Thursday, June 28, 2007

OK, so today I'm happy

Some months back I sent proof and pre-release copies of the whole Tethys series plus Seladiënna to Midwest Book Review. Finally I have the result, which you can find here, but I'll quote it verbatim, because it's so cool. Tomorrow I'll wake up and realize that one review does not a million books sell, but after plugging away for a number of years on a story that seems to be unable to see the light of 'normal' publication, it's nice to see that I have at least one more serious fan.

Thanks for that.

Tethys
Till Noever
Lulu Press
EDGE Science Fiction & Fantasy Publishing
www.edgewebsite.com www.lulu.com publisher@owlglass till@owlglass.com

Till Noever is the talented author of the five volume fantasy/science fiction series' 'Tethys' which is comprised of "Keaen" (9780615143552, $19.95); "Finister" (9780615137926, $16.95); "Tergan" (9780615139265), 15.95; "Fontaine" (9780615139258, $17.95); and "Tethys" (9780615142630, $19.95). The five volume saga story arc begins more than 300 years after humanity's original drive into interstellar space. Now humans are to be found on a number of far-flung but life-sustainable planets, as well as hundreds of lifeless moons and stellar rocks. When a professional space explorer finds, by chance, the star Caravella which features a dozen planetoids, ore bearing space rocks, and an Earth-sized world of oceans and continents making it especially attractive to human settlement, he intends to return home to sell his discovery, but dies in a mishap. It's years later when his derelict ship is found by a passing space craft manned by 'Turillians', a socio-philosophical sext. Ten years latter a space ship containing some 30,000 colonists in suspended animation and their equipment come into orbit around that discovered plant of the Caravella system and is renamed 'Tethys'. A thousand years later in an area of the planet known as 'The Valley', is the kingdom of Keaen and its capital city of the same name. Enter two young people who are in love and, like all the rest of the inhabitants of Tethys, are ignorant of the original plan behind the settlement of the planet by those long dead Turillians. These two young lovers are about to discover a deeply buried secret that could well alter humanity's future forever. This complex, engaging, and superbly crafted story is played out by a host of memorable characters in five consecutive volumes. Also very highly recommended for fantasy and science-fiction enthusiasts is Till Noever's imaginative and original novel "Seladienna" (9780615142852, $19.95), featuring the descendants of a roman legion who in Emperor Hadrian's reign disappeared into the forests now occupied by the city of London, a man and woman stranded for a brief time in a world not our own, and a world that needs saving -- even if to do so means much of it must be destroyed.

Better late than never? Better not even late.

With the untimely death of Glen, and the equally untimely death of Alan Harrington a decade ago, and with me writing Bodies and as these things go, here are a few thoughts, few of which qualify as cheerful, but all of which I consider pertinent enough to communicate. Of course, my fiction does anyway, but often it's hidden to all but those willing to see below the surface layer(s).

In Peter Jackson's version of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf, at one point, notes that he's over three thousand years old and nevertheless right now he's running out of time (to do something that needs to be done). There is a very basic truth in this and it is that no matter how old we get, and even if we as individuals lived to thousands of years, we are always running out of time to do things. For everything has to be done in its time, in order to have it done 'right' or for it to have any effect or for it to make a difference to our lives and those of others.

Of course, sometimes it's more 'timely' to tarry and wait for a better time, but by and large that argument only serves as a pathetic excuse for our continual failure to do the things that need to be done now and to endeavor to do them right. For if we don't... If we don't, time will run out on us. And one day there will be no time to do this particular thing that we should have done, and all we're left with it bitter regret. Or with nothing. For when it is too late it is indeed too late. And while there often are second chances, and third and fourth, with every day that passes there's one less, or many more less, and besides we never know just how many chances we still have left, because we really don't know to begin with, just how large the pool of 'chances' is. As a general rule, it's probably much, much smaller than we think.

In a rather shocking kind of way that recent death proved that. Time runs out. Even if you live to be 5000, time still runs out, for tomorrow what might have been possible today need not be anymore. It doesn't matter how long you're going to live. Clocks tick. Every day the sun rises means that the previous day has been taken out of what's left of your life.

Let me use a martial arts metaphor to explain the way this should influence one's behavior:

When our visitor from Australia was here some months back, we did a practice that had to do with judging spatial relationships and movement. Two people, from opposite ends of the dojo, armed with wooden swords, would start walking toward each other. At some stage there would be a draw and an exchange of simulated cuts and parrys counter cuts and so on.

The point was that both participants were to use the time closing the distance to position themselves appropriately for the best outcome for themselves. Usually, the way one thinks about this, when you're at a far distance, you feel you have ample time to figure things out. So you start walking, with the urgency of working out how to take the next step and time one's movements increasing as the combatants get closer. Our dojo is over 150 feet long end to end, so there appears to be lots of distance and time to figure things out. See what the other guy does and how he moves; adjust accordingly; plan as you go.

The point our visitor was trying to make was that this urgency should not be allowed to 'ramp up' as it were. It should be there, full blast, at the moment you start walking. One's awareness of the task should be fully turned on immediately, despite there apparently being heaps of time and/or distance at the start.

He's right. And, in a purely martial arts sense and the context of that little game, I understand why. I will not explain how and why, because it needs to be demonstrated physically, for 'doing' in this instance creates understanding; and besides, if I told you I'd have to kill you and all that. But when I figured it out, I realized just how simple the effect was—and yet how utterly decisive. It was a lesson I shall not forget.

In life in general we also have a tendency to see things with greater urgency as they approach, especially in time. It's what happens inevitably, merely because one gets older and time to do things, anything, runs out, or at least opportunities pass by, never to be repeated, no matter how long one lives. But one wasn't ready, and so they whizz past. It's been said that 'luck' is when opportunity meets preparation. I believe this to be true.

It is difficult to maintain urgency without seeing a deadline approaching and getting panicky. This is because of habituation, which is the bane of our lives, at the same time as it is a protective mechanism. We have to learn to fight habituation in the things that matter. This is the solution to the problem discussed endlessly by Colin Wilson in much of his writings. Habituation is both a neurological and psychological phenomenon. It's what stops us from keeping our attention turned full-ON when we start walking toward the enemy—which in life is any example of what you might call a 'life-deadline'.

The sudden-death example of Glen should remind us all that there are deadlines we are not and cannot aware of. They could lie in wait at any time and at any place.

How to deal with these? Well, you can't. You don't know what you don't know, though you know that you don't know, and that must needs be sufficient. But you can adjust your life as if you were aware of them, by living consciously as much as you can. All the time. Be aware. Really do make it clear to yourself, every time you get up, that this could be the last day of your life and that the next heartbeat could be your last—and that the deadlines you know are looming require you dealing with them today. Not tomorrow. There is no guarantee of there being 'time enough' to do what needs to be done—even if, as The Immortalist cover declares, 'you may never die'.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Things one needs to share...

Recently, like a few weeks ago, with what I suppose is a promise of more business with the legalization of Prostitution in New Zealand, a place just a stone's throw—literally—from the building I work in to earn my living, has been refurbished.

Why share this? Because when you get closer you see the amazingly diverse cityscape in this town. There's the brothel, the public toilets, a cabbage tree, First Church in the background, and even a lunchtime smoker, whose identity I tastefully concealed behind a—yes, color deliberately chosen—red banner to protect the innocent. And, no, the woman did not go into La Maison.

And here, my friends is the killer. And, yes, you read rightly—for those who read closely in the preceding image. Proof, if any such were needed, of collusion between the Dunedin municipal authorities and the establishment under consideration; with what appears to be encouragement for brisk and speedily conducted business on the premises, leaving lots of scope for fast throughput.

For those who can't figure out what it says on the sign: it means 5 minutes maximum parking at all times, day or night, rain or shine, public holidays, Good Friday, Easter and, of course Christmas. The fine for disobeying the sign is at least $NZ 10, though it might be more. I'm not quite up with the fine levels, not usually parking in such a 'zone'. $NZ10 is not necessarily a vast deterrent for those who can't get their business done in time. In Wellington it would be several times as much and in Auckland it'll put you back a day's honest wages.

And it makes you wonder about the parking wardens and how much cash they manage to extract from those 'infringing' on the DCC bylaws here. Give them a good reason to skulk around here.

I wonder if the place has a rear entrance. I wonder about a lot of things, come to think about it.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Standoff S0114: Road Trip

Summary:

When a polygamous cult leader abducts one of his wives' daughters, who had tried to escape, Matt and Emily track the RV in which they are traveling and discover a plot for revenge that could lead to the deaths of many other people, including the four women in the RV.

Quotes:

Matt: What was the thing Warren said about heaven?
Emily: The world has to end before heaven can begin.
Matt: Great.

What we find out:
  • Matt likes RVs and would like to travel around in one when he retires. Emily would rather go to Venice.
  • Frank doesn't like to shoot women, even if they have automatic guns pointed at him. But if they start shooting, so will he.
  • Black still looks totally cool, especially on women.

Associated thoughts:

The nice thing, if you want to call it that, about religion is—and especially for a cult leader who doesn't have to share ecclesiastic power—that you can make up the details as you go along. That's probably one of the reasons why this kind of cultism is so popular, and always has been, really. It's just that nowadays they tend to get more exposure and we all get a chance at least to hear about these morons.

However, maybe I'm being unfair to 'cults'. After all, every 'Great Religion' started off as one of those, right? As, I hasten to add, did every 'Great Ideology', and that pretty much covers it I think. So, what does that mean? Is the real difference between a 'cult' and a 'Great Religion' merely one of dates and success in the social marketplace? For, by and large, and apart from the inevitable democratization, if you want to call it that, occasioned by the spread of the cult, the inevitable death of the initial leader and the takeover of cult management and doctrinal finagling and mongering by those who follow him, the differences between religions and cults are... well, 'nuncupatory' leaps to mind. And, yes, that's a word most familiar to Vanciacs, and it's usually used in a context that would lead one to believe that it means something like 'pointlessly declarative'.

About cult leaders...

Odd thing this. Very gender-asymmetrical. It's usually men, though I'm sure a few women are in there, too. But it seems to be like this is a guy-thing: being the great leader. Sorry, ladies, but history and the occasional female, or apparently female—oops, me bad!—P.M. notwithstanding, by and large the 'leader' thingie, and especially when it comes to mindless fervor...well, the girls just don't seem to go for it. And, please, feminists, don't go ape on me here—or maybe I should say 'apette'—but methinks this is a good and positive thing, so stick to being different. It's cool. Really. Think of that recent suicide-bomber graduation video. All guys, I bet, or at least all of those that were filmed. All destined to spatter themselves in shreds across the countryside or cityscape or whatever. Just like that idiot on Road Trip was going to. I couldn't help but want to cheer when his renegade and recently-rekidnapped 'wife' belted him senseless, or maybe even killed him.

All in all a straightforward episode with Frank finally being allowed to be anything else but flippant. Pity the series got nuked, because there would have been lots more mileage in that guy. I think he should have been allowed to have the hots for Cheryl—and she for him. Ahh, the irony, at so many levels. But, alas, it isn't going to be...

As always, I liked the new episode, and I'm still occasionally puzzling about why anybody could not like this show. I've got a gazillion explanations, of course, but though I know they all probably make sense, somehow none of them do.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Glen


I was going to write about pirates and the freedom of the oceans, the land and...well, 'space' in general and far and wide—but instead I'll write a brief epitaph for a gentleman—and I mean 'gentleman'—whom I've met at best a couple of dozen times in the last few years, but who always struck me as that rarity known as a 'truly nice person'.

His first name was Glen, and I withhold the surname for the sake of privacy. He was a practitioner of martial arts, of the jujitsu kind, as well as others, for his skills were numerous. He was maybe 15 years or so younger than I, and he suffered from diabetes, inter alia. You couldn't have told because he was wiry and strong and quick and agile, physically as well as mentally. A few months ago, in March, we did some practice exercises together, when our august visitor from Australia was here for a brief seminar. Glen, as always, exhibited a spirit I find sadly rare, even among those who pride themselves on being just a cut above the rest. Though vastly more skilled in his aspect of the 'martial arts' than I and others attending, and though he came to the seminar to learn from our visitor, he still, at the same time, paid close attention to those he interacted with, and was always respectful of their needs, limitations, and did what he could to help them learn better themselves—sometimes, I suspect, at the cost of whatever benefit he might have derived from being more self-involved; which was what many others did. By the same token, in those disciplines in which he knew others, including me, to have more skills and experience than himself, he accepted tutelage and guidance without the slightest hint of that pride and the ego issues that always seem to lurk with many, no matter how much they try to hide it, and which makes these seminars into occasionally off-putting testosterone fests. Glen didn't pose or posture. I suspect he had no need for it. He struck me as a deeply serious man, who knew what 'responsibility' was. At the same time, he was just a nice guy. I didn't know him well at all, but what I knew was all good.

Just over a day ago, during a training session in his home town, Glen collapsed and died.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Unreason of Unreason

Warning: this blog may have a soporific effect on some people.

Do not read unless you're wide awake and unlikely to be sent to sleep by psycho-philosophical ruminations. I promise, I'll get back to pirates in the next one. But for here and now, skip to the end section (just scroll all the way down in this blog), if you want something suitably lurid and demented. NZ politics yet against leads the way to social dementia and the nanny-state. California, eat your heart out!

But first...
————————————————————————————————————

"BE REASONABLE for chrissakes!" someone shouts at you.

Ask yourself the following: is it possible at all not to be 'reasonable'?

I'm not being facetious here, by the way. 'Reason' is, in a physical, that is 'neurological', sense— which is the only sense that makes sense, if you will, for there it begins and it ends—a simple process; at least 'simple' from a conceptual point of view. In any given instance the processes and conditions that make up a 'reasoning' procedure are incredibly complex, of course, but we shouldn't use that to obfuscate the essential simplicity of what it 'is'.

'Reasoning' starts at some point, set arbitrarily. Like we draw lines at t=0 to t=10, say, and analyze what happens in terms of and in relation to 'reasoning' during that interval.

At t=0 we start of from a set of initial conditions. These include everything that relates to the state of the universe insofar as it is accessible to us and involved in some way in whatever context embeds the process we're talking about. So, for example there are what's normally called 'external factors'—what we perceive and/or perceived in the outside world—and 'internal' ones, which relate to the complete state of the thing that constitutes the 'I'; including everything that we believe, think, feel at t=0.

There are also certain imposed boundary conditions, which determine how, if you will, we can process whatever it is we're 'reasoning' about. We can only think in certain ways. Like we'll have 1+1 be 2, however '2' happens to be represented in any given number system. Some people may not, but these people must then be considered to have different boundary conditions imposed on them. Nobody said they all have to be the same for everybody. In particular, since every brain-body complex is different, the exact boundary conditions will never be quite the same—just like, much more obviously, the initial conditions are not. One of the most important boundary conditions is the one that says that I am not anybody else. Another set is that which makes certain aspects of any given reasoning process accessible to what's usually called 'conscious' thought or inspection, while others remain subconscious and inaccessible. These also vary from person to person. The last, but most important, boundary condition is that we are physical creatures, who, at a very fundamental level, can only think in physically possible ways, as determined by our physiology. We cannot think, consciously and/or unconsciously, in ways that are impossible to think in with our thought-instruments—that being our brains.

Boundary conditions are like constraints on what it is possible to do. Reasoning is the process of proceeding from a starting point, subject to those constraints, and ending up, after a gazillion, or maybe just a few, steps at...

...t=10 at a final state. This is basically a large portion of a new set of initial and boundary conditions, from which then starts a new chain, or many new chains, of reasoning, and so on. The nature of the final state in a person is evidenced through some 'action' this person takes, whether this finds a physical expression or is just an action in terms of making what looks like an entirely 'internal' determination that might be expressed as, say, 'my reason had led me to think that A is B', or something along those lines. Ultimately that thought will have some expression in action—as all thoughts do, because they make you behave this way and not that; which they must for else they would be 'epiphenomenal', meaning have no effect at all; and that cannot be, since every thought configures new initial and boundary conditions relating to one's future behavior; with 'behavior' of course ultimately meaning 'action'. And so on.

Just to confuse, it needs to be added that the idea that we can see this as a process that goes from t=0 to t=10 is gravely misleading. For that assumes that the process of reasoning can proceed in some predictable fashion during that period. That would be a form of 'determinism', of course, which happens to be bunk, at least in its pure form. Thing is that we have to think of reasoning as we think of that dreaded thing called 'calculus' and in particular that aspect of it which considers ever smaller steps—in time in this case, i.e. some kind of '∆t'—which ultimately become infinitesimally small. For during every tiny step in time and even the minutest step in the 'reasoning' process, we actually actively change the boundary conditions of the system that's doing the reasoning, the brain, and thus effectively establish new initial conditions for what follows. The same conditions are also changed by events of a physiological nature, or maybe even something 'external, that qualify as, if nor random, but nonetheless unrelated to the actual 'reasoning' in the sense that they are linearly independent from it.

Hence the reasoning process is really a whole lot of t=0 -> t=
∆t sequences, which totally confuses the issue, I know, but that's the way it is. It's got nothing to do with me obfuscating things, but with the universe doing it, by having us be what we are. There's nothing else we can do but act in this manner and subject to the constraints of what we are, can be and can think.

The whole issue is further complicated because the difference between 'initial conditions' and 'boundary conditions' becomes blurred once we're thinking along a continuum (lim ∆t->0), rather than in steps. For, say, a belief in the existence of God, can be the initial condition for a sequence of 'reasoning', at the same time as it is a boundary condition that constrains the possibilities for what the reasoning may bring. On the other hand, that belief could change, because it could actually become the subject of the reasoning itself, rather than being a constraint on reasoning about other things. So, at any given time sorting out what's what may be very difficult, because the sorting itself changes what's what. And since the process changes both initial and boundary conditions with every tiny instant that passes—and is subject to 'externally, induced changes on top of that—the whole thing becomes complex beyond description.

What seems to be clear though is that what distinguishes one person's reasoning from another's are the initial and the boundary conditions of their respective processes at any given instant. And so, when we say to someone "be reasonable", what we're really asking for is some kind of concord on certain subsets of the initial conditions—what in CSI and other cop or detective shows they call 'evidence', which is usually 'external'—and the imposition of certain well-defined (actually, to be honest, it should be 'remarkably ill-defined') boundary conditions on thought and determination of what's what based on said evidence, to reach what, for those who agree on the procedures, are similar conclusions. Hence we get what we call 'science', which uses a certain method called 'scientific' to perform 'reasoning'; and the 'action' part of it, which is often referred-to as 'technology'.

But A seeing a fossil (evidence) and concluding that it's evidence for evolution, or B saying that it's evidence that God is testing our faith...

How can that both be 'reason'? Well, it is. It's just that some aspects of the initial and boundary conditions of A and B are sufficiently different to have a visible
GIGO effect. Only it isn't really about Garbage In and Garbage Out—for 'garbage' is a value judgment and one man's garbage is another's self-evident truth, meaning possibly unalterable initial and/or boundary condition for reasoning—but about... well, just differences. That's all.

Say, a person stands up at a physics seminar about Einstein's Relativity and waves a sheaf of papers with his scribblings on it into the air and says "This proves that Einstein was wrong."—cringe-factor-10 situation for the other attendees, for how come this lunatic was allowed in here?

He is being perfectly reasonable. He may or may not later be convinced that his scribblings contain steps that are not accepted within the system of 'proof' accepted in this context, but at the time he waves these papers in the air he is being utterly reasonable, having arrived at a decision to perform this action through what to him is a perfectly valid chain of reasoning, mathematically and socially—leading him to this action. And 'reason' it was, because he did exactly what we all do in our heads—only from a different starting point and under different constraints.

Everybody is reasonable. Period. Which is possibly the most significant reason (forgive the pun) why 'Reason' cannot be used to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong or what should be done with a human life and what shouldn't or what's it all about or what it isn't all about, in the way in which Objectivists and closet-Objectivists and crypto-Objectivists would have it.

All of which, I must caution you, is a conclusion arrived at through a process of 'reason', which was and is subject to constantly changing initial and boundary conditions that differ from everybody else's.

Which means all of this may well have been a complete waste of time. So you can wake up now.

WAKE UP, I said!

End Section:
——————————————————————————————————

And now, from New Zealand, here's the news that the anti-spanking legislation, introduced and ultimately pushed through into becoming legislation by a zealot, probably abused-as-a-child, member of the NZ Green party, has actually become a law—thus making it a criminal act in this country to spank your child. Not even a slap, please. This has effectively become 'assault'. The police have been given 'discretionary' powers to deal with this law, but it was passed, and that's all we need to know. Trusting the 'police' with 'discretionary powers' is not something anybody should feel comforted about.

I have so much to say about this that it would fill a rant-book. However, let me instead conclude with a few (connected) quotes by the same individual, whom I quoted at the end of this blog:

I think a major reason why intellectuals tend to move towards collectivism is that the collectivist answer is a simple one. If there’s something wrong, pass a law and do something about it.

There’s a great deal of basis for believing that a free society is fundamentally unstable—we may regret this but we’ve got to face up to the facts.…I think it’s the utmost of naiveté to suppose that a free society is somehow the natural order of things.


The argument has always been made that the trouble with capitalism is that it’s materialistic, while collectivism can afford to pay attention to the nonmaterial. But the experience has been the opposite. There are no societies that have emphasized the purely material requisites of well-being as much as the collectivist…it is in the free societies that there has been a far greater development of the nonmaterial, spiritual, artistic aspects of well-being.


I don’t think that a revolutionary, once-and-for-all approach [to achieving political liberty] will succeed.…I think the odds are that a free society is on the way out but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight for it, or that sulking in our tents explaining to one another how nice it would be if we could only wipe the slate clean and get our way is an effective means of fighting for a free society.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Standoff S0113: Backfire

Between now and the end of the series' run, I shall blog, once a week, about the episode of Standoff I just watched, courtesy of the trusty Bittorrent network; using, for those interested, either Azureus (Mac and Wintrash) or Transmission (Mac) as a client. I'm not sure I'll catch all of them, because I'll be going on a trip near the end of the projected run. However, I'll do my best. The main reason for this exercise is promotion—though little good it will do—of a series that, like Firefly, deserved better. And I shall perform this entirely quixotic task by a) sticking to my promise, and b) trying to make clear to those reading this blog why I spend time watching this show, though, to be honest, I have precious little time for TV these days, and I don't watch a lot of other shows that might appear just as time-and-attention deserving.

I will probably talk either about the contents, the respective episodes' strengths or interesting 'points' and whatever thoughts or notions it dislodged or created. Either one or a selection or all of those, just to be a pedant.

Will I be able to keep this up until the final ep? Good question. My faith in the series is such that I'll happily say 'yes' and do it on...well, 'faith'.

Starting then with Backfire, with inevitable SPOILERS!

Summary, from tvguide.com:

While dealing with two bank robbers who are threatening to kill a trainload of subway passengers, Matt is called away to a psychiatry office, where a patient has taken two doctors—a husband and wife—hostage. The hostage taker is a schizophrenic who believes he's on the trail of a rogue CIA agent, and Matt has talked him down before, so he's confident he can do it again.

Again, an episode in which a theme, previously raised, in emphasized, at least in one thread, namely the one with the schizo taking hostages: that hostage-takers are, by and large, people whose lives have gone out of control and who by doing what they are doing are trying to resume the control they lost. Come to think about it, in some way this also applies to bank robbers, only in a different way.

Two episodes ago (0111 - SPOILER WARNING) it was Emily, who was played by a hostage taker, when he used her to get himself out of trouble and across the border into Mexico, all of which resulted in a shitload of trouble for the pair. This time it's Matt, who is played by someone—won't tell you who—and basically used as the puller-of-the-trigger. Very twisted; very neat. This time Emily has to give Matt the "it's not your fault" speech. In 0111 it was the other way around.

Background theme: don't ass-u-me anything. Just because something seems routine, doesn't mean it is. That's probably exactly when you screw up, and especially if people are involved, for they are never routine. And keep your focus, because multitasking on more than one critical task—well it doesn't work; not even for women, by the way, but that's a subject I'll leave for today.

Bottom line: Never whistle while you're pissing. If you do, bad stuff is likely to happen.

After the last episode (0112 - SPOILER WARNING)—with Matt's "don't go" and upping the stakes on Emily, who thought she was upping the stakes; and that was cool negotiating, by the way; same as at the very end in 0102 (yeah, yeah: SPOILER WARNING; last one)—...damn, this sentence is getting lost in the divagations! Anyway, after that last ep, the Matt-Emily relationship issue has settled a bit, for this episode anyway, with the two much more at ease; and that works nicely, too. I think so anyway. Thing is, you can't ignore the lead-in premise to the show, which is after all the thread that somehow connects the stories, if you will, and makes them into a continuity, rather than just a string of episodes. It'll be interesting to see what the writers do with this. TV series writers generally suck majorly at what you might call 'established relationships'. They seem to be under a dramatic compulsion—possibly driven by market forces/expectations—to screw them up and/or make them into 'soap'.

That's why this series is quite daring. Producers and writers seem to feel uncomfortable with relationships that 'work'. As if that meant they weren't interesting anymore. Which is, of course, much in line with the general way of fiction involving romantic elements, and that reflects what people at large consider to be of interest in relationships—which is how they get started, and if they must absolutely carry on beyond that, the screw-ups and how they break up and all the drama drama drama around that.

It's kind-of always been that way, I suppose. Remember good old King Arthur? The cuckolded soap-operatic version, with some twisted machinations, murder and incest thrown in. Ahh, the faithlessness of women and comrades-in-arms who think with their dicks. Well, I much preferred the Antoine Fuqua variation on the theme, and on the whole I find it even more interesting to see what happens when, as a result of such a connection, the stakes change in the context of whatever else happens to be going on, adventurous or not. It certainly makes it harder for the story-teller to think of novel variations on the 'high stakes' themes that'll keep an audience captivated and/or enthralled.

We'll see how that pans out here.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Appearances deceive

Fly united...

The Revelations of Dr Modesto

Well, actually it's not about that at all, but I thought it would be a good title, stolen mostly from a novel by the late great Alan Harington, an author of some note, who also wrote a book called The Immortalist that once upon a time utterly changed the course of my life.

I didn't even know Harrington had died until today—and to think he died ten years ago!—until I, just now, frivolously and following a whimsy, evoked the title of one of his fiction works, a novel full of a special kind of dark humor; a kind of fictional excursion into the same lands that Salvator Dali went to in his paintings; only that Harrington wrote about social interactions and the strange places the mind goes sometimes—or often-times, if the truth be told.

Read the homages in the link above. He was a special man, whose passion transmitted itself in his books. The Immortalist is still, despite being dated, the most influential book of non-fiction I have ever read.

And to another topic. Here's a question for you. From whom stems this quote?

I start…from a belief in individual freedom and that derives fundamentally from a belief in the limitations of our knowledge, from a belief…that nobody can be sure that what he believes is right, is really right.…I’m an imperfect human being who cannot be certain of anything, so what position…involved the least intolerance on my part?…The most attractive position…is putting individual freedom first.

Homework for the day. More on this later. And, no, it wasn't the obvious suspect: R.A. Heinlein.

Reason and Freedom

Every now and then my only semi-regular topical-non-fiction lit, Reason magazine, manages to cause a stir of irritation. And it's not because of the way in which they are closet Objectivists, for that's been a philosophical epidemic—in the sense of it being a contagious disease, and a filthy one at that—for a long time, and Ayn Rand just came out of the closet and put it all on the table for the world to see. Way I see it, it would be better if all these idiots came out of the closet, and then it would be done and over with. They could take it back to their bedrooms, close the doors and commune with each other, practising their objectivist rituals—and leave the rest of us alone to get on with the business of living.

No, it isn't that which irritates me, but, the constantly recurring proof that 'reason' from folly doth not protect, and that GIGO is a basic governing principle of human thought as much as it is of computers' workings—much as TANSTAAFL, Milton Friedman's dictum popularized in fiction by Robert Heinlein, is a fundamental principle of just about everything; and possibly GIGO might just be shown to one of its many corollaries. In this instance the offense was instantiated in an article entitled An Epidemic of Meddling: The totalitarian implications of public health.

I should emphasize that by and large I agree with the article. Just as much as I have no argument with John Stuart Mills's dictum that: “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection.…The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”

But the article has some overly-fervent emphases that occasionally degenerate into statements like "behavior cannot be transmitted to other people against their will". Which is perfectly true; and as such, to mention but one example, calling 'obesity' an 'epidemic' as if we were talking about an invasion of Ebola or, less lethally perhaps, the common cold, is at best using terminology in a way Germans might call 'leichtsinnig'—and which means something like 'careless' with a touch of frivolity and irresponsibility—and at worst it's deliberate socio-political propagandizing worthy of Leni Riefenstahl.

Thing is, behavior cannot be transmitted like a virus—so this is true, but truth never just 'is'—but it is possible, and indeed done all the time, to change a person's values and judgment system around in such a way that they will, out of what amounts to perfectly 'free will', make choices they wouldn't make if they hadn't been thus manipulated. This cannot be called 'coercion' and therefore Libertarians will be inclined to take up arms—unless they're of the peacenik variety—against those whom they see as screwing around with people's free will and all that.

Still, even that doesn't do any justice to the complexity of the issue, for now we must ask ourselves whatever is the nature of 'free will' and decision making, and how can we make this relate to the notion that we are all, all the time, 'influenced' by this or that or this person or that organization, with deliberation of without it? And it is true, that the article does acknowledge and deal with the complexities of the issue, but it fails, as such articles written to an 'agenda' usually do, to draw the obvious and necessary conclusion—which is, of course that things are actually even more complicated and less straightforward than we can imagine, and that ultimately 'reason' per se tells us nothing at all about the things that matter and what's what.

So, you may ask, what does?

And I say, now that's a very good question!

Keep at it. I wish those espousing the virtue of 'reason' would spend more time keeping at it as well.

A hint at a solution: vicious squirrels probably have nothing to do with it.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

News you need to know about!

This came right down the wire, hot from Reuters—you know, the people who always put the word 'terrorist' in scare-quotes: that's "terrorist", please; for we're Reuters! That's the "news" agency, we're talking about; just in case you're wondering: the one who brought us this...

Squirrel goes on rampage, injures 3

BERLIN (Reuters) - An aggressive squirrel attacked and injured three people in a German town before a 72-year-old pensioner dispatched the rampaging animal with his crutch.

The squirrel first ran into a house in the southern town of Passau, leapt from behind on a 70-year-old woman, and sank its teeth into her hand, a local police spokesman said Thursday.

With the squirrel still hanging from her hand, the woman ran onto the street in panic, where she managed to shake it off.

The animal then entered a building site and jumped on a construction worker, injuring him on the hand and arm, before he managed to fight it off with a measuring pole.

"After that, the squirrel went into the 72-year-old man's garden and massively attacked him on the arms, hand and thigh," the spokesman said. "Then he killed it with his crutch."

The spokesman said experts thought the attack may have been linked to the mating season or because the squirrel was ill.

The immense significance of this event was emphasized by the item being at the top of the 'Most popular on Reuters' list, with extra large type—and, so I wondered, how something gets to be at the top of that list? who votes on it? how? dare I even consider that it's the top of the journalists' popularity list? or the marketing departments? or is it really just the readers? and if so, then how is this statistic generated?

Whatever.

I read the item with lively interest, not only because it was there, but because of its significance for the science of biology and the theory of evolution. I mean, imagine this geriatric squirrel, crutch and all, indulging in all this risqué kind of behavior, and then ending up 'massively'—that means hugely seriously, right?—attacking a 72 years old man and killing it with his crutch! I am inclined to visualize things I read, because it's become a habit bred by writing fiction. But here my powers of imagination quailed before the enormity of the task. I ended up with something cartoonish in my head. You know, like Chip and/or Dale attacking a wizened Elmer—after hanging off a woman's hand and being fought off with a measuring pole shortly before. The mind and the imagination boggles and twists and reaches a major constipation-like state—you know, of the kind where you really, really want to go but just can't.

OK, OK, so I admit it. I'm just taking the piss out of Reuters. But it's so easy! For the style is awful, and even excusing it by attributing it to a German correspondent for whom English is a second language doesn't fly. Hey, I was born in Germany, too, and had to learn English at school there as a 'second language'—officially the third actually, after Latin; and not counting the Spanish I learned by immersion long before that—and let me assure you that this kind of gibberish would never have crossed my lips, flown from my pen or been typed into a word-processor. Hell, no. I would have made it into a science-fiction story, with a vicious alien creature disguised as a squirrel, trying to escape from the clutches of the mad scientist, who had captured it as it landed in its UFO and who was torturing it in the jury-rigged lab in his apartment above the one belonging to the 70-year old woman (first victim!), in order to elicit the alien's secrets of the star-drive and immortality and how to dominate the world. No wonder the creature had a less-than-favorable impression of humans. Can anybody blame it for being a bit tetchy?

Now, you see, that would have been a story worthy of wasting bandwidth on!

Oh, and, yes, I admit I should maybe evince more compassion for the victims of these vicious, unprovoked attacks—though who really knows if 'unprovoked' they were?—but my hands are still shaking and my belly still hurts from laughing so much.

Friday, June 15, 2007

This world is a strange place.....

But you already knew that, I guess.

Anyway, here are a couple of film-clip links, you might find amusing—or not, depending on your disposition.

The first is the result of what can happen when someone spontaneously decides to make a film.

Warning: this is not for the faint-hearted—nor for the ADD challenged, or those who look for profound meaning; unless it happens to be of the sort you find here.

I'll let you in on a secret: I work with the guy who drinks tea.

Second clip:

You would think, would you not—or maybe you don't, in which case you're a real smart cookie and wise to the ways of the world—that when some kid wins the great Spelling Bee, he's kind of ...well, a clever kid. Of sorts. Someone who's got his head together and has unusual powers of visualization or deduction or reasoning or whatever it takes to win a spelling contest.

Well, obviously it don't take much of anything except...well, I'm still trying to figure that one out. The only saving grace in this clip is the interviewer, a lady possessed of grace, charm and an unbelievable sense of humor when dealing with this cringe-factor-10 situation she was thrown into. I'd like to see any NZ TV anchorwoman or anchorman—anchorperson, anchorindividual, anchorcreature, anchorbody, anchorhead, anchorandrogyn, anchoredass, anchorwhatever—display anything even resembling that kind of gracious presence of mind or wit. I also sometimes would like to believe at least six impossible things between getting up and having my first cup of tea.

As they say: watch and learn. (Line from at least one movie, the determination of the title of which is your assignment for today.)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Where we will, we'll roam...

More mileage out of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End .

Cabin Boy: [sung] The King and his men stole the Queen from her bed and bound her in her bones. The sea be ours and by the powers, where we will, we'll roam.
[joined by other prisoners]
Cabin Boy: Yo ho, all together, hoist the colors high. Heave ho, thieves and beggars, never shall we die.

The ocean and ocean-travel has, by and large, lost its romance. The vessels that plough it are, by and large, and especially if the said vessels qualify as 'large', made of steel, fiberglass, concrete—concrete, for f^@&'s sake!—and other similarly lifeless substances, painted with extremely poisonous anti-fouling paint, powered by some hi-tech machinery or maybe equally even-higher-tech sails. A ship a few hundred meters long may have a crew of a dozen; with the remainder being run by computers. Getting lost at sea is rarely an option, what with GPS now in the hands of just about everybody and microchipped into everything and sundry, including your buttocks possibly. Storms are bad seas are still a danger, but the big ships generally don't bat an eyelid at much of this kind of inconvenience, what with stabilizers and other anti-roll devices and whatever-have-you. Besides, they usually know where and when the crap hits, and simply try to skirt the calamities that once battered and sank valiant sailing ships. About the only thing that can knock these suckers out is the occasional freak wave, generated by chaotic processes that nobody can foretell.

Smaller vessels are similarly hi-tech, though their size makes them inherently vulnerable. The vulgar rich have 'yachts', of course. To call these abominations 'ships' and to call what they do 'sailing' are semantic offenses of a major nature. Pirates alluded to this in a throwaway line—like many other gems of throwaway lines—and to the fact that the 'freedom of the seas', dangerous as it was, is a thing of an already-distant past. That's partially because there is no 'freedom of the land' either. No 'Tortuga', no 'Pirates' Cove' (I think that's what it was called, correct me if I'm wrong), no place for a ship to come to shore; as all ships must, except for the Flying Dutchman, who can't.

In other words, there is no home for the wanderers of the sea' nowhere they don't have to show some damn passport, or have themselves inspected or are being ripped off by local 'authorities'. Nowhere to haul the wooden ship up on a beach, chop down a few handy trees and set the carpenters to work to restore the hull, while the rest of the crew scrapes off the fouling and sews the sails and finds water for the voyage ahead.

I think that if I had a few billion dollars, I'd go out and buy an island—if that's at all still possible, and outside any jurisdiction, and preferably won't be drowned by the rising seas within a few hundred years (for I intend to be around that long!)—and make it a haven for those who need such a haven. Throw the tourists off. No pansy 'yacht' owners allowed unless they pay a very steep fee, while the rest are just expected to render services on a tit-for-tat basis. Nothing is free after all. I expect there to be a lively but basically lawless peddling and 'service' community.

Protect the island with a tough bunch of
f^@&rs, who will take take of any seriously nasty elements sure to come our way with anything that does the job, from 50mm machine guns to katana. Maybe some renegade ex-Delta guys, or someone of that caliber. Give the concept of 'free trade zone' a completely new meaning. Screw the likes of the UAE, who are just a bunch of affluent effluents, and who basically represent everything a decent, even non-piratical, roamer-of-the-sea despises.

Ahh, yes, give the roamers of the seas a home. At least for time, for it will not last; not even if we had an island. Or maybe we'd start a new trend. Who knows? Is there any hope?

Dreams...

This is, of course, the essence of the life of the pirate or buccaneer. Not necessarily an absolute freedom of some sort, for there cannot be such a thing. But it is a freedom from the ever-present interference of governments and others who would 'regulate' life and make it conform to whatever standard happens to be on the table. Such a freedom does, of course, come at a price, possibly that of one's life. Civilization frowns upon such attitudes, but civilization does and cannot cover all human aspirations. Civilization cultivates the 'medium' and thus breeds a world that has what Jack Sparrow described as 'less in it'. Less diversity, except for that which is permitted by the 'medium' standards of the societies.

And this isn't necessarily a matter of individual freedom, even though one usually thinks of it that way. It is the prohibition and discouragement of associations of groups which are declared to be at the very least as 'improper' or 'deviant' and at the worst as 'dangerous'. By definition—and think about this, because it is true—just about every 'splinter group' is regarded as inherently dangerous, no matter how benign they might be. The implication is that if a splinter group is formed it probably is either somehow weird, or else led by someone weird who practices strange and outrageous sexual practices on the, of course!, weak and hypnotized members of the group.

Unfortunately that's true far more often than it is not. Or at least that's what we think. It's always the weird ones that come to the fore and are splashed for all to see across magazines and TV by gleeful journalists reveling in their self-righteous mission to bring the truth to us all. And, yes, it's good they are revealed. Still, every now and then I wonder, whether it really is all 'good'. For we need weirdos. We really do. The aberrant live at the fringes of the mediocre, reminding us that not everything has to be 'medium' and licensed and permitted and accepted and PC-ified or whatever. And, you know, secretly I think we know this, too—even as we stare in consternation at the TV, watching yet another report of some 'cult' doing weird and unwonderful things.

Yet, who are we to judge? You and you and you: dig a little deeper into your psyche and see if you don't detect some carefully concealed weirdness there, too. Something that, if anybody knew, would really freak them out. Maybe it's stuff you're thinking that you really know you shouldn't. Stuff you're feeling maybe. Or maybe, like me, you just sometimes sit in at some solemn occasion, like a wedding, or a funeral, or a graduation, or a staff meeting, and everybody and everything is just so-o-o incredibly...dull—and you're itching, to the point of battling your desire to scratch that damn itch, to shout out some truly and utterly inappropriate to the occasion; something that you know will either get your thrown out or fired or at least will elicit a mix of shock and secret delight from the other attendees...

Ever had that feeling? No? Well, maybe I did a good job planting it. I would consider the time spent on writing this blog worth every breath and heartbeat just for having planted that little seed of anarchy somewhere, somehow...so that you learn to know what it is like to feel that itch; and when you do, know that this is the part of you that wants to tear itself out of the 'medium' world you're in. Ahh, yes, I know you have it in you. It's just that the door is firmly closed, with a few heavy bits of furniture stacked up against it, so you can't see it, and maybe you were even hoping that it wasn't there at all, though when you were 'younger'—whatever that means at whatever age you are!—you might have known it was.

It won't make you blind, I promise. Take away some of that clutter and you'll see it all right. Take away all the clutter and free it, so you can at least open it—if you want to—

—one day—

—maybe—

—why not?—

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Standoff


So, following on from the last blog, here's something related, because it has to do with 'stakes'. There's a show on Fox TV right now (Fridays, right now immediately after Bones, but Bones is done for the season I think, so I wonder that's going to precede it now), back for a few more eps after a 6-month hiatus, called Standoff. The summary from Fox is below.

There's no crisis situation they can't handle... unless it involves each other. MATT FLANNERY (Ron Livingston) and EMILY LEHMAN (Rosemarie DeWitt) are the top-ranked negotiators in the FBI's Crisis Negotiation Unit (CNU). They're trained to talk their way through volatile situations. They're experts at knowing what makes other people tick. They're also sleeping together... a secret that they agreed to keep to themselves, until Matt revealed it to the entire world during a tense hostage standoff. The public revelation causes friction between Matt, who doesn't take much seriously and relies on gut instinct, and Emily, an academic who analyzes every move.

Their relationship also gets them into major trouble with their boss, CHERYL CARRERA (Gina Torres), head of the Los Angeles CNU, and raises eyebrows among their CNU colleagues, including intelligence officer LIA MATHERS (Raquel Alessi). While Matt and Emily should be split up for being romantically involved, they're too valuable as a team. Together, they're among the best in their field; Cheryl knows it, and they know it.

Week to week, Matt and Emily tackle much more than hostage crises. The CNU is called in to resolve everything from kidnappings and high-risk suicides to bomb threats, stalking cases and gang violence.

The duo also must work in concert with the Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), led by irreverent but deadly FRANK ROGERS (Michael Cudlitz) and his wise-cracking cohort DUFF (Jose Pablo Cantillo). When Matt and Emily's nonviolent approach doesn't seem to work or takes too long, Frank and his team are ready to use full force. STANDOFF advances a fundamental idea: that in life and in love, "everything is a negotiation."

So, sounds like a cool idea—to me anyway. And it is. So, one wonders, why did the viewer numbers drop from episode 1 to episode 10 drop by almost 50%, enough to put the program on a hiatus and nearly an instant cancellation? Why do you get reviews like this, which, given the viewer number trends, seems to be indicative of a general attitude? Why will we not see more after episode 19, and why should I for one be pathetically grateful we see anything at all after episode 12?

There are people, of course, who like Standoff. I, for one, do. I think it's unusually well-done. Not in the right tone maybe, especially not for those incapable of enjoying a bit of leisurely subtlety. But it's got a pair of sympathetic leads for whom something over and above the weekly confrontations is indeed 'at stake'. Contrary to the unfriendly reviewer linked to above, there is character development. It's just not held up like a placard proclaiming CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT RIGHT HERE, but is implicit in each episode's story, which maps the development of the main characters into whatever happens around them, and vice versa.

Sometimes it's just a mirror; sometimes a definite and discernible 'lesson'. The characters, being smart people who know a thing or two about psychology, unlike the dimwits on so many other shows actually do take life and what happens on board and in the process develop their own relationship. There isn't, I admit, much development in the other characters, which is what runs against the current paradigm of TV show-dom where everybody gets a few episodes in the light. On the other hand, the show has a very important component that must not be overlooked: chicks with guns and attitude and taking no crap from nobody. Always cool. Joss Whedon would approve.

Still, it isn't enough; and if the show were to continue it would have to expand to deal with the lives of the other characters, rather than them orbiting about the Emily-Matt unit. But that would significantly alter the premise and tenor of the show, and then it wouldn't be any more what it is, and what it is is what gives it its charm.

James Cameron once said, about his also-ill-fated TV show Dark Angel, that what he liked about doing TV series was that it gave him the time to 'explore' things, and especially relationships. With Standoff the relationship in question is Matt and Emily's, and 19 episodes—I so hope we'll get to see them all!—will probably cover the important bits. It could be taken further than that, but the viewing public wants soap—note that Big Love, Desperate Housewives and just about every retard 'reality' show is certain of more runs—and Standoff didn't give us that. But it wasn't a strict 'cop show' either, or maybe something CSI-ish, so there was another nail in its coffin. Actually it was—is—a love story wrapped up in a cop-show. Kind of like Firefly was a Western wrapped up in sci-fi. Not enough people apparently 'get' that kind of genre-mix—which can work so well, as it does in Standoff and did in Firefly—to warrant the expenditure of the funds required to keep it in production.

Darn shame.

Stakes

'Stakes' are a kind of narrative incarnation of the emotional/gravity-like force that drives things. Without stakes, the kind that emotionally connects, there basically is no story, no matter how many books about the craft of storytelling you may have read that try to sell you the special secret of the deep down meanings and whatever that make stories 'work'. You know, those Joseph Campbell knockoffs that want to make it all about The Hero with a Thousand Faces or something along those lines, mostly 'mythological' and very probably Jungian. Or maybe someone else comes along and finds some amazing new paradigm that's 'it', like James Bonnet's Stealing Fire from the Gods. Yada yada yada.

It is true that all these things are conducive to providing suitable backgrounds and frameworks; settings; meta-contexts that have a familiar ring and resonate with stuff in our psyche, because our psyches have stuff in common—whatever that 'stuff' is, and please don't ask, because I have no idea! There are basic story themes that connect with what we understand.

But, let's face it, there is only so much mileage to be gotten out of The Hero with a Thousand Faces in actual 'engage the audience' terms. Because, when you come down to it, it's all about someone (usually a male) finding he doesn't fit into the narrow confines of his group's world-view, leaving or being made to leave said group, going through hell to some place where he finds some treasure that he can bring back to the world, and usually to the group that he didn't fit into and maybe never will, and this in due course brings some kind of saving element on enlightenment to these folks. In the process he often 'saves himself', whatever that means in the context, or sometimes has has to do this first. There are variations, but they're not as varied as you might think. The thing about Stealing Fire from the Gods is, of course, that it's just a new-sounding variant on the same theme; and when you strip it down to its skeleton it's pretty much about the 1000-faced hero. The 'gods' got stuff that could make men like gods and the hero steals it and brings it to the unwashed masses; with a variety of possible consequences, ranging from becoming a benevolent king or popular hero, who ultimately turns against himself—because he's a tard at heart; not really that smart at all, and unable to understand the basics of the 'rising to the top' thingie, which is always followed by a 'trying to stay at the top' that never works for long and therefore by a 'sinking to the bottom', or, even more seriously, sudden death—to being punished by the gods/fate/his people for his deeds (or maybe that's actually the same thing as the first). Actually the affair is even sillier than that, because Bonnet seems to think that the story-teller himself is one such hero. Which is total bollocks. A decent story-teller is just a guy or gal like you and you with a passion for inventing stuff in his head—a process known sometimes as daydreaming—and writing it down or talking about it or making a film or a play or something like that.

So we're back to the multi-faced hero. And that's it? Same guy. A thousand faces. Sound boring to me, no matter how profound. And, to be sure, it's enough to concoct a story. But, to refer to an image I used in another blog, it's not enough in terms of emotional energy. I'm quoting myself here, sorry about that. I was trying to provide a metaphor for the difference and relationship between 'emotion' and 'reason':

Think of water flowing downhill. 'Emotion' is the force of gravity that makes it flow. 'Reason' is the structure of the terrain through which it flows and which thus guides its movements.

The emotional energy created by mythos per se is not nearly sufficient to drive and sustain the drive of a story—except for those, of course, who have some special emotional connection with 'mythos'. Religious maniacs and the like, that is. But the claim of those who would have us write better, grander, more involving, more marketable (ahem, and yes, that's what it boils down to with just about all of these folks, who would like to make you believe that this is the way to, especially, 'sell to Hollywood') stories and is that the way to do this is to wring the last bit of juice out of the mythical mythic energy lurking inside of us.

The depth of the connection between most people and this kind or archetypal symbology is real enough, but I also think it's too...'subtle', I guess is the word...to make it carry the kind of emotional bandwidth it's being used for. I'm using that terminology on purpose, because I think it is a matter of 'bandwidth'—in the head, and I mean physically speaking; neurologically; associatively; at whatever level of cognitive metaphor you care to use. While everyone would like to be a hero—yes, even you, who claim not to!—few appreciate, emotionally and intellectually, what it means to be a 'hero', mythologically and archetypically speaking. And without that appreciation, understanding, connection, the message just doesn't come through.

The cognitively immediate is a much broader and robust channel for the transmission of emotional power. A sharp knife cutting someone is far more potent an image than the same person dying from a sci-fi ray-gun blast. The tragedy of a loved one or friend falling to the deeds of an adversary is infinitely more easily related to than a need to save the world from destruction—and if the latter is to work at all, it must first be made clear the 'world' destroyed also means the demise of everyone and everything you hold dear; else, who actually cares? Nobody really wants to save the world itself, because that's far too big and therefore too abstract. They do, however, want to save those in the world that matter to them. Hence the need to save the whole shebang.

The stakes that matter, in other words, are things that are close to us, in terms of our personal experience. The more we have to think about them, explicitly or somewhere 'deep down', the less immediate they will be.

As a story-teller who likes—'needs' actually—to experience, if you will, the progress of his own narrative and who needs to be convinced that whatever happens in it actually matters, I need to establish the stakes. For they don't just drop into your lap. Nor can they be obtained from some pat list of 'stakes that matter'. Of course, the list may well contain the requisite element—but it's still just a list. I couldn't just sit down and write 'This is a story about a mother needs to choose between saving one of her two children.' Ahh, yes, the tragedy. Poor mum. Terrible choice. Sod whoever or whatever fate out her into that position. Poor kids for that matter. But, let's face it, until we have been placed into a position where we identify emotionally with that woman's terrible choice—until the stakes become as high, or sufficiently so, for us as they are for her, we have no connection with the tale.

In a similar manner I have to write myself into a situation where my connection with the people of the story is close enough—until there is some significant emotional bandwidth between the part of me that constructs the tale and that which experiences it—so that I care for them as I would for a real person. Maybe more. Actually probably more than I would for the average 'acquaintance'. After all, these people are in my head. They are of me and yet they are different. About as schiz as you can get.

Something else about 'stakes' in narrative and why I suspect that a lot of this 'mythology' and 'deep meaning' business may be mostly a lot of hot air. I think that a lot of what narrative 'stakes' are supposed to supply us with, or remind us of, or make visible to us, are the stakes that really matter and that have 'emotional' power, but which we tend to forget in the everydayness of life and, especially today and in the world of 'civilization', where we are bombarded with an avalanche of substitute, inauthentic and emotionally contrived 'stakes', that aren't reall 'stakes' at all but, well, bullshit. This is of course a very existentialist view, though not necessarily an absurdist one. Anybody wanting to have a closer look at this whole issue is advised to read the books of Colin Wilson and especially his Outsider.

And so a story isn't necessarily enhanced by making the 'stakes' bigger and more dire and more important and more global and more meaningful and yadayadayada. It's done by making them more immediate and connected. If along the way the world—whatever word—get saved, that's cool and makes for a nice background. But by and large it isn't what matters. If it were, I'd soon get bored writing stories. But I don't. Which is good, because I really like doing it. I pity those—even if 'those' are more 'successful' than I with their work—who regard it in any way as a 'chore'.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Back in the saddle

It's good to be writing a novel again.

I make that statement only now, after a suitable period of caution and reticence. Thing is, there comes a moment when you know—well I know!—you're 'in' it again. It is by no means clear that one necessarily is, even though one may have written several thousand words of a new work. With Tethys, for example, I had written almost 5000 at one stage—which is peanuts, and maybe took me two or three days—but then things kind of halted, because I realized the time wasn't right, and neither was the...well, let me call it 'mood'. The story was there and all, but only the story; the context, the framework, the mileposts, the direction, the necessary steps. The urgency was missing. It was hard, though the characters were well known to me, to push them into the plot-related and emotional directions they needed to go in. As I was trying to explain to the guy who thought novels were written from 'reason'—you might recall my blog about the Ayn Rand fan, who, by the way, hasn't shown up at the dojo anymore, and I'm kind of wondering if maybe it was because he was supposed to learn stuff, rather than just use it as a gym and for the sake of the punching bags we have hanging there—they aren't. They are written from the heart, and 'reason' just makes sure that the waters of the narrative, urged into flow by the gravitational force of emotion, are channeled in the right directions.

Same thing at this time applies to Dance of Tigers. I know where I'm going with this, but I'm not quite ready for it yet. On the other hand, Bodies—which, or so I am thinking right now, may still be a working title, and may become part of a series about something I'm not willing to talk about yet—feels right. The fact that I am 20k words into it, suggests that it may be writing itself, at least in a lot of the details. And that's all good, because it makes it interesting, unexpected, challenging. Also, leaving the sci-fi element out of it—except insofar as everything written even slightly in the future is science-fiction, which encompasses a lot of stuff not necessarily 'science' per se—actually makes it even more interesting. One kind of walks a fine line between conjecture that's perfectly legitimate, even in a entirely contemporary novel, and that which is obviously 'far out'. Nowadays, who can tell where the one begins and the other ends?

Still, whenever the sci-fi urge nudges me as I write Bodies, I resist firmly, and tell it to urge me some other time. No parallel universes, thank you; no laser guns; no space travel, no immortality; no amazing energy sources; no invisibility cloaks; no bionic people; no super weapons that will destroy our world; no psychic powers. Them's the rules. Somewhat strict for the likes of me, but I don't really mind. There's heaps of other stuff, and as I make this up as I go along, I realize just how much there really is. Science fiction writers, and especially the current crop—or maybe I'm being unfair, but it looks that way to me—often tend to get lost in the 'cool concept', when what really matters is what's known as 'stakes'. More about that in the next blog. And if you read the next blog before this, that's cool, because I'll make it self-contained.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Mizzelaneous announcements

1) owlglass.com has been revamped a bit. Every now and then I like to tweak it, and this is what it was tweaked into. More tweaks are likely to ensue when I have the time. It's a bit like rearranging your living room. Nothing truly revolutionary: shuffling stuff about; putting up new pictures; maybe repaint a wall. Stuff like that.

2) This blog will now appear in a frame inside an owlglass.com-based page if you click on the 'blog' link.

3) I absolutely hate looking for publishers and/or agents!

Some of my favorite greeting cards (4)

I admit that I actually don't 'understand' this one, but it's just so cool!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I write and I understand.”

Supposed to be a Chinese proverb, but who knows? Whenever someone wants to slip in something really said by that ultimate sayer of saying, a certain 'Anon', and it sounds like it could be Chinese, attributing it to a culture that is possibly the most ancient and enduring civilization on planet Earth—despite the changes and glitches and ups and downs—tends to lend it authority, and so the attribution is made. Who is going to prove otherwise?

Anyway, let's suppose it is Chinese. In any case, it carries a lot of cognitive clout and veritas, especially the first two parts, which relate to the persistence of impressions entering our heads through the ears and the eyes, respectively. But it is the third that matters here, for this is, after all, a 'writer's blog'.

'Understanding' is, of course, one of these terms that is either taken for granted and used without much thought, or else it engenders endless discussions about what is 'is'—all of which are bogus, as any even half-follower of General Semantics will tell you. 'Understanding' here is more thought of as an ability to see the context within which any given fact, word, observation exists. Every fact is connected to others, and it is those connections that must perceived in order to 'understand' the fact. If you're talking about a word, it has to do with seeing in embedded in the surrounding meaning(s), if and when it is used. If you're talking about an observation about a person, it has to do with placing that within the background, current environment (external and internal) of that individual. That kind of thing.

[Aside: if you now think that what I just said puts me into the touchy-feely, sensitive, understand and forgive, New Age serene, yadayadayada, category, think again. Just because one 'understands' something in the sense just indicated, doesn't mean one needs to necessarily feel inclined to accept or tolerate it. Often the opposite can be the case. End of Aside.]

Does writing—'fiction' in this instance, for 'non-fiction' raises a whole other set of questions—enhance 'understanding' in the sense used above? Understanding of the things one writes about, or maybe transferring to life, the universe and everything in general? It would be nice to think so, though I am afraid that the habits of compartmentalization in most people are so strong that there's no guarantee of even suggestion of any reliable correlation. Nor should it be expected, given that fiction is, after all, invention of stuff.

Despite all this, the writer of stories, and especially complicated ones, by and large is more likely to become prone to a habit of thinking just a little further beyond his nose than the 'normal' person. For a 'habit' it is. You can't write any even moderately complicated tale and have it be credible without taking into account stuff that you'd ignore in ordinary life. Thing is, in normal life there usually isn't the time and opportunity to consider everything and sundry when making a decision about this or that. And then the world—reality, contingency, laws of actions-and-consequences—usually do their stuff, and out comes that thing known commonly as 'life'. In stories however that doesn't happen. Because there is no life there, no contingency, no consequences, no nothing, except for what you make up. Meaning you do not only have to be the creator of the actions of your characters when confronted with whatever they're confronted with, but also the creator of everything else. Whatever happens in the background, including the stuff you don't describe, but of which you only tell about the consequences and visible (story) effects: all of that needs to be simulated in your head, because 'reality' isn't doing it for you, like in real life.

I think that's why those tales that seem to have an implicit and hinted-at complex and intricate background, practically and story-historically speaking, seem to have extra 'weight', if you will. Stuff is there just like it is in life. One gets the feeling that there are circumstances over and above the control of the actors in the drama; things pushing them along this way or that, often prompted, of course, by actions taken in the visible foreground, that result in a gazillion cause-and-effect bits and pieces happening out of sight.

Stories using that kind of device tend to combine both the predictable and 'linear'—meaning A leads to B and to C, and that'll be kind of like what you'd expect, which gives the stories the...well, the 'expected' component—with another that might be called the 'lurking background'. This actually beneficial because a good story takes sharp turns, or else it becomes too predictable. As an aside, the whole Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy was an excellent combination of the predictable and the sharp twists and turns, happening because events was taking place that were either completely random, as things in life also tend to be, or else they were background things coming to have foreground effects. It got more so in parts 2 and 3.

If I look back at the Tethys series, I realize that there's a lot of that, too, and that it becomes more so as the series goes on. Same goes for Seladiënna. These things weren't really intended. I wasn't sitting there, saying to myself "I'd better do something random or connect this background thread now". Except maybe in the case of the walk-on of Ailin (and, yes, there's a domain name and a business associated with the name these days; this one isn't too bad as associations go, I suppose) in Keaen, I admit. That was the most random thing ever; and the one with possibly the most extensive consequences. But in general it wasn't like that, but more like knowing, somewhere in the background of one's mind that now is the time for this or that churning away behind the scenes to come to have a visible and story-twisting or plot-advancing effect, or something along those lines.

In this instance I am speaking for myself, and I really have no idea how other story-tellers handle all these things. It depends, I guess, on the person and how s/he functions. It does not really matter how, but only that the background and the ramifications exist and appear to exist and have an effect. If they don't, the story's scope becomes constricted. That works fine for some kinds of stories—children's, trashy romances, straightforward detective, schlock horror, stuff like that—but it makes others who have some implicit wider-scope aim appear just flat and uninteresting.

Purely personally speaking I also find that—though I may always have been of such disposition and maybe the way I write is a consequence of this, rather than the other way around—the habit of thinking of life and the universe doing stuff behind the scenes, as well as the potential background ramifications of something that happened in the foreground, tends to become...well, a 'habit'. Nothing is simple and isolated. There's always some existential chain of dominoes that goes on and on; and ultimately, somewhere, somehow you're in that chain again, because that's the way the universe works.

Overall it is, I think, a good habit; because it tends to make you aware, and I think by and large 'being aware' is good. However, it also tends to make life more difficult, because whatever you do, you're always aware that either you're doing something and doing it and deliberately trying not to think of the consequences; or else you've done something impulsive and you are aware of the actual consequences, but wish you really were ignorant of them, because it's such a pain in the ass to know; or you do whatever you do, aware of at least some of the potential range of consequences, and then you have to make a decision to do this or that anyway, and that makes you entirely responsible for doing it...as well as the consequences, intended or not.

Other than that life as a writer of fiction is actually quite cool. More on that soon-ish.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Some of my favorite greeting cards (2)

In Pirates Veritas

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End gave us several priceless quotes on life and the universe. The one that leaps to mind is this one, when the pirate junk carrying our main protagonists enters the underworld—after a dazzlingly fast trip, worthy of a 747, traveling from Singapore to the Antarctic—and is presently heading for the mother of all waterfalls:

Barbossa: Aye, we're good and lost now.
Elizabeth: Lost?
Barbossa: For sure you have to be lost to find a place that can't be found, elseways everyone would now where it was.

Yohoho,
me hearties! I say to that.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Martial Arts Reflections (5): The Aging Martial Artist

The stories are legend and part of the narrative of the martial arts community. There's this old geezer and the young guy hyped-up martial artist tries to trounce him, but the old geezer is never where the young guy grabs or punches or kicks. After a while the young guy gives up in despair and duly receives an explanation of what happened in the humiliating events preceding. The explanation usually involves elements of 'experience', 'replacing power by skill' and stuff like that. There's a whole lore surrounding what it entails getting older as a martial artist. Slogans like 'train smarter, not harder' abound. In some martial arts styles/schools the whole thing has been systematized; the training has been deliberately structured so that, for those who do martial arts from, say, their early 20s on, there are distinctly different ways of training and things that are being taught. The matter is considered an advancement through stages, which are mapped onto the 'stages' of life, as it were.

When the 8th Dan sensei from Australia was here a few months ago, the theme was evoked several times. There was a large age-range at the seminars, and it was quite obvious how that mapped into a range of styles, from full-on hard-out to a more moderate evade-and-defeat. And this makes perfect sense, because as one gets older the body's capabilities decline and need to be replaced by mental agility, experience of action, fluidity of motion, precision of action. I've yet to meet the mysterious 'old master' who just is 'never where you think he is when you try to grab/hit him', but I have no doubt the likes of him exist. Our visiting sensei demonstrated that quite clearly. Though only my age, he exhibited many of the qualities of the more 'wily' style of the old and experienced. Just when you thought you were winning, you realized that things weren't at all what you thought they were, and you weren't really winning at all. That kind of thing.

The notion of adapting one's martial arts training to one's age is valuable, and, let's face it, I've practiced it since I started 'martial arts' at a somewhat late stage in life. Not that I really consider myself a 'martial artist', which I think is a somewhat pompous term; but people like to belong and naming oneself and classifying oneself is a form of belonging. I call myself a 'storyteller' and/or a 'writer' at various times and that is a kind of assignation of belonging, to a group of people doing this but not that, and a tradition associated with that group. But I also call myself a lot of other things—plus have people call me a lot of things, I'm sure; not all of them complimentary!—and identification with a group is a tenuous thing. Still, 'martial artists' have a strong identity-image and part of that image consists of a mystique that makes it a good and valuable thing to do this going-hard-out when one is younger, but becoming wilier as one gets on in years.

Very often this happens, of course, because the older martial artist was going hard-out in his younger years and it turns out that he's paying for it as he gets older. Broken bones, torn ligaments, tortured joints, deliberately micro-fractured bones, over-trained muscles, excessive spinal compaction and shock, plus a whole lot of other insults inflicted during one's younger—and, not to put too fine a point on it, stupider!—years, finally come home to roost.

These things are often considered a matter of pride, like old war-wounds; but in truth they usually aren't. They are injuries inflicted upon oneself doing something that had no truly serious purpose. By and large martial artists are no warriors but merely pretend to be. It's basically 'recreation'. 'Sport', even though martial artists mostly detest the notion of being thought of as sportsmen, on whom they often look down. And, yes, there is more to a session at the dojo than there is to a session at the gym, even though both share a lot of commonality— depending, of course, on the dojo, the gym, as well as the attitude and purpose of the practitioner. Still, when it all comes down to it, the vast majority of martial artists are practicing recreation and 'sport'. And most of them injure themselves for no purpose at all. A bit less hard-out and a bit more intelligence and judgment at a younger age could see most of them far further into their older years with far less pain and need to feel that they need to take it so much easier.

But they don't, and by and large that's considered perfectly all right. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. This in turn feeds into the whole lore associated with the older martial artist and his way of training and practicing the art. By contrast he—usually 'he' and very rarely 'she'—truly needs to 'wind down'.

From the point of view of one who was too lazy in his younger years to practice serious sports or activities that might have damaged his joints, ligaments or bones, this all seems a little silly. From the point of an emortalist it has a ring of self-defeating submission to a paradigm that can only have one result: to make matters worse. Practiced appropriately if wouldn't of course, but people seldom do things 'appropriately'. The notion that sheer experience can lead to economy of action more appropriate to an aging body isn't wrong per se, but only when comparing it to the wasteful punishing and damaging of the body often practiced at earlier stages of life. An old man who can move with grace, economy, a great sense of balance and timing, is till an old man, and his body, while in good shape compared to those poor souls confined to 'old people's homes', is still going downhill; a bit slower than they, or maybe significantly slower, but it's still going down, down, down.

It's possible that the average aging martial artist hasn't got much choice. He's been so battered and bruised and damaged that his joints are truly f...d for good and that elegance and grace and experience is all that's left, because there a lot of pain doing anything else. That is the price he pays for doing silly things when he was younger.

But not everybody is like that. And those who aren't need to be careful about buying into the mythology. There are ways for the younger martial artist to be a good and proper martial artist without doing stupid things and screwing up their body for their later years. It just requires more foresight and better judgment than you'll find for the most part. And for those people who haven't battered themselves into wrecks, it is possible, even into what's euphemistically called 'advancing years'—and for some that starts at 40, let's face it—to continue to push their physical envelope without at the same time being punished for doing so. Indeed, doing this will ensure not only that one's bones do not become brittle, one's ligaments remain flexible, one's muscles do not lose their tone, one's reflexes remain at the top of their form, one's cognitive and motor faculties integrate optimally.

Mens sana in copore sano
applies to aging bodies as well. An old body that is decaying, in pain, falling apart, will not be conducive to harboring an alert and well-functioning mind. It can happen, but it is unlikely. Our physical being and what we are in our minds is too tightly bound together to allow ready decoupling. Body image and self image by and large are one. Hence the need to continue to build the body—a need that actually increases as one gets older. Smartly so, mind you, and definitely without doing the plain silly kinds of things one tends to do when young(er) and stupid(er). There are ways of pushing the envelope without doing it in a punishing way. The recipe is simple: if it is very hurtful or likely to injure you or make you worse, don't do it!—but in all those things that don't have that effect go as hard-out and envelope-pushing as you can. It's the same, you know, as buying clothes. As one gets older and wider, if not wiser, one tends to buy clothes that fit one's current stature, such as to be 'comfortable'. Bad idea! Buy clothes that are just a tad too small, so you have to shrink into them. That'll keep you honest—and if you don't you will expand! This is like a law of nature, almost as compelling as your average law-of-physics. There are few, if any, counterexamples. I have not met any in my lifetime, and I've been around a few years.

The thing is, if you don't push the envelope all the time you're lost and on your way out. 'Yielding' has its uses, but it can all too easily lead to yielding into oblivion. And it often does. I hesitate to say 'usually', because I might overstate the point. But sometimes I think 'always' is closer to the truth than 'sometimes'.

Yudan Nashi. Never let your guard down. Never relent for a moment in your focus on, ultimately, surviving, and whatever it takes to accomplish that. And if you think that's selfish and even egomaniac; well, think again. Unless you're some total loser whom nobody likes, there is probably at least one person in this world who would hate to lose you. Do you really want to bow out and leave them without you around? Think about that!