Friday, September 29, 2006

Yudan Nashi (Never Off-guard)


If you have a moment ('moment' = at least 15 minutes), take these tests. They are free and maybe they'll make you think about thinking more than you have so far. Chances are, of course, that you'll do them, come away with results that make you go "oops!", prompt to to make major resolutions about being better about this kind of thing in the future—and by the time the weekend's over, if that long, you'll basically have forgotten all about it, or at least have relegated the issues raised by your miserable performance in the test back to minor significance in your lives. Alternatively you'll do really well in them because you're cluey kind of guy or gal, and then you tell yourself how cool you are, and with that validation you'll go back to your lives and, with the test over and your guards down again, also continue on as before.

Alas, alack, 'tis the way of things human—or so one would think. But what is it that is 'human' about it? Basically it is that the test, if producing dismal results, will make you aware of a problem that by rights you ought be aware of and deal with every instant of your waking life. If is produces good results, you will probably—in complete opposition to the spirit of what the test is meant to convey—use it to infer, quite without justification, that just because you 'passed' it, you don't need to deal with the issues that a failure would have pointed at.

Humans, as we know are adapted to solving problems qualifying as 'visible' and 'immediate', and which lend themselves to solutions that are constrained in time and space and clearly and specifically related to the problem at hand— but by and large suck at discerning and dealing with issues that require perpetual dealing-with and constant being-on-your-guard, or, as it is more commonly known in English, 'attention'. I'm not talking about 'creeping problems' here; like global warming, pollution, shifts in social patterns and so on. It's got to do more with the requirements on 'behavior', if you will—say for people who have low-level but potentially serious health issues and have to practice constant prophylaxis; 'managers' who have to subsume their personality deficiencies to the need to 'manage' effectively; and so on.

The photo at the start is an instance of Yudan Nashi—and it also helps to have a nice digital camera. But to make best use of it, it needs to be handy and ready, and you've got to be willing to stop everything you're doing at that instant—the one at the top lasted for less than half a minute—and seize the moment. For that the camera should be small and portable and have as high a resolution as possible. I guess Sony should be paying me for this bit of free promotion, but I'd like to say that I find that the Sony Cybershot 7.2 MPix does the job just fine. I seldom am without it somewhere in some handy pocket or the center console of the car.

The word 'snapshot' in the context of photography is often used with a derogatory air. But what it means is just that it is a shot taken at the spur of the moment. You might call that 'opportunistic' photography; as opposed to what happens in a portrait studio or what someone like Ansel Adams did. It is snobbish and stupid to denigrate either kind; though, of course, people do. Me, I tend to go mostly for 'opportunity'. But you need to see it first. Meaning you got to pay attention to the world around you—which usually comes accompanied with paying attention to yourself as well, because you're a part of that world. Of course, one needs to prioritize, because not everything is relevant. Something in your brain—lurking well below the level of consciousness, but trainable by conscious thought anyway—needs to learn both: be attentive and learn to make the distincions between what matters and what doesn't. You got to teach your mind-below-the-surface-of-accessibility (a.k.a. 'subconscious', in its etymologically precise meaning) to learn how to pay attention to the things you want it to pay attention to. You can let this training be under your deliberate control, or you can just let contingency do its dirty work on your behalf.

This, by the way, is the deceptively 'simple' solution to a multiplicity of problems of the 'mind' and 'life'. One of them is the whole thing about 'memory' and 'memory training', which is one of today's favorite cottage industries, piggy-backing on ill-understood implications of modern day cognitive science research, the pseudo-scientific 'research' practiced by New Age-ists and the leftovers of outdated and mostly fallacious psychological theories. 'Memory' is not the issue that needs to be addressed. 'Attention' is. As usual, people are asking the wrong questions.

Most people, let's face it, choose to let their subconscious be trained by contingency. Or, to be more precise, they don't actually 'choose' at all, but just let it happen. Or, as some would no doubt insist, it 'happens to them'—a distinction I'm deliberately avoiding discussing here. Bottom line is that this is the way it is. 'Reasons'...well, another day for those.

To try and teach people 'attention', especially of the 'constant' kind—may be the hardest thing to 'teach' anybody. In the context of our dojo we try to teach people zanshin; which, to my mind at least and despite my best efforts, is basically a losing proposition. Students try to learn 'techniques', and they basically think that zanshin is just a nice, but basically irrelevant, bit of psychobabble-overhead. I can see their eyes glaze over when it is mentioned, and all they really want is to do the 'technique' again. If they 'do' zanshin at all it's because their nagging instructor tells them to do it; or at they least pretend that they do, by staring at their imaginary opponent for a few more moments. But you can see that there's not much 'remaining mind' (the meaning of zanshin) there, and that most of their attention is on how they screwed up what came before and how that looked to whoever was looking on. This carries on well past the 'beginner' stage.

The problem is that zanshin is a state-of-mind, and especially of the subconscious part. It is usually taught by correlating it with particular physical states—position, stare, movement or stillness—and the hope is that in the end it will stick and that the practitioners will associate the physical state and the mental one without thinking about it; much like, say, a dream is often recalled better upon assuming the same physical position one was in when it was originally experienced.

That’s fine in the context of a dojo, but we’re trying to convey to our students the notion that the matter can be carried over in to ‘everyday life’ as it were. But there you can’t necessarily assume the same kinds of postures you relied on to evoke at least a semblance of zanshin. Indeed, if you did, wonderment, laughter and maybe an emergency call for men in white coats could be the result.

Th reason why I brought this up—and so I finally come to the point of all this; after an unusually laborious approach!— is that I was reminded the other day that teaching these kinds of very subtle but important things explicitly—meaning in a context where the student is aware that s/he is being and has the state of mind that comes with this—may be far less effective than sneaking these notions in under the radar or the cover of diversions. Even ideas qualifying as novel and scary, or those generating immediate resistance because they run counter to intuition and/or established thinking can get hold using such techniques.

With me it came up in an innocent browsing of the Wikipedia entry for Robert Heinlein, looking for some details about him unrelated to the matters discussed here. I'm well aware of some of the influences exerted on me by the man, but I'd completely forgotten of how his leanings toward the concepts of General Semantics, which permeate a vast body of his work, had, even when I was in my teens, deeply influenced my whole way of thinking about thinking and how to figure out what's really what. And, let's face it, it can't get much more profound and decisively influential than that.

Then—in my teens, I mean—if someone had presented me with these notions explicitly, I would have reacted with the disdain and boredom reserved by teens for such matters. Let's face it, philosophical texts of any kind have never thrilled me particularly, with a few notable exceptions, and that only when I was well into my 20s. Besides the rate of fiction/non-fiction reading in my life is something of the ratio of 50:1, and probably higher; and much of the non-fiction was about stuff you can't actually teach by telling stories: maths, physics, etc. plus special-interest books with a fairly specific focus. But when it came to 'life' things and 'softer' issues, such as 'thinking' and philosophy, I found, and continue to find, most non-fiction both terribly boring and usually overly pretentious and full of itself and its own overestimated importance. Philosophy, it appears to me, has never been very good at sorting out the most basic aspect of the questions they ask, namely which ones of those actually matter and make a difference to anything, and which are, at best, 'academic' and at worst completely bogus. I suspect that Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the few who rose above the common ruck, would have agreed with that assessment; so I consider myself in good company.

The influence exerted on my thinking, not through the philosophical works of this guy or that one, but through being exposed to the narratives penned by good tellers of stories, should be a lesson to anyone who cares to listen. I understand that influence by and large, though occasionally I come across the odd surprise, such as I did the other day. Ideas and concepts by themselves are basically empty and void. But contextualize them in a suitable, engaging narrative and, even without making them explicit—indeed, even better, by hiding them deep in the story so they're unlikely to become visible—they are much more likely to be absorbed in the fabric of the mind and life of the members of the 'audience'.

So, in the dojo, I always teach a kata and every aspect of it framed in a narrative. I know the looks of benign and 'what's he on about this time?' I get when I do it; but when I tell them, in allusion to a line from The Sixth Sense, now almost as famous as "Beam me up, Scotty!", that I want to see dead people! when they do their kata, somewhere they'll remember that part and it'll do more to establish what they need to learn, including about zanshin and even how to take it into 'real life', than any other didactic approach.

Picture at the bottom: this is what the sky looked like about five minutes after the picture at the top on this 29 September 2006 C.E.. We're having a very nice spring in this part of the world—even though this may augur incipient problems. El Niño is apparently starting to show its influence early this year.

Everybody take cover! Red alert! GLOBAL WARMING is coming!

By the way, who has seriously considered that maybe the overall effects of global warming could turn out to be benign in the long term? I know there are a gazillion studies and prophecies [sic] about its deleterious effects; but has anybody bothered to study the alternative possibilities? I bet you, there isn't a cent in research funds to be had to study that question—not even from those interest groups who'd rather not ‘believe in’ global warming.

Why? Search me. Maybe people are just stupid. It seems like such an obvious thing to study. Who says the climate we have is actually, by and large, the best we do have, and that the world wouldn't ultimately be a better place with melted ice-caps and raised ocean levels? I know it would be a major inconvenience, of course, and, for a great many people positively catastrophic and horrific even; which is no doubt one of the reasons why people debating 'Global Warming' would rather not face that particular question. It would take the debate into a different and very troubling ethical dimension...

And, in case anybody wants to argue that it’s silly and hardly valuable to study the beneficial consequences of global warming…well, what about studying the detrimental ones? Or are we back with ‘attention’, only this time applied to the evaluation of data that should be, after all, neutral? Or is it possible, one may wonder, to ‘scientifically’ study things in such a way that only a particular kind of results come up? You bet it is! It happens all the time, especially with the less-than-hard sciences. Physics and its kin are somewhat less amenable to this kind of manipulation; though hardly entirely exempt from it.

Just letting these thoughts out into the open, folks. Let the fly freely and see what happens. Nothing wrong with the odd aberrant thought, is there? Just remember that not all change, even big change, is necessarily all bad. 'The Environment' is what is it solely because it came to be that way. Doesn't mean it's 'optimal'—and 'optimal' on a larger scale may well mean 'unfriendly' for some of its inhabitants. I know that's not...'nice' or 'fair', I guess...and environmentalists would much very much prefer to ignore that particular and very 'uncomfortable truth', but 'Nature' really, honestly and absolutely doesn't give a sparrow's fart about what environmentalists think or feel; or what anybody thinks or feels for that matter.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Eschew obfuscation

Anybody—anybody!!—who so much as dreams of thinking about accusing me of using 'big words', convoluted sentence structure and difficult-to-follow thoughts in these blogs, as some do, please treat yourself to the following quote from this bit of post-modernist yak-speak, taken from here. Have a look at the text of the full 'paper' if you dare!

Theoretico-empirical failure of thoughts of difference to seize or want to master opposition without reducing it to itself, or diffident insurgency of the one from more-than-one rather than its trailing the later, calls for something that does not divagate in vicarious sociality/guilt, lecture on naïve dialectics or yearn for postmortem systematicity. A contemporary genus of “redescriptors” (and predescriptors) dare to ask whether totality still exists and dissemble theories in return for phenomena: either conditions must expand or theories must change. It is my hope that the theories of Jean Baudrillard are an antidote to the cant of subjective critique. This paper attempts more a “redescription” of Baudrillard’s theories and claims nothing more or (it is hoped) less.

To define reversal in its hypothetical status delimits its operant function in immanently constructed paradigms (philosophy, poetry, cinema, photography). To articulate an hypothesis or principle in a paradigm (“Baudrillard”) or nested paradigms, effects a silence. Dual signification denoting presence and connoting absence – the ascendance of the example to its excepted ineffability – intelligible and unintelligible, knowable and unknowable. Here and now a frame’s tacit self-testament between the intractable and the specular.

Bdlaaabbbrfggheleooooggoprset...brooahhhjoculitutigfrrrfff

It doesn't get any better after this, folks!

Anyway, and just as a matter of pithy comment, the thing that worries me about this piece and what follows is that there may be people in this world, whose minds are attuned to this piece of...whatever...and who actually can make sense out of this. I'm wondering here: is this because I am too dull-witted to discern the content among all the jargon (a lot of which I actually think I understand; and if not, I can look it up on Wikipedia or google it!)?

A colleague of mine, who also writes documentation and therefore has some knowledge of English—and he's also got a degree in Theology, and so is no stranger to strained philosophical discourse—conjectured that this paper is probably a joke. I wish it were.

Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.

Quoting RAH, there.

And, please, Catholics among my readers: do not continue reading this blog, unless you are willing to suffer 'offense' at some stage. However, unlike your great leader, I shan't render a gazillion abject apologies for the potential 'offensives' coming up. However, there's actually a point to what I will say, so it needs to be said; in the spirit, if nothing else, of making a prediction about the consequences of actions.

Most people who read this blog will have an idea what I think about religion—so, no need to belabor the point. I think even less of those institutions called 'churches' and their leaders and movers and shakers. Right near the top of my hitlist of dislikes resides that personage known as 'The Pope'; and in particular this one right now; for a great number of reasons, to which he has just added...let me count...I think it's five.

The first was the ill-considered (or so one would think; though who really knows—maybe this qualifies as a 'mystery, huh?) quotation inserted into that now infamous speech he gave in Regensburg; a quote which reflected in a less than complimentary form on, who else?: the one whose image may not be drawn by western cartoonists and whom even I shall not mention by name. (The quote is in the middle of paragraph 3 on the linked page.) Even without this, the speech would have been pretty inflammatory, but to understand it as such would probably have been beyond the comprehension of your average religious zealot in the street. (I'm not even going into the preposterous lengths to which the speaker elaborated on his close acquaintance with the will, intent and mental states of a God for whose existence there is not shred of not easily-equivocated evidence. Couldn't do that, could I? That would be too cheap a shot. Ooops! Just took the shot, didn't I? Me bad.)

Speech over and riots following, however, came something much worse: a string of four clarifications, apologies and retractions, which culminated in this meeting. Which completes the 'five' reasons just added to my list of a gazillion of them.

I know, you would think that this exercise in appeasement of wounded sensibilities—whether sincere or not doesn't matter; as long as it does the intended job—was a good thing. Church and Pope had stuffed up and then did what needed to be done, until it was done. Chalk one up to experience and fire that speech-writer. Or at least send him to a monastery with an compulsory vow of silence for the rest of his miserable life. Whoever he is!

Well, I'm going to make a prediction. Unfortunately it may be difficult to verify as such, because cause-and-effect in this instance are matters of convoluted chains of actions and reactions in very complex contexts. Still, I'll make it, and it is this: the aftermath and the Vatican's appeasement tactics will result in the loss of more innocent lives than the speech itself.

This is because the Law of Unintended Consequences—in my observation at least—appears to strengthen in direct proportion to the amount of intended 'control' inherent in the actions we're taking. The Vatican's attempts to control the consequences of the Pope's preceding actions is going to be a prime example of the truth of this. Sometimes, you see, it actually is better just to say as little as possible and let things take their course. This here has far too much of an air of 'methinks they protest too much'. I mean, who is actually stupid enough to believe for one tiny instant that Ratzinger didn't mean exactly what he said?

To conclude:

Catholics who've stayed with me this far, do not—and I mean do not!—click on this link. Last week, Rove Live did a beautiful piss-take on the Pope. Very, very funny—and offensive; of course! The link will be here for a few days, then I'll delete this paragraph and the link with it. Too much bandwidth.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Mystery

Yesterday, talking to a young woman (20s, very intelligent, existentialistically inclined, identity withheld), the matter of 'mystery' came up. In this instance is was basically 'mystery' of 'life' or 'existence' or 'contingency' and why things are are they are and happen as they do and not in some other way. Random? Strict causality? Purpose? 'Blind Watchmaker' stuff of fatidic inevitability? And what rolse do we play in this? Can we change or truly influence anything at all? What effort qualifies as 'sufficient', and when does one have to let things 'take their course'? What does 'letting things take their course' actually mean? Is not inaction a form of action? Stuff like that.

These questions are sensible, if only because we grew up believing that many of them made sense. Virtually every culture on this planet is afflicted with one form or another of notion that things are as they are for a 'reason' that is not found in a strict framework of the kind of 'causality' physics talks about, but is something of the kind of 'reason for existence' or something along those lines.

'Mystery' is one of those words used and abused until we hardly understand it anymore. "Don't explain a rainbow to me, because you take all the mystery out of it!" A phrase that acts as a stand-in for any situation where we don't know something and basically don't want it explained either, because we think the event explained loses something in the process. Some special kind of value that it had for us because we chose to be ignorant of things that we might know about it. You can see how this generalizes onto a wide class of cognitive responses to the appearance of 'mystery'. The details vary, but the principles are the same.

I don't want to write a major essay on 'mystery', but here's the thing: uncovering a mystery never leads to making something lose its element of 'wonder'—if only we would care to understand the basic nature of the cosmos and reality, which is, of course, that of an onion of an infinite number of layers. Thing is, we're not working our way from the outside to some center, but from the center out! This is the critical insight most of us apparently aren't privy to. Well, folks, here it is, so spend some time thinking about it, OK?

(There's also the notion I've once alluded to, that the whole damn thing is a kind of ontological Moebius Strip anyway—but let's leave that aside for the moment and pretend you never read this sentence.)

As we move out and through the layers we broaden the scope of our vision. And each time we find another layer, representing another 'mystery' that wraps itself around the mysteries we've uncovered so far. (If you want to replace the word 'layers' or 'mysteries' by 'context', you may be on the way to yet some more fruitful thoughts.)

Let's take the example of the rainbow alluded to above. So, suppose some insensitive physicist twit takes the charm out of your ignorance about how rainbows come about by insisting on explaining it all to you in gory detail.

Now, first of all, by that time the rainbow is long gone and the experience is rapidly fading, as such things are wont to do, sucked up by the everydayness of mundane life. So, let's face it, you're not going to have a lot spoiled in the process of explanation; and by the time the next rainbow comes along and you go 'whoa', you won't think of the explanations but you're going to have pretty much the same emotional reaction you would have had as you had before. And that's a pointer at a mystery much wider than the mere physics of the rainbow. For the search for why we still react 'emotionally' leads us into mysteries of perception, cognition, and, for example, the impossible-to-answer question of how and where the visual system becomes that which 'experiences' emotion and exercises 'reason'. And when all the explicating and theorizing of cognitive scientists is done the bottom line is that their explications don't even begin to touch the deeper mysteries lurking below.

What mysteries? Well, if I knew they wouldn't be mysteries, would they now?

The point of all this? Ignorance doesn't make life more interesting—and knowledge doesn't make it any less so.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Discoveries in story-telling land

The most amazing moments—'amazing' in the sense of 'astonishing' or maybe 'surprising'—during writing novels come when I least expect them. Earlier today, at official word count (at least tin this word processor) 109650, one of my characters said something I really, truly didn't know she was going to say until she said it. And when she had said it, it was like 'yes, that was the only thing she could have said', despite the fact that when I started her talking/responding I had intended something completely different to come out. This doesn't change the story as such, nor will it influence events, except insofar as it must influence them—for nothing happens that doesn't influence, for such a thing would be epiphenomenal; and such things cannot be, contrary to what some fatuous philosophers may believe/claim/assert—but it changes how I and ultimately te reader will see and understand the person who said it. It also gave me a chance to put in something, almost verbatim and without attribution in the spirit of compliment and homage, of something I once read in a book and have always considered one of the most profound statements I've ever come across. Characteristically, in the book it is attributed to a woman, who in many ways finds herself in a situation very different from—yet oddly paralleling, at least in this aspect—that of the person saying what she just said at word count 109650±errormargin.

_time passing_

Current word count for Tethys at the end of this day: 114666. That's between me starting this blog in the morning and finishing it in the evening. About 5000 words today. I call that a good day. Alas, tomorrow serious, money-earning work calls. If only one could tell stories all day. It can be quite a journey. Today it was very dramatic.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Promotion, promotion, promotion!

No, I didn't get one! Not that I was looking for one but that's not the kind of promotion I'm talking about.

Promotion is what this blog is all about, apart from being a handy tool to keep folks around the world in touch with my doings. But the main motivation is to get or keep people from a variety of walks of life—writers, friends, family, and those who drift in and turn out 'interested' for whatever obscure reason, etc pp—aware of my existence.

Here are the current visitor distribution maps for this blog and owlglass.com. I'm not sure if Clustrmaps correctly maps a 'referral' link; like, for example, if you clicked on the owlglass.com homepage link and went to this blog. It may or may not, hence the two maps shown together.



There is a familiar patterns of folks who return on a regular basis, plus the odd sprinkle of in-and-out visitors, possibly dragged in by Amazon reviews.

Compare this with an older map, accumulated over a much longer period than the others.

There's a core of stalwarts, but I do not see any significant spread, which would be nice. Such spread ultimately has to be word-of-mouth.

So, I'm wondering, dear reader—and yes, I'm talkin' to you, mate!—why you read this blog? Ultimately, it occurs to me, it's got to be because you continue to be interested in reading it. So tell me, do you really not know anybody who might be just as interested? If you do, why don't you tell/email them, or maybe blog about it? If you have a blog, at least put in a link. That would be nice.

Of course, there's the possibility that you don't want to do this. Maybe you think revealing that you're reading this blog is somehow likely to attract disapproval among those to whom you could communicate its existence? Hmmff... But why else, except indifference, would you not communicate it? And how can it be indifference if you keep coming back to here? Or is it the likely indifference of others?

There is, of course, the other alternative: sheer laziness. But consider that the law of cosmic equipoise will eventually catch up with you! It always does.

Once I've finished Tethys, I'm going to make the whole batch of previous blogs, both Keaen and the leftovers of System Crash (i.e. Nuncupatories) into eBooks and also '.chm' type files for people who insist on using WinBarf-based computers. Ahh, lots of plans for 'when I finish Tethys'. Actually it's going quite well: from 103010 it's now gone to 108491; in just 5 days. A bit better than before, and I'm still on a roll. After more of my contract work for the NZ Corrections Department—no! not contract killing, just documentation!—I might have some time left this weekend to do some more serious forging-ahead on the remainder.

Meanwhile, folks, help your faithful blogger, who does his best to keep you entertained and informed with what he hopes is a point-of-view qualifying as occasionally 'interesting', by promoting his memes in cyberspace.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Environmentalists and Environazis (a.k.a. 'Greenazis')



I'll be honest: hearing Bindi Irwin recite that little speech she wrote herself—though probably with some help from mum, but I wonder how much she really needed!—made me choke up. There's no doubt in my mind that this charming and obviously extremely intelligent little chip-off-the-old-block of both father and mother will continue her dad's work with vigor and very much in his spirit.

Contrast this with this though—which I won't dignify by including 'live' in this blog. In the trend exhibited by most journalists and habitual to the news program editors of NZ TV3, the item on the Steve Irwin memorial was followed, almost in the same breath, by the abomination linked to up there. Watch it if you must, but be warned, it is ugly and stupid—and represents probably the worst attitude offered by the environmental movement, whose leaders overall are a pretentious bunch of dimwits and emotionally stunted people, most of whom have replaced the gap left in their otherwise empty lives by the absence of any form of 'faith' in anything with this. And no religious connotations implied; 'faith' has many dimensions, and at it best expresses itself in the likes of the Irwins and that amazing little girl, who, like her father and mother, obviously has faith in 'life'.

I just hope her kind wins out in the end. Otherwise the future looks dim indeed, because the environmental zealots, represented here with a revolting kind of smug self-righteousness and fervent stupidity by Jean-Michel Cousteau, are not the ones to capture the hearts and therefore the cooperation of the public at large. Steve Irwin did. Call him what you will—and many Australians called him a lot of uncomplimentary things and were indeed embarrassed by his existence and popularity!—but capture their hearts he did.

And it is people at large that need to be captured, for without them nothing will ever 'work'. To the elite, consisting of anybody who think themselves to be better informed and educated and whatever than the common ruck, these people might appear silly and stupid and addicted to TV and silly, irrelevant things. Yet without them...

A word about NZ TV coverage of the memorial. I only show TV3's because it was overall a better quality and had more of Bindi in it. TVNZ's item, though shown as the first on the evening news (TV3 put it quite a bit down the line) was very 'blah' and spent too much time inserting some NZ vistors to the event, who blabbed on self-importantly about irrelevancies having to do with their own culture and conservationist inclinations. TV3 added the ugly Jean-Michel Cousteau clip at the end, with a preface by the announcer describing it as a 'stinging rebuke'.

It occurs to me that both channels exhibited a complete lack of grace. TVNZ's coverage with the 'local aspect' taking over 1/3 of the item—that's apparently what they teach what passes for 'journalists' in this country at the local journalism school(s); go figure!—was only marginally less offensive than that of TV3. In both cases, I suspect, it was the editors' desire to at the same time cater for the public's desire to know about the event, but also put down or diminish Steve Irwin and Australians at the same time. A nasty, mean bit of envy, because, let's face it—and I say this without venom, but merely because it is a fact—NZ society would never allow someone like Steve Irwin to exist and become as famous and 'out there' as he was.

In the event, even Australians tried to pretend for a long time that he wasn't really there; and it was in the US and the world at large that he became famous, and then he could hardly be ignored, though many continued to belittle him. This is a fairly normal phenomenon around Australia and NZ, known sometimes as the 'cultural cringe' factor. This expresses itself partially in a prevalence of a kind of pretentious cultural/parochial snobbery by which the nation in question tries to affirm to itself that it isn't just a crummy cultural backwater and has 'an identity' that actually matters to anyone but the inhabitants themselves. The other, more unsavory, aspect of the cringe factor, is the exclusion of potentially outstanding people who don't fit into the framework from consideration—or the kind of nasty little sideswipe put-down tactic displayed by TV3 last night.

As far as the Environazi clip goes, I shan't comment on it. Those who watch it, will either completely understand what I mean by labeling it as such—and those who don't...well, I couldn't explain it to them if I tried, for they inhabit a different universe to mine.

To close on a somewhat twisted note—as if Environazism wasn't twisted enough—treat yourselves to this from my daughter's blog.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Mimosas and porcupines

Events occasion me to hark back to a certain blog. It's not just South Park that provides us with free probes into the minds of large numbers of people. There are a lot of people running around right now, feeling very much offended in some way. Some acts like mimosas; others throw objects of various degrees of damage-infliction at targets of their wrath.

On the NZ scene—which pales into pathetic insignificance with what you might call 'world events'—the hypocrisy of those politicians wounded by 'intrusions into their personal lives' has reached new heights. Everybody is joining into the fray with moral opionions, most of which are either very flexible—I can say this, but you can't say that—justified with dazzling rationalizational mental contortions; or else they come down on the side of "leave their personal lives out of this, but...". (There's always a 'but'. Of course!) Let's argue about 'issues', 'policies' and such like, but please not about the opposition leader's private life and his possible martial infidelities, or the 'persistent rumors' that the PM's husband is gay; with a wink and a nod and an implication, never voiced aloud, that the PM herself isn't exactly 'mainstream' with her private preferences either.

The canard behind all of this is that it is possible, in any way shape or form, to separate the decision making processes of a person in the 'public' domain from those applied in their private lives.

A man selfish enough to cheats on his wife and effectively betray the woman he vowed to be faithful to, and who in that process does incredible psychological damage to his children, indeed has no right to use the words 'personal' and 'integrity' in the same sentence for any reason. One also needs to question whether such a person, unable to control his personal instincts and even less able to apply appropriate judgment to his actions and their consequences, could possibly be expected to make more appropriate decisions on much more weighty matters, such as those involved in the office of 'leader' of a nation.

Bill Clinton, a man exposed as a liar, cheat and habitual sexual predator, is a classic case in point. Does anybody really think that anything he did as a president was not somehow influenced by these kinds of predilections; or what lay beneath these inclinations? In the same way as Bush's 'private' religious persuasions influence his political decisions? Or the way in which the very personal and unvoiced beliefs or emotional states of mind of any 'leaders' whatsoever, anywhere and at any time, have, do and will influence everything they do? Does anybody really think that JFK's male-ego issues and psychological deficiencies and his chronic back pain did not contribute significantly to bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Or, on a comparatively bathetic note, let's suppose that, in a nation priding itself on its liberal attitude toward 'sexual equality' and lack of discrimination on grounds of religion, gender, gender-preferences and such-like criteria, somebody in the top levels of government turns out to be seriously 'in the closet', or is married to someone who is in the closet next door. It they came out of it, should it really matter? Unless, of course, said personages think that maybe their inclinations will influence how people see them, despite all the liberal image we're trying to project? Why else should such allegation be called 'disgusting lies'? Or could it be that they expect to be chastized for being less than forthcoming about the truth about them as persons?

People do lie, of course. It's part of maintaining the social fabric. What separates out one person from another is the purpose the lie serves. There are 'noble' lies. There are lies reflecting a high sense of responsibility, perspicacity and personal integrity on the part of the liar. There is justifiable deception.

But that's not what we're talking about, is it? We're talking about lies that serve only the person doing the lying. And, if we catch a politician at one of those—an easy task, by and large—about anything, either related to their public or their private persona, my view is that, by all means, expose it! Of course, there will be significant 'gutter press' associated with that; but, let's face it, those things matter—in context! In France nobody gives a shit about whether a politician has a mistress, and so there it doesn't matter, because it means that politicians having 'affairs' or keeping concubines don't actually do this in the same context as they do in the uptight climates of, say UK, NZ or US politics. Therefore their ethical decisions, though superficially leading to the same results, have a different 'ethics value'. It does, of course, reflect on the nation as a whole that it does find such things acceptable; but that's another matter altogether.

On a humorous note:

I am just listening to a discussion between a Christian and Muslim 'cleric'. People who argue volubly about 'reason', 'God', the notion that there are such things as 'religious scholars' who are supposed to be more reasonable than 'priests'. Why? Because they are 'scholars' of course, or so one of the participants in the discussion argued—and I still don't quite believe I actually heard anybody say this with such complete earnestness and conviction!

I wish I'd had known about this, because I would have recorded it. It's the kind of thing that could have been quoted verbatim in a South Park episode or a Monty Python movie. People would have died laughing in theri seats if it had been scripted for that context. As it is, the strain in the interviewers voice as he terminated the discussion reflected his own need to control any expressions of his amusement.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

103010

The number returned by my word-processor's 'word count' function when running it for Tethys.

That means several things:

a) I've written about 10k words in the last three days; which is more the kind of rate I am comfortable with. Reason for being able to do that is that, after a few hours of dealing with some contract work and with having to take a day off work with a sore back, I managed to just stick to it and write—even though some of that was done lying on my back with pillows propping up my head so I could see the screen of my 12" iBook. Bless my iBook! Best investment I've made in the last few decades. Without it neither Fontaine not Tethys would have been written. That's the truth. And they wouldn't be what they are. As I said: bless my iBook! Worth more than its weight in gold. As the late Steve Irwin said in an interview not so long ago (and I paraphrase and extract the essence of his remarks), what's the value of possessions per se—to anybody, really? But if these items serve to accomplish something...well, that's a different thing altogether. Portable Mac's are amazing productivity machines. Of course, they won't create productivity where there isn't any to begin with, but they certainly acts to facilitate. By contrast I loathe anything that reeks of 'PC' or 'XP' or anything derived from or produced by Microsoft with a passion reserved only for those inanimate things qualifying as approximating something 'evil'. I thought I'd learned to live with it, but I was wrong. (Calm down boy! Easy now. It's only a fricking operating system! Yeah, right!)

b) I'm at 100k+ words, and since most of the novels in the Keaen series are between 130k and 150k words long, being where I am gives me a good indication of how I stand in the grand scheme of the story. Will I have enough material for the usual size, or will I be stretching it, given the way-markers I have set myself? Is there enough story, content, drama and action to complete what needs to be completed? The answer from where I stand now is a definite 'yes'. 130k definitely. If I make a certain story-telling decision—which is upon me within the next 1k words or so—it will be more. Actually, since I'm trying to synchronize the story in time with the other main arc, which takes place off-planet, I really have no option but to follow a particular path. That means more than 130k, and so Tethys will indeed be, as I had anticipated, the longest book in the series. Not too long, I hope. But finishing draft #1 sometime in October now looks very realistic. That's still two months beyond the originally intended date, but given everything that's been intervening to slow me down or distract me—this blog included—things looks good from here.

Meaning I'm a fairly happy man. And the story is racing along right now, with lots of twists and turns, some of which—as usual and to my delight—I hadn't really anticipated. All of which makes it more fun for me as well. On the radio yesterday morning a scientist being interviewed on Radio NZ declared that scientists have the best and most interesting jobs in the world, if they choose to take advantage of what they are and allow themselves to explore the potential of their profession. Well, I have some sympathy for the statement, since I still consider myself a 'scientist', which I am by training and by witness of my degrees. But I tell you, the life of a story-teller can be at least as interesting and exciting; and possibly more so.

Bottom line is though that it all comes down to 'passion'. It always does, I think. And the first passion has to be a passion for being alive. Everything else flows from that. That's the way it looks from here anyway.

Friday, September 15, 2006

We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.

First of all, it's a funny world out there. I never thought Madonna would provide me with a source of merriment, but here it is. Robert Heinlein once wrote: Of all the strange 'crimes' that human beings have legislated of nothing, 'blasphemy' is the most amazing. Amen to that, brother!

To more serious things. The quote in the title of this blog is from George Orwell, and it dovetails in nicely with the theme of episode #7 of Threat Matrix, which is about torture and Gitmo. The episode revealed to me—at least I think it did—why the series tanked, suffering an oddly similar fate to Firefly: canned, with the last two episodes not shown on US TV, though I hope we'll see them here.

To continue to be shown on US TV—any TV for that matter, with NZ providing a fairly dismal example itself, only that here we have some requirements so bizarre that I won't even begin to try and describe them!—a series with political content needs to attract positive responses from sufficient viewers to make it worth the advertiser's trouble to pay for ads during its showing. That still leaves me wondering why TV2 is showing Threat Matrix, even if it's only at midnight on Mondays, because the programme selectors must think there's some benefit for them in doing so. Looking at the products advertised gives me no clue to the mystery whatsoever. Maybe TV2 got it so cheap that they simply couldn't lose!

Anyway, the problem with Threat Matrix is that is didn't please enough people enough of the time. Since it's a politically charged show—like West Wing, for example—it would have attracted audiences only from that side of the fence agreeing with its premises, a lot of which are very much in line with the Orwell quote at the top. Problem is that Threat Matrix was Orwellian in spirit, and Orwell was a free spirit of many sides. A man of convictions and dreams of a better society; but also one too intelligent not to see the dangers inherent in every social system, no matter how apparently benign.

As a result of its Orwellian air, Threat Matrix has such quirks as—so far at least—showing only one kind of religious ritual: one of the members of the team, a Muslim, praying. Episode 7 also has the lawyer for Frankie Ellroy Kilmer—the latter not a 'rough man' but a pretty woman, who can be tough as nails if it has to be and who is one of the two main protagonists of the series—ordering a 'Noriega' on a Gitmo prisoner to soften him up, pre-interrogation. (A 'Noriega'? That's sleep deprivation and shitloads of rock music, for days on end. Stuff like that.) At the end of Frankie's trial, occasioned by the prisoner's death from hypertensive problems and adverse reaction to the stress of the grilling, the lawyer throws these two questions at the jury: Where do you draw the line? How far are you willing to go? Just like the lawyer told Frankie earlier: They want you to do your job. They just don't want to watch. How totally Orwell!

Where Threat Matrix draws 'the line' is just about as inacceptable to your average liberal/leftie as the fact that it names the 'enemy' by name. Only other series I know which does this on a regular basis is NCIS, but it has a different focus, and so it doesn't matter there. On the other hand, TM's constant and pointing out of the flaws in American society that make it so vulnerable—from drug use to its occasionally terrifyingly complacent stupidity and arrogance—would constitute a definite put-off for any mindless 'patriot' who'd otherwise love this series.

In other words, TM was doomed to fail. Sign of the times. Pity.

On a lighter note again: what to make of this? I'm still reeling..

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

September 11

If anything demonstrates the truth of my assertion, some blogs ago, that the recounting of all history qualifies as 'fiction', it is the kerfuffle over ABC's The Path to 9/11. It is a dramatization and pretends to nothing else. It contains material also to be found in Losing Bin Laden, a troubling account of the failures of the Clinton administration to anticipate and deal with the potential of continuing and escalating terrorist attacks, long before 2001. Apparently some people don't like that inference, though they are, of course, happy to have the same accusation leveled at the Bush administration. I'm not going to take a side here, though I think it's safe to say that Clinton deserves just as much blame as Bush. It is in the nature of governments to screw up, because they are organizations populated, for the most part, by people who, while they may qualify as 'intelligent' in a purely functional sense, also tend to be...well, let me find the words...vain, childish, egomaniacal, opportunist, self-serving, dishonest, immoral, occasionally outright criminal—and generally represent a dismal example of how those evolution has left behind somehow, with unfailing perversity, end up governing those who really could do with someone better to lead them into the future. This rule is universal and independent of the system of government in force.

History is fiction; safely tucked away in 'past'-land, and never ever again likely to come back to bite us in the ass. 'Records' will never be complete enough—not even of 'recent' and 'well documented' history, as the scrap over TPT9/11 demonstrates—to clearly determine what was what, without allowing for and indeed requiring 'interpretation' or 'interpolation'; both words being euphemisms for 'fictionalization'. Dishonest fictionalization, I may add; since it masquerades as something else.

Yet there is also truth here—for history has happened; at least as far as we know. And we encounter truth where the fictionalization makes a statement that maps out accurately what was. The problem is that few of us actually know what was; so we can't tell which statement has what kind of truth value. And that is the real problem. That ultimately throws everything back onto us individually; makes it our own responsibility to decide what to believe and what to do as a result of that.

It's always our own responsibility. No one can ever absolve us from that.

By the way, I watched a few snippets of TPT9/11 and gave up on it pretty quickly. It was crap: badly filmed, badly acted, awfully scripted, generally pretty daft and confused; and it had no particular value to anybody or anything, except those who got paid by it having been produced. Give me Threat Matrix any day; a now-defunct TV series, much reviled by certain people; but so far every single episode I've watched (we're up to #7 on NZ TV2 as of last night) was well-scripted, told a good story, made no bones about its loyalties—but at the same time asked very serious, deliberate and thoughtful questions about our own ('Western') way of life—a way of life I'm willing to label 'mine', despite all its excesses and flaws—our civilization, what it is worth, what's wrong with it and what is happening to it as a result of that fateful day five years ago.

In a spirit of disclosure: I was in New Zealand when '9/11' happened. At my home. I watched it all on TV from a long, safe distance away.

I have no qualms or hesitation about calling it an 'act of war'. I don't think I ever will.

Oh, yes, and...

Sunday, September 10, 2006

superultramegaübercool

A term contributed to world-vocabulary by my daughter Aynia. I'm not sure how much more 'cool' things can get after this bit of überhyperbole, but I daresay one would be hard-pressed. Thing about this version is that it actually flows off the tongue and looks quite good, too. If it weren't so obvious I'd use it in one of my books. I might yet.

Meanwhile, here's a nice piece of artwork for Serenity fans.

And here's a map without a story—so far anyway. (Click on it and it'll open in a new window. It's quite large, so you can see quite a bit of detail.)


Gotta have a map of things; in your head and on paper. This one was drawn as I was developing a concept for a major novel about oracles and destiny. I kept on drawing in landscape features and places, most of which were just whimsical additions, with me asking myself "I wonder what that is? I wonder what could or will happen here?"

In the event, the map has more reality than the actual story, which got diverted, in parts, into other tales. So, the map awaits a place of context and people to travel through its intricate landscape. I may have found a home for it, or an allusion to it, in the current draft of Tethys, but I'm not sure it'll stay there. Since, as far as I can see, the story of this planet is just about done, I'm not sure it'll be a good idea to use it for anything but allusion and hints of existence.

Still, it'll be used. Meanwhile it stands here on my easel as a challenge. In that sense it's a bit like some of Luis Royo's artwork, for example; which almost challenges one to write the story of how something got to be the way it is in the artwork, and what's going to happen afterwards.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Poisonous old hags die alone

There's something offensively and profoundly unfair about this. A man—a 'character' of some note, and, by all accounts a nice man as well, and much loved by his wife and children alike—dies in a silly accident. Everybody and sundry mourns his passing. All, that is, except one old, poisonous, irrelevant hag.

Today, another nice man dies. If there's any proof that the cosmos is 'fair' at best in a very loose statistical sense, here it is. Not that it's any surprise, but I thought I'd mention it anyway.

Still, what to make of this cosmic injustice? How to deal with it—at a personal level I mean?

"What do you see when you turn out the light?" goes the line from the Beatles song A Little Help from my Friends.

"What do you see when your lights go out?" maybe?

Steve Irwin (a.k.a. Crocodile Hunter) and Peter Brock (a.k.a. King of the Mountain, eulogized by Midnight Oil in the like-named song) will be remembered by their families and the nation that was their home; remembered with affection, fondness, a sense of terrible loss of something precious. What they left behind, in deeds and concrete legacies, will live on for a long time to come.

Two genuinely nice men, who died pointless deaths. An old hag—who wouldn't look out of place in grimy hut in a dark forest in a Grimm's fairy tale—who spews vitriol like an overheated leaky radiator spurts hot water.

What does she see when she turns off the light? What's she going to see when her lights go out? Who, apart from a few historians and 'intellectuals' about to write something about her 'historic significance' are going to really and truly care?

I mean, being dead is not a nice thing—in fact, it's terrible from what I hear—but if dead one is to be, I think it would be more comforting to go into that bad night knowing that somebody truly cares about it.

Maybe, in a twisted kind of way, the cosmos tries to make up for its missing sense of justice.

Intellectuals solve problems. Geniuses prevent them.


...or so, it is written, said Albert Einstein. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn't. If he didn't, he should have. If he did, why doesn't anybody pay attention? Well may you ask.

While Einstein referred to 'intellectuals'—a label pinned on people I usually find tedious, often pretentious and full of themselves, as well as oddly judgement-impaired—one might substitute the term 'experts', for they are usually considered the ones to provide us with solutions to the complex problems of the world.

Some years back (I won't tell you how many because it's when I started my 'real working life', so to speak) computational 'Expert Systems'—a variant of 'intelligent systems', all of them 'artificially' so—were all the rage, buzz-word generators and research fund suck-up-ers. The money wasted in that area is staggering. Reason why the fad has faded—not just because it was a 'fad'—and why the bright, shiny spark as become a somewhat unspectacular lantern, was that, like 'intelligence', the nature of 'expertise' in humans, the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying it, making it possible, were mostly unknown; for any number of reasons, ranging from the non-availability of certain diagnostic and investigative intrumentation, to people just getting carried away with grabbing as many research funds as they could, and there were ways of doing that and ways of not getting them. The sure way to remain in funding limbo was to point out the essential folly of trying to produce something 'artificial' when the 'natural' wasn't even remotely understood.

(I used to love taking the piss out of these folks—out of their hearing range, of course!—by noting, not without venom, that those without innate intelligence were hardly likely to create a decent artificial version; except of course in the images of their own inferior innate intelligence; none of which was likely to produce anything truly world-shattering. No A.I. without I.I.)

But what a con-job and rip-off the 'expert system' business was! Nothing worse, of course, than many currently-running fund-grabbing con jobs in all areas of science and technology. Fraud and peculation come in many forms, some of them apparently perfectly legitimate.

We're a mile down the road now with cognitive research and, as science is wont to do, myths are being toppled from their pedestals. One of them is the notion that for becoming an 'expert'—which basically means really competent and 'good' at something—'talent' matters more than practice, dogged persistence and hard work. Oh, yes, and time. That's bad news for the ADD generation, methinks.

Something else is also required and that's a lack of complacence and satisfaction with what one apparently already knows or can do. Those who don't push the envelope with develop moderate competence and that will be that. Good enough, but not really good. Competent but not excellent. Bright but not brilliant.

Now, I wonder, how does that apply to what one might call 'life in general'? I mean, 'living'—physically, socially, psychologically—is, after all, a kind of skill. 'Living' is all about dealing with...well, 'life' and what it throws at us from all angles. It's orders of magnitude more complicated than Chess and Go taken together. Saying that nobody can become an expert at living almost sounds like a platitude—certainly the utterance has all the hallmarks of some weighty Socratic pronouncement—but is it actually true? It may be that no one can 'master' life; but then again, nobody can really 'master' anything with a sufficiently complex set of rules and configurational permutations; not even Chess. One can merely get better, more 'expert', at it. Thing is, it's difficult to answer the question "better than who?" because there are no universally agreed-upon yardsticks for measuring 'being better'. You can't 'win' a game of life. If anything, one might say that everybody currently is almost guaranteed to lose—ultimately.

Still, all these issues notwithstanding, it seems to me like 'life' could be treated much like any other 'area of expertise'. Some people are better at it than others. Some suck. Some shine. Some get to a certain point and no further. Others keep pushing the envelope and keep increasing their 'skill level'. And this is, of course, the point I was wanting to make. For there is no reason to suppose that, in the game of life, the rules that determine how to do things with a maximum of skill should be any different to those we now discern as being important for the creation, maintenance and development of 'expertise' in anything.

The real tragedy then indeed becomes that even for those who do their best to become good at this, by the time they're beginning to benefit from the accumulated experience and just sheer time, they're basically on their way out of this world. One must wonder how much 'life' expertise is lost because of this, and if this isn't much more significant for the continued existence of bad decision-making than any other single identifyable reason.

I appreciate that the notion that the 'old' must make way for the 'energizing' 'young' has a certain intuitive appeal. To question its wisdom almost appears like heresy. But, let's face it, with the 'energy' of the next generation also comes a commensurate compulsion to make the same dumb decisions as those before them made at about the same age and life-stage. With the world going the way it is, and with the consequences of stupid decisions at the level of important decision makers becoming potentially more and more dangerous on a global scale, I sometimes wonder—and not just because I'm not 20 any more—if this whole thing does not need to be revisited.

Of course, all of this could become nuncupatory soon enough, when significant life-extension will change the face of our societies beyond our wildest imaginings...

The two photos, by the way, are meant to be metaphors—just to keep you thinking about this question I posed some blogs back. The one at the top is a photo titled Interface 1. I leave it to you to figure out why it's called that and what it was when it started its life.

The bottom photo is a shot I stole from the web, of a sun spot.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

South Park Refugees

Here's one for a laugh. Well, I laughed, because I'm so totally on-board for this one, and whatever ship we're sailing on...

I have a friend who's more than just mildly scandalized at, and maybe just disappointed with, my continued support and enjoyment of South Park and its general philosophy—something that came to me belatedly, after watching Team America: World Police, which, quite literally, left me with an aching belly from laughing. Come to think about it, there are a lot of folks, near by and distant, who watch my SouthParkesque sympathies with emotions ranging from puzzlement to concerned disapproval. After all, with it comes an inclination to think and express oneself mockingly about matters others consider 'sacred' or something akin to that—meaning things they're touchy about and take 'offense' at.

Way I see it, there are at least two comparatively uncomplicated ways to probe the substance of an arbitrary human being. It doesn't take complex psychology or research and can be done by anybody. However, be warned, don't try this at home, because those close to you deserve better than to become rats to your amateurish psych freakout tests! Also, don't do this to anybody else unless you're willing to live with the consequences of having...

A) ...found out something you didn't actually really want to know; for sometimes it is better to live in blissful ignorance about certain things.

B) ...done this to that particular person; after all, they might react like this—and, let's face it, the possibility isn't that far-fetched. (For those not familiar with The Onion, here's a ';>' for the link.) After all, the first method is inherently anti-social—as Till Eulenspiegel, an old namesake and previous incarnation of mine, apparently found out to his dismay—at least in some version of the tale, where an irate citizenry, all of whom were, I suspect, offended by his actions in some way or another, eventually hanged him.

The first simple way to find out a man's or woman's substance is to seriously offend the person in question. Find as many ways to offend them as possible before they start trying to kill you. The sum-total of whatever is being 'offended'—attacked, threatened, devalidated—is fairly representative of what constitutes that person's conceptual, emotional, ethical, value and validative internal framework—and the remainder of the information required i sprovided by what they might be offended by but aren't.

The method is not designed to make friends. Those of a more subtle disposition might approach the procedure more obliquely, such as just watching the subject's reaction to various potentially offensive stimuli provided by proxies; which can be either people or inanimate things such as stories or everyday events. However, nothing beats a direct deep probe with a solid bit of offense. Right to the heart of things I say. Of course, as a writer of stories I can do that with impunity, provided my approach is sneaky and devious enough.

One nice thing about South Park is that Parker and Stone provide an immensely effective, widely-broadcast probe to ferret out a whole lot of 'issues' within both, its audience and non-audience. It may be the most effective and wide-spread psych probe available in the world today. It has flushed out just about every two-bit bigot in existence, has laid bare more religious mania and silliness than you would believe could exist among the populace, and exposed more hypocrites than you can shake a stick at. Thanks to South Park you don't even really have to offend people anymore in order to get a fair notion of what they're 'about'. Just drop South Park into the conversation at some suitable point, observe their reaction; and then proceed to delicately question why they don't like it—or why they do; which can be just as revealing. Pretend like you're on their side. (Of course, that'll work only if they don't know what you're up to!) Try to elicit from them exactly what bothers them about South Park. Is it really just the 'coarse profanity' or 'sexually-explicit themes' thing, or does it go deeper? (The answer, by the way, is always 'yes'; and so now it's up to your ingenuity to probe until they reveal what really botrhers them about it.)

Second method; can be used either complementary to/with the first; or else try it standalone, since it avoids 'offense'.

Three wishes from a fairy. Exception: you can't wish for more wishes.

The first revelation comes in the context of how people react to the question being posited. Then there are the answers. Give me some quality time with someone and 'three wishes'—provided, of course, the victim doesn't know the intent behind the question; which is always the catch!—and I'll tell you exactly where, as one says, s/he's 'coming from'.

I'm going to stop here. I think I was going to blog about 'experts', since I just read something about 'expertise' in a recent Scientific American, but somehow got distracted. Well, maybe next time.

Meanwhile, here's another picture from that morning I waited at the bus stop.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Stalkers of your new TV

Max Headroom is coming. Maybe not tomorrow; maybe not in five years; but definitely within ten. Actually I'm giving it more like five, because even the NZ government seems to be supporting this leap into the future.

A leap into an abyss, more like it.

One of my basic human rights, or so I would think, is that I can record a TV show and f/f through the ads if and whenever I like to. Or to make a duplicate of a CD I bought, just in case the original scratches badly. Stuff like that. One day soon I won't be able to do that anymore. Anybody selling electronic equipment allowing me to do so, will be ostracized by the 'industry', who will dictate what is to be what. Anybody trying to circumvent the process will automatically become a criminal. The process itself will become virtually impossible to circumvent, except through the concerted action of a large number of putative—and all implicitly 'criminal'—participants, all of whom will require significant computational resources and mathematical skills; because they will have to break a virtually unbreakable encryption key and release it to the world. The super-ultra equivalent of region-independent DVD players nowadays. Interpol will become a slave to the entertainment and 'media' industry's obsession with never allowing anybody to break the code.

Good stuff for a story? Hell, yes. If only it weren't one of those tales based very solidly in highly probable near future reality. Beware HD digital TV standards and proposals. It might look like they're just about making everything cooler, snazzier, sharper, more entertaining—but, when all is said and done, it's about commercial control of the public receiving said 'entertainment'. Permitting the 'industry' to start assuming even more-than-current control over what equipment manufacturers are allowed manufacture—think computer manufacturers being forced to ensure that the DVD drives in their machines can only switch regions a limited number of times—is coming very close to a kind of industrial fascism that begins to scare even me. Think of a 'standard' where a DVD can be made to detect a non-conformant piece of equipment and may be authorized to shut it down, possibly for good? Think of a time where manufacturers will be forced to manufacture equipment that allows itself to be shut down!

Once more: you think Oil, Tobacco, Junk-Food and Weapons are the 'evil' corporations of the world? Kiddies, you have no idea...

We're on the way there; and not just in the distant future. The manic plunge ahead into entertainment-delivery technology, gobbled up by an...unaware...public—and I'm being kind; other words leap to mind!—is acquiring a momentum too massive to halt in time.

And, while we're at it, and just as a 'by-the-way, or maybe not 'just', why is it that a convicted criminal, who did—albeit very comfortable—time in jail for her crimes, now has a TV show along the lines of Donald Trump's The Apprentice? Speaking of Martha Stewart, of course—whom Trump has repeatedly described as his 'very good friend', of course, so maybe there's no surprise here. So, folks, think Donald Trump (he of the truly weird hairdo), plus Rupert Murdoch (he of the crooked glasses on his nose), plus Bill Gates (he, who has found enlightenment and his charitable core), plus Hollyweirdiana (they, who berate the evils of conservative government, but work hard to control every aspect of our lives)—all pushing this incredible crap upon the public, and making sure that their, quite possibly criminal, buddies get their own shows on a TV that soon we may not be able to switch off?

Makes you want to puke, don't it?

Distribution of entertainment over the internet will follow suit. Peer networks will become either disabled or criminal—the current suit against LimeWire is just another step in that direction—with all participants in said networks becoming liable to international criminal law that all countries will ultimately be forced to sign up for, or else they won't know what hit them.

I thought my dystopia of System Crash was grim. I think maybe I also suffered from a lack of imagination.

Imagine that!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Castle that Moved

Finally managed to see Howl's Moving Castle—on DVD, though I now wish I had seen it on a big screen, for it would have been worth it.

What an amazing film! I'm trying to find adjectives that are not going to make me sound gushy—so I won't even try, because I'll lose that game. It is probable that this piece of anime is going to change my whole way of looking at the genre and a lot of other things as well. And, for the Jack Vance aficionados reading this, if I had to make a movie about one of Jack's more colorful books—though it would be more 'adult' than HMC—like The Houses of Iszm, or something from The Dying Earth like the T'sain/T'sais stories, or even Chateau d'If—I now realize that this medium is potentially much more appropriate than something involving human actors. I advise Vanceacs to spend some time with HMC, because it's...just so...

Just about every scene and element in HMC is...well, 'beautiful'. In just about every other hand that could become overwhelming, but a lot of the beauty is subtle enough, so it doesn't hit you in the face or tire you out. HMC has benefited from a unique mix of European and Japanese, in all aspects, ranging from the story to the visuals. Dianna Wynne-Jones's original novel has been modified—as it had to be—and added-to with story elements close to the Japanese soul, like militarism and the dissonances between nature and civilized man; thus creating something that should ring familiar with audiences from both worlds. It could just have been a somewhat dissonant mix of these disparate cultural elements; but in this instance even the dissonances only serve to enhance the dreamy fairy-tale mood pervading the film.

The visuals are unusual for an anime flick and add to the 'European' flavor. The world depicted is an odd melange between motifs familiar from early 20th century Europe—think some halcyon romantic vision of Germany or Austria—with trains blowing billowing plumes of smoke and steam-technology driven conveyances in the city; and impossible aerial vessels, both tiny and huge, hovering above. A colorful idyll of everyday life—something that could have been taken from an Austrian operetta—is contrasted with the fiery destructions wrought by indiscriminately waged war that spares no one. No dead bodies are shown, but they can easily be imagined underneath the rubble.

The visuals also deviate from the usual common in the world of anime, in that the images are in constant motion. Nothing like the stereoptypical, low-cost, technique that mixes static elements, such as characters, their faces frozen in the rictus of a single expression or two, set against a moving background that's basically a short repeating sequence of frames—or vice versa, of course. Faces move as wholes, not just in parts—as, of course, does the Castle itself: possibly the most amazing, dementedly organic, technological structure I've ever seen.

I love Japanese animation—actually I love a lot of things Japanese, which probably partially explains my practice of Samurai swordcraft—but it has some stylistic quirks that grate on me occasionally. HMC avoided most of those and replaced them with something much more poetic. Add to that the voices of Christian Bale (Howl) and Billy Crystal (Calcifer, the Fire Demon), JeanSimmons and Emily Mortimer (Sophie, old and young) and Lauren Bacall (Witch of the Waste) and it even worked in dubbed translation—though the Japanese original with subtext sometime differs considerably from the dubs; which had to be fitted to make mouth movements and words match up as much as possible: a feat accomplished with amazing skill.

The story of HMC, even with the added dimension and complications of Miyazaki's screenplay/adaptation, is still very simple and to the point. It's all about love and redemption and becoming a full human being and finding purpose. Miyazaki added a note about the tragedy befalling those forced to get involved directly in the details of battle, and the impact this has on their spirits—surely a very pertinent topic at any time, and maybe even more so now.

What was maybe the most amazing thing was a total lack of cynicism about the main character's motives and aspirations. Even the Witch of the Waste—love the play on words here!—turns out just a sad disappointed creature, for whom things have just gone awry. The only real eviloder in the piece is the King, an air-headed war-monger without the slightest trace of conscience or sense of perspective, who deals with war and killing like it was a video game. But he appears for less than a minute, as if to emphasize his ultimate insignificance for history and everything. Can there be any more implied contempt than by this limitation of 'screen time' as it were?

The whole thing is held together by the whimsical and occasionally erratic and hard-to-fathom vision and mental processes of Hayao Miyazaki; and it may be this whimsy and the connections he made in his head between this and that and the other—and which somehow made it onto the screen, occasionally explicit, but often hidden in tiny details of story and/or visual design—that make HMC into the extraordinary work of art and beauty it is, and which takes it from 'great' to 'masterpiece', a term I use very seldom. There is stuff in here we'll probably never understand; and I quite like that. Only the simple-minded or the dull need everything spelled out and things neatly arranged in sensical patterns. Life isn't 'sensical'; we would just like to pretend it is.

Rent it. Buy it. Just don't miss out on it.