is only metaphorical or Perry's delusions at first, but by the end it is almost explicit that, for the film, God is real: God has "orchestrated" Jack's "Holy Grail" quest so that by setting off the alarm in the Castle, he would save the life of the owner (the man in the chair who almost commits suicide). The "Holy Grail" is certainly not the cup of Christ, but rather a trophy. And like the Grail in the "Fisher King" story, the point is not the cup at all but the action taken to receive it. In both the story and the film, the Grail is attained because of love. It is the quest itself, and not the object of the quest, that is important.

Perry's status as a Christ-like figure is apparent in other ways. When Jack brings him the "Holy Grail", Perry awakes, indeed one could say he is "resurrected" in keeping with his Christ-like role. In fact, Lydia's arrival after Perry's "resurrection" is very reminiscent of Mary Magdalene's arrival at Jesus's tomb: Lydia finds Perry's bed empty, much like Mary found the tomb empty. Prior to this Lydia steadfastly attends to the comatose Perry like Mary attended Jesus' body. Another parallel can be drawn when one realizes that Jack has essentially become a disciple of Perry's and mirrors Peter's denial of Christ when he denies knowing the homeless "cabaret singer" (in effect, also denying his association with such humiliation and rejection, as Peter did). I think all of this just serves to hilight the fact that Perry, being Christ-like, has been an instrument of salvation for both Jack and Lydia (in Jack's case he came to his resue both physically, when Jack is attacked, and spiritually). Again, he is an instrument of salvation because he acts out of love and does the will of God.

As to some of the details:

Perry may be Christ-like in his humanness and his desire to do God's will, but he still suffers as anyone who lives in this world is bound to do. He cannot deal with the brutal death of his wife. The Red Knight is obviously representing Perry's suffering, his inability to deal with trauma. The color "red" may point to the Knight's Satan-like nature, since red is often associated with the Devil and Hell. The fact that it is a knight seems to be in keeping with the medieval motif: Perry sees himself as a knight, the good knight that comes to the rescue of others, including "damsels in distress". Others may be able to speak to specific references that I am not aware of regarding the Red Knight.

Now regarding the dancing in the train station: I think there are a number of ways to see this. The main point is that Perry is "in love" and as such sees only beauty when he sees her. The dancing is obviously only in his mind and an expression of how the world looks so much better (so rosy!) when you are "in love". On a subtler note, I am reminded of a verse from the New Testament: "All things work for the good for those who know and love God". All of Creation seems to be working in concert with Perry because he loves, therefore people waltz in keeping with Perry's feelings.

Ah, the "little fat people"! I don't think we need say that the fat fairies are real. They are almost certainly hallucinations of Perry's brought on by his psychological distress. HOWEVER, I do believe that what Perry understands as coming from "fat fairies" (who even he says are just messengers of God) is truly instruction from God. So while the messengers are figments of Perry's imagination, the *message* is not. As for the particulars of the message: God wants Perry to help Jack (in more ways than one, some unknown to Perry) and wants Perry to send Jack on a quest. Jack is "the one" to go on the quest.

So there you have it. There is my reading of "The Fisher King". Sorry about the length and any poor writing.

17:22:42 - Media - Earendil - No comments

January 05, 2006

Yet More on Epics and How I Hate Fiction...

by ben

Some more thoughts in a fairly rough state:

I know I have been writing a lot lately about fiction. This fact obscures one more essential fact, though: I hate fiction. And the more I have been thinking about fiction (both as a consumer and producer) lately, the more I am reminded at this moment why I don't like fiction. The biggest reason is that fiction sucks me in, but it isn't real. Obvious, I know. But there is a serious temptation to either retreat into fictional worlds (even if pretending to be a serious author or somesuch nonsense - I mean in my case, I don't mean to doubt anyone else's seriousness) or to try to shape the real world to fit some idealized model from fiction. Of course, that's part of the point of epics, but I think I, and many other people, are not necessarily always getting the epic points out of epics. I tend to see the drama in epics instead (e.g. my favorite part of The Iliad, at least in Fagles' version, is the scene where Achilles kills Lycaon - not a particularly "epic" or universal scene by any means). But anyway, the real question is, if fiction doesn't make us better people, what's the point? First there is the possible corrupting influence that excessively visceral stories can exert on us to consider, then there is the possibity we end up spending too much time reading (or thinking about - possibly a greater danger) fiction and fictional settings. These are hardly reasons to make us banish all fiction automatically, but I think someimes we - even I who never drop the point... - are too cavalier about fiction.

Having just complained about fiction, as always, I still have to look at the value of science fiction short stories. In a way Asimov's robot stories, say, are not so much fiction as much logic puzzles. Clarke and Asimov spend their fair time doing ethics, philosophy, logic, and science - not that they don't also waste time on less profound things, unfortunately (I think Clarke made his point about pokygamy the first time, let alone the next however many...). Science fiction short stories then might be the "exception that proves the rule" or a sign of blatant bias on my part (which is not all that likely since my point is that I like some fiction too much).

On a parallel note, and something I forgot to mention last time, one of the peculiar things about epics in our cultural context is that Christianity, like many religions, already has an epic - in content not form - at its root. Of course, it is hard to adapt something like that to be an epic in form, in large part because of the difficulties in fictionalizing the actions and words of God. Milton's work in this area (thinking of Paradise Lost) only goes to prove the point (I am one of those who thinks he failed badly). And when truth is stranger than fiction, who needs fiction? (This is why I had begun to think that biography would be far more useful than fiction, though it has its limitations in other ways. That's the problem with humans being human - they're not ideal.)

17:03:16 - Media - ben - No comments

January 04, 2006

More on Epics and Such

by ben

I stopped by Barnes & Noble tonight. I looked mostly at two things: Lord of the Rings (which I still did not buy - only $20, though), and also the Nausicaš "manga" (basically, a comic book), which sure enough they had. Some thoughts:

First, Nausicaš was interesting. The movie is based on the Manga, not the other way around, though both were made by the same person so they show more than a little similarity. Visually, the manga and the movie are practically identical. The story from the movie follows the first two volumes fairly closely, it seemed, though there were a couple points radically different (the movie has a more dramatic climax, and implies a resolution at the end; the manga is less dramatic and the story still has a long way to go at the end - 5 volumes to be precise). I hope to get a chance to read the whole thing sometime, but they are $10 a piece, and there are seven volumes, so...

I wanted to check on one thing in Lord of the Rings (as I also tried to persuade myself to buy it), namely the scene where Eowyn kills the Nazgul. I love that scene, largely because of the ironic line Eowyn gets to spout about not being a man (and I swear, Tolkien must have been thinking of the end of Macbeth when he wrote that...). I wanted to read that part becuase I have been thinking about the heroines in epics. Specifically, I have been sitting on a few stories for a while, and most of them star epic-style female characters. I don't know that I have liked what I have seen as far as portrayals of heroines in epics, but I had to do my research anyway (it hasn't been very comprehensive, to be sure). It is an intersting thing though that Miyazaki has created a character not too far from what I was thinking in Nausicaš (who incidentally, is named after a character in The Odyssey), not to mention a philosophy that is fairly close too. We think too much alike some times, he and I, which is strange given he is a 60 year old Japanese artist and I am... well, whatever I am.

Anyway, back to Lord of the Rings. I like it, and I like it more as time goes on, especially as I have realized how brilliantly Tolkien has crafted his universe out of old epics and some crack language abilities, and made it to somehow give back to the very material it drew from. And one has to respect him for being trying, and largely succeeding to create a national epic. One thing, though, that I really don't like about it is the violence. The epic virtues still hinge on killing. The same complaint can be made about most of the epics we draw from in our culture - such as Star Wars. In so far as pulp and comic book heroes might qualify as epic heroes (the stories aren't always epic, but the characters can take on epic proportions over time), that might not be as accurate - I mean, they don't always rely on lethal violence. But still, most epics, and certainly all literary epics hinge on violence. That reinforced my thought that we need a good pacifist epic. That prompted me to remeber though that Miyazaki is already going that way. He may not have gone all the way but he has gotten closer than anyone else. (Part of this difference must surely be born out of different world view - Tolkien's Christian background, and Miyazaki living in a country heavily influenced by Buddhism and pantheism. In Tolkien's story there is good and bad, and bad must be destroyed. In Miyazaki's story there is no such thing as pure evil, so peace makes more sense, though it is not always there strictly necessary.)

So, anyway, I must read Nausicaš, and meanwhile, I will have to work on my pacifist epic and my superhero story, among others.

22:54:18 - Media - ben - No comments


by ben

I just finished watching Nausicaš of the Valley of the Winds. With some caveats, I would say that it is an excellent movie. Or, at any rate, the themes (and the character of Nausicaš, who is a direct representative of the philosophy of the movie) are interesting and useful, the setting is interesting and beautiful, and the movie has some real and compelling emotional content. The main drawbacks, I would say, are that (1) the animation is not as refined as some of Miyazaki's more recent films (not surprisingly, given that Nausicaš was made in 1984, and Miyazaki was apparently not running his own studio back then, either), (2) many of the elements of the film - the peace loving heroine, the struggle to bring harmony between humans and nature, the air battles, for example - have been redone, debatably better, in Miyazaki's later films (though I suppose you can't blame this one for being done first). Interestingly, though I would not count this against the film, certain aspects of it seem to be rather inspired by Star Wars and Dune, among others. The Dune influence I might question, but Star Wars I was sure of at the time (can't remember now though which parts I was thinking of). But anyway, definitely worth seeing if you can find it (not easy - I had to buy it to see it, and I am a little sad about the sacrifice of a Borders gift card...)

Watching Nausicaš also had some other effects - such as convincing me that I should own some other Miyazaki films. The only one I really consider it "necessary" to own is Spirited Away but Princess Mononoke and Laputa: The Castle in the Sky might be nice too. More importantly, I decided I really want some Kurosawa films. I know Hidden Fortress is not his best film, but it was a movie I could watch frequently, which is really the only criterion that I am applying these days to movies to consider buying. I also note that the American-Japanese circle of influence of chase scenes containing Hidden Fortress, Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, and Castle in the Sky (and less so Nausicaš) is distinct, and a great example of a feedback loop. Or maybe I am just reading too much into these action scenes. Oh, and the final effect of watching this movie, is I realized how different movies like Nausicaš, Spirited Away, and even Lilo & Stitch are from movies like Underworld. They are all beautiful films to look at, but Underworld, while not entirely vapid, lacks so much of the depth, and, more importantly, conscience of these animated films. (I am not sure which set Star Wars would belong to, but it occurs to me we would be better off if Star Wars were to be contentless - it has a lot of messages that we would not do well to take seriously).

(It also occurs to me that Miyazaki work reminds me a lot of Tolkien's - or maybe more Lucas', in that respect. But Miyazaki is definitely trying to create a mythology and assimilate mythology in a way that both Tolkien and Lewis tried to do. Lucas never fully assimilated anytyhing, but his Miyazaki's presentation is similar to his.)

08:52:09 - Media - ben - No comments

December 20, 2005

Batman Begins

by ben

We just watched Batman Begins tonight. I don't intend to give a detailed exposition on the movie right now, but I did want to make a few comments while they were still fresh in my mind.

Overall, I did not really care for the movie. There was no single point of failure, but it simply was not very interesting - or at least not as interesting as it might have been. It was not as dark as the 1989 Batman. They could have traded "dark" for "gritty" or even campy, but they didn't. This version just seemed somewhat flat. Probably the weakest point of the movie though is its depiction of Bruce Wayne's preparation to be Batman. Instead of being a motivated and focused person who is brilliant forensic scientist and an excellent martial artist, we get a character who is really good at beating people up (though he does get some ninja-like training along the way, but not of his own initiative) but not especially educated (it is implied he flunks out of Princeton) and who only becomes focused enough to really become a crime fighter after being rescued from a Chinese prison (where he is at because he is practicing crime - though he is not really a criminal, or so he claims, since he is stealing from Wayne Enterprises) by another crazy vigilante type. I found this change in the character to make Wayne a much less interesting person. Batman also did not really come across as very intimidating, despite that being an emphasis of the story. There is a Lower Wacker Drive cameo though; can't complain about Lower Wacker appearances.

By the way, with all of the massive revisions that can happen in comic book character's stories in such a brief period of time, is is any wonder mythological stories and other legends get so confused? (I was just reading the other day about the Arthurian legends - what a mess those were - but now that I think about what happens to comic book characters, I can see that we still have the same problem.)

This makes me want to go back and watch the 1989 movie, as well as maybe the animated series from the 1990s, just to see how they handled the early part of the story (I think their treatment may have been rather brief), though the animated series is definitely one of my favorite versions of the Batman story. But most of all it makes me want to go buy Batman Chronicles: Volume One which contains the first few Batman comics featuring Batman starting from 1939, and which can be had for about $15.

09:01:44 - Media - ben - No comments

November 30, 2005

The Slickest Magazine on the Market

by ben

I want to take a moment to point out a magazine that I think we could all learn much from, one that stands out both visually and in content: National Geographic. I know that National Geographic does a good job of hyping itself, but in my experience it has usually lived up to that hype. Detail-oriented readers should be able to point to specific cases even recently when National Geographic has failed to live up to the standards its readers might want to hold it to, for example the touched-up photograph of the pyramids on the cover of the February 1982 issue or the Archaeoraptor incident. Additionally, I could add that the magazine does sometimes lapse into sensationalism (e.g. the aforementioned "Archaeoraptor"), fluff, voyeurism, and such. But, on the whole, it really can be a joy to read. Its photographs are legendary, but its design is usually just as good, complementing the photos well. Some of its articles do cover content that has appeared elsewhere in more scientific and scholarly magazines and journals, but many of the articles cover stories that really don't belong anywhere else. It seems to live up to the ideal of the magazine of a geographic society: informing while capturing the imaginations of its readers. Certainly reading an article in National Geographic is not as good as being somewhere - or sometimes it is better than being there, but it is a useful supplement to real world experience. And for some places, such as Mars, the articles in this magazine may be as close as any of us ever get. Not that all of the articles are geographic, but those that are not are usually interesting and informative as well.

To really capture the essence of the visual beauty of this magazine, there is no substitute for simply browsing through several issues (as I expect all of you have already done in the past - I recommend doing it again while paying special attention to how articles are layed out, the choice and placement of photographs, the use of color, and the use of typefaces). But there are two articles I want to mention that especially demonstrate the kind of content (as well as design) that really make National Geographic stand out for me among magazines. The first is "Mars on Earth" from the July 1999 issue, about Devon Island, where prototype Mars rovers have been tested. The article was rather stark visually by National Geographic standards, but the photographs and the story - even the idea of the story, about an island that looks enough like Mars to be as a stand-in for it - really caught my attention and my imagination. The second is an even better example: "Return to Mars," a 29 page article (!) in the August 1998 issue. It featured some beautiful images of Mars, two pull-out dioramas, and, without being trite, even had some red-blue-separated three-dimensional images and a pair of red-blue glasses for viewing them. Granted, they had a lot of help from the NASA scientists and engineers, but, still, it was a beautifully produced article. The audacity of including the three-dimensional images helped to cement my impression of this magazine.

I mention this all also in light of a question I was asked in two interviews this year: What web sites' design do I especially like? Rather unforgivably, I still don't have an answer for that question, strictly speaking; which is to say I can't think of any web sites that I have been particularly influenced by. But I do have a magazine I have been especially influenced by, and National Geographic is that magazine. Now, the differences between the two media, I don't expect to reproduce National Geographic on the web, but I do try to keep it in mind and live up to the standards it sets in a different medium. (Ironically, Nationa Geographic's web site is not particularly good, nor is the Society's. Which I suppose just leaves room for the competition.)

03:03:14 - Media - ben - No comments

September 29, 2005

"I saw at least 10 reporters swarming an evacuee! And they were carrying very sharp pencils!"

by ben

NOLA.com has a rather detailed report about some of the outrageous and incredible - too incredble, in many cases - incidents of violence that were reported to have occured at the Superdome and the Convention Center in New Orleans.

I have been interested in this story since the beginning, or at least pretty close to it. One reason I find the apparent exaggerations interesting is because I am very much concerned about how we can get accurate information. This is unfortunately another case where accurate information was hard to get - or maybe is now.

Basically, this is the situation as it stands: Despite the original reports of murder and rape (and the combination of the two) being common in both locations, there is no empirical evidence now, according to official sources as reported in this case by Times-Picayune writers, of any murders beyond possibly one. The article addresses the problem of establishing the prevalence of rape, but as for the murders, at least in the assesment of these authors, there is no support for several of the most widely repeated stories. There is also apparently disagreement between some of the actors in the events as to what happened, which may be in part due to another effect, which is that some of those same actors, notably Mayor Nagin and police chief Compass, seem to have said different things at different times. I will not at the moment speculate as to the source of those inconsistencies, though it is not hard to imagine reasons, some less generous than others. We also know that the state of empirical evidence, as reported by the authors, conflicts with quotes reported by journalists of evacuees and others (the article gives several examples, so I will skip citing examples here). Whether the innacuracy is due to the journalists or their subjects becomes the question; I would be surprised if it was due entirely to the journalists, but that is merely a guess, not a fact. Of course, in this case we are relying on journalists to report on mistakes made by journalists - which is not to throw all journalists together, but as an aggregate media television, newspaper, and Internet news does not have some sort of consistent and authoratative take on the whole matter, so if we were not inclined to accept the new reports as more readily substantiated, we would not have any reason to trust one journalist over another (though we might have reason to be more inclined to accept more recent reporting by a journalist than older reporting by the same journalist, at least in a case such as this).

Some questions this raises for me:

All of this time, I have been talking about the storied of violence. But what about the stories of people dying of dehydration, etc.? Again, a low number. Not many more than 14 for the two sites put together. The Convention Center had 4. How many people died because of slow action on the part of the government for evacuating people from these places? We don't know the exact number, but we may have just found an upper limit. We would do well to examine more the effects elsehwere in the city and the effectiveness of rescues from flooded areas. (In the interest of full disclosure, I believed there should be more, say maybe tens of people, to have died from natural causes. My ideological bias should be clear.)

(I saw the NOLA.com article thanks to a post on a blog titled "Adam Smith Lives!" by a Sandra Peart. She has links to more stuff on this, saving me the work of looking for it, or in this case, reading it. What a scary title! I must add.)

03:33:02 - Media - ben - No comments

January 08, 2005

Pokťmon and RPGs

by ben

I have been playing some Pokťmon lately (since my sister and mom bought me a GameBoy Color and Pokťmon Red, so I can lose to Hannah at it), and I have to say I was hooked for a while. I have to admit it is not one of the all time great video games, but it certainly has its appeal. It's very, well, cute. And it can be somewhat entertaining, at least for a computer RPG fan such as myself.

[Remainder of article]
15:07:42 - Media - ben - No comments

December 11, 2004

Strange Music

by ben

I and some friends of mine were discussing "strange music" last night. The one couple was playing Tom Waits and Spike Jones for us as there example of strange music. I hadn't heard Waits before, but of course Spike Jones I am familiar with. I said that Spike Jones is sometimes too weird even for me. Some of his "music" is of course just not very musical, but some of it is just, well, strange. The strangest part of Spike Jones music is usually the downright bizarre instrumentation. Not that I am not used to that by now - after all I have cited Weird Al as being responsible for history's best gurgling solo - but still, when there is enough of it at once it can have a jarring effect. But then today, inspired by a quote in "Southern California Purples" (by Chicago, of course!), I decided to listen to "I am the Walrus." It's amazing what enough listening will desensitize one to: this song, well, I mean, we knew it was weird, but have you really listened to it lately? The sounds are so bizarre! (And of course, as far as the Beatles' later work goes, lots of it was pretty strange, so while this might be an extreme example it is far from unique.) So, thus, I was shown to be ignorant of how strange the music I routinely listen to really is. The irony is that I tend to think of the Beatles as mainstream compared to a lot of what I listen to. But I guess mainstream does not exclude strange. I thought it was a funny twist to the whole thing.

11:11:13 - Media - ben - No comments

November 03, 2004

How Blogging Can Change Writing

by ben

One complaint in mathematics is that proofs are always written as if they sprang fully formed from the head of the author [hey, there's a reference to Athena in there!] while masking the reasoning that allowed the author to arrive at the proof. The problem is the reasoning is would be very useful to understanding the implications of the proof. So it is with old writing, and blogging or it's pen and paper cousin journaling. I have noticed that by blogging the things I read and saw and experienced that contributed to my final thoughts, and by blogging the partial, sometimes contradictory thoughts along the way, I have a product much more useful than merely a persuasive piece which offends half its readers because they don't understand how someone could think that. Even if I construct the argument, it is my conception of how it should be explained; with a journal, the reader can determine for themselves which pieces of data and thought are useful (and in an easier way than following many footnotes). So, there is no slick argument to make, just thoughts to digest, and it is in the readers hands which makes it much richer. It also helps me to document for myself how I arrived at the final conclusion. Very useful. I think only now am I truly starting to realize the ways in which a blog can be intrinsically different than traditional media.

14:58:43 - Media - ben - No comments

Archiving the Blogoshpere

by ben

Just a thought, but I really, really hope that in a few years when we all go back to find out how the future and past elite was thinking in 2004 that we won't find it hasn't all been deleted due to inactive accounts and unpaid service fees. I wonder how we can best try to preserve the documents we have now.

(Of course, even more so than traditional publications, blogs contain much junk - does anyone really care that I drank too much coffee one day? - and much of blogging and web journalism is more conversational than traditional media, so a lot of it is things that would not traditionally have been recorded anyway, but it is a new media, and much of it was meant to be more permanent than mere conversation. At any rate I think we will find much of it useful someday, even if we don't know exactly how yet.)

11:24:18 - Media - ben - No comments

November 01, 2004

Alien Invasion Movies and Religion

by ben

In honor of the passing of our special day honoring fear, I will repost this article which originally appeared on Cassandra:

[Remainder of article]
15:53:32 - Media - ben - No comments

October 29, 2004

Godwin's Law

by ben

Since my last post did indeed involve a Nazi, in the interest of informed discourse, I should bring up Godwin's Law, which I have so conveniently ignored for so long, though I should have known it: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."

[Though, of course, I would like to claim that my last post did not not involve a gratuitous reference to the National Socialists, for (1) I did not compare anyone or even anything to the Nazis or Hitler, and (2) I was discussing wars, which I dare say the Nazis should know more about than most people.]

This is apparently my day for discovering things everyone else already knew! I feel my originality slipping even more.

14:26:02 - Media - ben - No comments

October 24, 2004

The Problem With Blogs

by ben

It occurs to me, based on my own pattern of behavior, that when people have a forum for writing they tend to opine rather than consider. Something I am thinking about right now is the difference between sophistry and Socraticism. I am suggesting we do a lot more sophistry than Socratic discussion.

The problem is blogs give all of us such a forum very easily, but their immediate nature prompts us to state opinions with even less considertion than traditional outlets. I admit that blogs can be much less unideirectional, but I know most of us do not use that fact to full effect. One question I have about this is whether the opining is really just a cover for deep thought, or if people really do hold opinions as solidly as they make them sound. I know in verbal communication both have been true for me in the past, but most of the time I was really just trying to figure things out, no matter how strongly I stated the case (I argued radical capitalism right up until the moment I declared myself a socialist - only to find everyone else had downgraded to the modern liberal capitalist view, blech - but that's another story). So, maybe we are still thinking even if we don't sound like it. Which raises another question, do other people know that? (Or, alternatively, I could ask, am I the only one who works that way? Maybe most people like to be "right" no matter what.)

07:32:02 - Media - ben - No comments

Blogs vs. Home pages

by ben

I was thinking about how I should update my home page. The thing is right now, this blog is doing most of what would usually end up on my home page - in a different format, but in a nearly identical role and similar if not identical content despite the format difference. Here content is provided in smaller kernels that must be combined in a natural, not synthetic way, where as on a home page most of my content would be combined in an organized, hierarchical way. Sometimes that is appropriate, but usually it can be done either way. I can put fractals here or on my home page. One way collects, this way allow you to see what I am thinking as I do it. This suggests a somewhat complementary role, in fact. But right now I don't have enough to make a really complete home page; just small pieces showing up here. (Obviously, a blog could be part of a home page, but that is not the way right now I am doing it.)

Where I am really going with this is that I am finding I favor the blog model for the moment because it is a currently favored model of interaction and content distribution on the Internet. If less people understood the model, or used the model less, I would probably be more traditional. Personally, I do favor the more traditional model. Obviously, chronological content is not going away, and I won't stop producing it mysefl either, but I think more polished, more static content will come back into vogue, and when it does, I will go back that way. I actually would now (not go back to entirely, but use the two complementarily), but I don't really have the time to commit to do it properly. I think though we should not pretend blogging in its current state is a permanent institution. There will always be blogs, just as there always have been in different forms (newspapers, magazines, and journals are really just much slower forms of blogs - complete with comments and sometimes even trackbacks!), but I think they will in a few years cease to be such a direct, immediate, and comprehensive method of communication.

(This is not so much a case of following fads, I would argue, but rather choosing the medium of the moment; I think there is a time for that, especially if at the moment the message fits that medium well.)

04:31:55 - Media - ben - No comments

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