Thursday, February 28, 2008

Moving (Part 17 of X): Possession

Today, as of 11 a.m. Queensland Standard Time, we are again owners of a house.

And that is all to be said about that.

Memory Is Narrative

The statement at the end of that blog from a few days ago was meant to be provocative, though not entirely so. For, depending on how we understand by 'memory', it could be said to be entirely appropriate.

What I was not talking about was the kind of 'memory' involved in basic cognitive acts, such as, say identifying objects one comes across in the course of one's life, like people, chairs or cars, to name but three of a gazillion. These acts of cognition are usually performed automatically, though of course in some cases we may have to try, because we may not be able to be sure. Like is this meant to be a duck or a rabbit?

The same goes for most instances of what you might broadly call 'pattern recognition' processes, which obviously somehow involve some form of pre-existing 'memory', whatever kind of memory that may be. But when we talk about this kind of identification we wouldn't really say, "oh, I remember that this is a duck". It's more like "I recognize that this is a duck". Or a rabbit. Or both. Or flipping from being one to the other. Clearly not something that common, or even academic, parlance would label a 'memory' event.

But suppose you were to say "I remember that this is a duckrabbit" then this changes the rules; something has been added to the mere 'identification', because the duckrabbit isn't an 'ordinary' object--like a rabbit or a duck--but something that somehow rises above the common ruck of ordinariness. You would probably have come across it in the context of something having to do with Wittgenstein, which would give it some kind of special status because of the context. Cognitive scientists refer to the contextual nature of memory as 'associative', meaning that memories always exist in a framework which supports them and links them to other memories. In the case of "I remember that this is a duckrabbit" the object in the focus of memory is embedded in the actual "I remember that this is a duckrabbit" itself.

(The same, it goes without saying, is true in the case of either a duck or a rabbit, or any other object of thought for that matter. You just might have a harder time to trace the myriad contexts for 'rabbit' or 'duck' back to all their sources.

A curious configuration of context and content, if you will. 'Associative memory', or so I would like to suggest, actually has the nature of 'narrative'. By that I mean that when you start with something like "I remember that/when..." you almost invariably don't end up describing something static but of some series of events or process, in the context of which certain items you're remembering appeared. For example, suppose you saw a famous painting in some museum and later you're recalling the painting. And then it's like "I remember when we were at the Louvre and we saw..."

Rachael's memories: about her mother, the episode with her brother, the spiderlings who ate the spider... Not about what they were, but what happened.

Yeah I know, it's just a movie--but try and trace your own ways of recalling things, just for the heck of it, and see what you come up with. See if you can actually find an instance of 'recall' that's not held together with other things through 'events' and 'process'; in other words, with a form of narrative--which, I maintain, is the cognitive fabric, or, if you will, the matrix or substrate for what is known as 'associative memory'.

It's also much more than that, because narrative also provides a wider embedding context, a.k.a. 'meaning'.

I wonder if maybe here we find the real reason why we tell stories, and why we're so pervasively addicted to them. It isn't something that requires endless tomes to explain, but quite possibly something much less complicated and much, much more basic.

Getting into a jam

Well, yesterday afternoon I drove past a traffic jam--with me going in the opposite direction to said jam--that was at least 20 km long. I know this, because I drove at 100 kph and the jam, that part which was crawling along, if at all, was there for between 10 and 15 minutes of my trip.

20 km! In Dunedin we complained bitterly about the traffic conditions in a 20-car queue...

And I'm not even counting the slow-moving parts at the tail end, where the poor unsuspecting blighters were catching up on the very, very, long snake!

There's a lesson here. Not sure yet what it is, but there's got to be...

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Can You Predict Happiness?

Just thought you might like to read this. It's short and easy, and yet provides ample food for thought.

More on the topic of the previous blog coming soon.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Real Character(s)

So, here's what I spared you from having to suffer through at the end of the last blog.

Thing is this: if, as I have repeatedly suggested, it is true to say that basically everything having to do with our thinking, mental world building, sense of 'self' and relating to others, is basically about 'narrative'--endless loops of stories whirling around our brains as we meander through life--then what, one might pause to ask, is the difference between a relationship one has with a 'real' person and that one might have with, say, a character in a computer game. Or, to modify this slightly, what's the difference between being a witness to what we might consider a 'real' set of events and being a witness to something entirely fictitious. Especially if, as if often the case, we actually have no way of checking up on the reality or fiction of whatever it is we're witnessing.

After all, for whatever we know, anything presented to us in a narrative manner, including that which passes itself off as 'real', might actually not be real at all, and vice versa. The most obvious example for this is religious narrative, a blending of fiction taken as real.* Dismissing it all as an aberration is disingenuous, unless we want to be arrogant enough to dismiss mental events taking place in the majority of human beings as somehow abnormal; which makes a mockery of the definition of 'normality'.

Confirmation of the 'reality' value of any narrative is a process of connecting it to whatever is defined as 'real'--usually meaning something like 'true experience', 'waking experience', or something like that; stuff connected to what is called the 'physical world' and so on--and asking oneself if it 'fits' into that reference context of the 'really real'. As long as it does, there's no problem. Actually, it's probably more accurate to say "as long as it doesn't actually and perceptibly conflict with" the reference context. After all, that's how most religion manages to survive: by avoiding acute and actual conflict with demonstrable, everyday, in-your-face physical reality. It might not make sense, but it doesn't actually 'conflict' with--excepting some of the more bizarre aberrations, of course.

The same situation existed, of course in Blade Runner (yep, coming back to it; how could I not?). On the surface it looks like this bunch of people have 'real' memories:

On the other hand, this bunch doesn't.

And this guy, not aware of the ultimate irony in his own life, is trying to use some magical device to try and figure out who's what, unaware that, as Rachael hints later, he might do with having the same test run on himself.

"You're talking about memories!" Deckard says after Tyrrell explains to him that it was necessary to stabilize the minds of Replicants after their creation. Actually, it would be more correct to say 'narratives', like Rachael's: the ones Deckard tells her about, and which she is able to complete. These memories are supported by lots of photos to provide documentary evidence of some solidity.

Actually, photos, as the studies of Elizabeth Loftus (e.g. this) have shown, will prompt people to create narratives to contextualize the fact of the existence of said photos, even if the images are fabricated, such as through montage or other contrivances. So much for becoming the victim of apparent 'evidence'!

I'll continue this in the next blog. For now I leave you with this thought, which might be unfamiliar, but it's something to think about:

All 'memory' is 'narrative'.

* The second most obvious is, of course, journalism. And I know, that that was a cheap shot. But it was so-o-o-o easy!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Good Bye Gilmore Girls

This is a blog about, wait for it!, Gilmore Girls. Anybody who's not a fan of the show and its characters: get out of here and wait for the next blog entry.

For the rest of you...

So, we finally got around to watching Episodes 709-722, downloaded through my trusty p2p network sometime last year, but we'd never quite gotten around to them for any number of reasons. We watched them in the space of four evenings, which makes for some serious GG watching. It was like, "oh, why don't we watch just one more; it's only..." and that was that. We went through the last four a couple of evenings ago. Serious dedication.

Here, for memory refreshment, is the Wikpedia summary, to save you having to read it on another page:

The show follows single mother Lorelai Victoria Gilmore (Graham) and her daughter Lorelai "Rory" Leigh Gilmore (Bledel) in the fictional town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut, a close-knit small town with many quirky characters, located roughly thirty minutes from Hartford. The series explores family, friendship, generational divides, and social class.

Gilmore Girls features intricate, extremely fast-paced dialogue, with frequent popular-culturepolitics and high culture. It also features social commentary, which is manifest most clearly in Lorelai's difficult relationship with her wealthy upper class parents. Lorelai also has relationship problems with Luke Danes (Scott Patterson) who owns the local diner.

Cast from an earlier set of Seasons.

Season 7 was potentially flawed because of a change at the helm of the how and its writing. Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator, writer and producer, wanted a renewal from Warner Brothers for two more seaons. They agreed to one season only. Amy declined to accept the offer. Warner Brothers said, "well, we'll do it with a different writer/producer team", and they did. Amy, for reasons that might have included spite, made the last episodes of Season Six possibly the darkest ones in the series and left the final episode with a knot that was almost like "see how you can untangle that one, you bastards" for the writers that came after her.

Anybody watching Season 7 soon after Season 6 would have been, as I was, instantly struck by a discontinuity in tone, plot, dialogue, etc. Unavoidably so, because Palladino was gone and the dialogue n Seasons 1-6 was inimitably Palladino. And now, nomore Palladino, and so what's gonna happen now? A recipe for potential disaster not just in terms of rating, but also of integrity of story and character and that kind of thing. You kind of expected that to happen, it did happen, one noticed it, and things became kind of difficult. People are comfortable with the expected and don't like being led somewhere else when they just want to go that way.

That's what happened, even to 'fans' like us. Enthusiasm waned, even as the the writers of Season 7 did their best to make something sensible out of Palladino's leftovers. I could see them struggling with just about every aspect of the show.

These people were with the show all the way through.

The best part of a year later, and with distance, I realized that they actually did very well. Truth is, the words 'fresh air' comes to mind. Fresh air without actually adding new characters or story-lines, which is what series-writers usually do when they run out of ideas. They had to wrap up the story in this final season, and I do admire the way they cut the knots. I doubt that Palladino would have been so flexible and put the story back together, after the fracas of Episode 622, as they did. It was different, all right, but I think it was good and involving, and the characters all were better off for it ; as were the viewers. Those who still hankered after Season 1 and Season 2--and a lot of people didn't like how the story developed and couldn't really cope with people growing up and 'growing in general--would have been disappointed.

I wasn't. All was good and after the final shot of Episode 722 had faded it was sad. Good and nice and fitting and all, but sad. A nice kind of sad. Reminded me of the way I felt when the last episode of Ed had been played.

I know, I know, for some of you hard-nosed cynics it's all too syrupy and crappy and white-American and for some it's too much US-Liberal; and, yes, the fawning over the New York Times and idols of the US political left was occasionally distracting, though that also was tuned down in Season 7, despite the Rory and the NYT plotline. But for those who can restrain their aversion to 'sentimentality', in the sense in which it is used by Robert Solomon in In Defense of Sentimentality, Gilmore Girls is an immensely enjoyable treat. And Season 7, for all the same reasons that might have made it into a disaster, actually became a better final season than it might have been under Palladino, who often went overboard in her scripts with the pop-culture references and Democrat politics.

Sometimes change is good. Better than you're inclined to give it credit for. Sometimes especially when it's goodness is not expected. And sometimes, and this is something we learned from this, is that one sees things much more clearly, and appreciates them more, from a distance; in this a distance in time.

The incomparable Mrs. Kim.

And, of course, the even more incomparable Paris.

So we say good-bye to Lorelai and Rory and the cast of 'characters' that we grew to know and like--Or not, for some of them!--during a total of over 150 episodes; which at about 45 minutes/episode would make that over 110 hours of TV watching. 110 hours of one's life. 110 hours that I would not rather have spent on anything else--which is all good.

More characters we grew to love.

I'll miss them; not acutely, but when I do happen think of them, as is likely, every now and then, as one does think of things at random, I will continue to wish the show hadn't ended; knowing that it is good that it has, because it ended on that 'right' open-ended note with good things inthe offing. Pretty much, again, the way I feel about Ed. All of which is almost prompting me to start a spiel about the relationships between fictional characters and those at the receiving end of the fiction, and, even more so, those creating it. But I'll spare you the trauma for today.

Three Generations of Gilmores. Dysfunctional but somehow holding it together.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Thrill of Living

Every now and then, on my drives down to and up from the Gold Coast, I end up listening to the radio, if only to keep me awake and alert. Highway driving in the heat of a muggy afternoon, after a day's work, tends to have a soporific effect, and becoming less-than-fully-alert at 100+km/h isn't a good idea.

The selection of radio stations and what they play, here as anywhere, is dismal. The 'classical music' station is out, by and large, because now there's music that will send you off to doze, either because it's nice and familiar, or else because it's some of that neo-classical crap that's so awful that you actually want to go to sleep, just to tune out from it.

So, until a few days ago, when I finally got my shit together and burned some CDs to play instead, I often ended up with 'commercial' stations, whose music is...well, the less said the better. I noticed that, switching from one to the other, among the three or four basic categories of music being played at any given instant--with 'lyrics' (ha!) rendered by 'singers' (double-'ha!') that should be talked about even less. I also noticed that it usually took me at least 20 seconds or more to figure out what the 'tune' (anybody game for another 'ha!'?) was, since a lot of them are all basically the same.

In despair I found me a 'country music' station, whose awfulness is not quite up there with the rest, though everything's relative, and if you compare something to shit, well, you may just end up appreciating something that's just less smelly than whatever you compared it to.

So, the other day, I came across the John Mellenkamp song Thrill of Living, the music of which I don't like and I thought the lyrics pretty much sucked rotten eggs, too, and burped them up again. And that the refrain about "life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone", that was too terminally dumb and depressing, so I turned it off, and the odd time when it comes on again--and they evidently play it often enough, so even a sporadic listener like I has a good chance of hearing it again and again--I immediately turn it off.

What a pitiful creature is the human being who doesn't realize that being alive is not just thrilling, but a cause for existential ecstasy. Admittedly, for many, the thrill has been drowned out by their life-experiences. I am rapt in admiration for and humbled by those who, despite the terror, poverty, starvation, oppression, enslavement, sickness, pain, tragedy inflicted on them by an indifferent cosmos manage to retain a sense of the value of 'life', and quite possibly retain a sense of 'thrill'. Indeed, it is probably also true that, in many cases, it is because of all these things that they are more 'alive' than they would have been without them.

But the rest--you and I, and the vast majority of those living in basic affluence and existential security--have no reason whatsoever not to understand that life is the ultimate thrill, and that there's nothing like it.

I said 'no reason whatsoever', but you may have noticed that the world is full of folks who, despite the lack of reason, seem to find life boring; something that needs spicing up with just about anything that comes along and is socially acceptable--or not. And if it doesn't 'come along', then there's an extensive industry dedicated to contriving it. Living in a large city and observing what's 'around', from fatuous stores for those with far too much money to an endless array of 'entertainment', I have gained new appreciation of the lengths to which people will go to make their existence appear not-boring; in other words being 'entertained'.

Right now, you, dear Reader, should be rolling about on the floor laughing at these kinds of statements coming from someone who loves to read what a lot of folk would consider low-brow fiction--and write it, too! I also love my cinematographic entertainment, and right now I'm finally dedicating some serious time to watching the final part of Season 7 of Gilmore Girls.* Hardly indicative of someone who eschews 'entertainment'. So, keep chuckling at the very least.

But... There's always a 'but', folks. Live with it. Nothing, to coin a phrase, is but-free.

'Entertainment', in all its myriad expressions, has a wide spectrum of functions. At one end is 'life enhancement', while at the other is 'life substitution'. And, yes, I agree that one person's 'enhancement' is another's 'substitution'. Meaning that we're not really talking about 'entertainment' per se, but about what motivates an entertainment-consumer into consumption. And there clearly is, at one end of the spectrum, consumption predominantly for the purpose of covering up one's boredom with existence; and/or making oneself that one isn't bored; and/or dulling one's sense of the presence of the Existential Void. However, at the other end is consumption for 'life-enhancement'. That means that it serves to make what may already be a pretty good life--as lives go--even better. It may do so just by adding directly to one's feeling 'good', or else by stimulating internal processes that ultimately lead to increased feelings of things being good, or possibly going even further and increasing such basic parameters as the likelihood of propagation of the species. The two are often very closely connected. Of course, there's also 'entertainment' that serves to decrease that likelihood.

It occurs to me that quite possibly the 'value' of entertainment might be depicted in a two-dimensional graph, where one axis maps out 'make-feel-good-about-life' and the other the probability that it helps propagation of the species. Cool subject for a Ph.D. thesis--especially if one included all sorts of 'entertainments' that aren't usually classified as such: 'News', 'Reality Shows', 'Documentaries'--as well as, in the realm of the 'written', the wealth of fiction masquerading as non-fiction: self-help books and cooky alternative medicine and psychology; philosophy (yes, fiction it is; just about all of it); and, again, and it goes without saying, anything that relates to 'News'. And let's not forget anything 'religious'!

Still, take it all away, or make you be too busy to be able to watch TV or go to movies or read books or shit magazines, and what do you end up with? Would you consider life enough of a 'thrill' without these human-fabricated devices? Or are you one of those who couldn't do without them?

When you pause in a moment of silence--rare in an urban environment, though in truth even 'nature' in many instances does not actually provide silence'; just different kinds of sounds than those around a typical city--do you feel a need to spice it up with 'thrill enhancing' factors? There are strong suggestions from extensive long-term studies that indeed some folks' brains have been so messed with by extensive exposure to 'media' at early ages, that they are actually incapable of functioning in an environment free of the kind of stimulation provided by 'media'. Meaning that quite possibly they cannot possibly find what they might call 'thrills' in their lives without being stimulated in certain ways; while others, not to conditioned and re-wired, may be able to.

Brains are incredibly adaptive organs. The problem is that not all adaptations are necessarily ultimately beneficial to the organism as a whole. And I wonder if the pervasive loss of 'The Thrill of Living', in the sense of it referring to the thrill one gets from being aware of one's aliveness per se, isn't one consequence of some of those adaptations. And if you take it away, what are you left with but an thin shell of narratives that can be destroyed by the slightest of disturbances, and which are dominated and constantly replaced and manipulated by influences exerted by agencies whose benevolence is at the very least questionable?

A loss of 'The Thrill of Living' makes for easily manipulated people; many of whom are convinced they aren't, but who in truth are in the position of an addict who refuses to admit his addiction.

* More on this in the next blog.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Free Will or Free Wheeling?

OK, so here's the issue in a nutshell...

Confused? Well, you have every right to be.

To save myself typing here's the introductory section of the Wikpedia page on Free Will, which will do for my current purpose:

The question of Free Will is whether, and in what sense, rational agents exercise control over their actions and decisions. Addressing this question requires understanding the relationship between freedom and cause, and determining whether the laws of nature are causally deterministic. The various philosophicaldeterminism versus indeterminism—and also on whether freedom can coexist with determinism or not—compatibilism versus incompatibilism. So, for instance, hard determinists argue that the universe is deterministic, and that this makes free will impossible.
positions taken differ on whether all events are determined or not—

The principle of free will has religious, ethical, and scientific implications. For example, in the religious realm, free will may imply that an omnipotent divinity does not assert its power over individual will and choices. In ethics, it may imply that individuals can be held morally accountable for their actions. In the scientific realm, it may imply that the actions of the body, including the brain and the mind, are not wholly determined by physical causality. The question of free will has been a central issue since the beginning of philosophical thought.

A cornucopia of 'isms'...

There are some scientific observations indicating that Free Will may be illusory; that we do act as if we had it, and that we by and large judge the actions of others as if they had it, but that in reality we and they don't. In some specific cases of willed actions it has been shown, and this is quite beyond argument, that the brain activity associated with triggering an action, such as the volition-initiated moving a finger, actually precedes the decision to move it. Meaning that what we think of as a 'decision' really isn't, and that it looks much more like our apparently conscious 'decision', "Should I move this finger or not? Yes, lets!", is more like a 'reporting' of a decision made at what would commonly be called a 'subconscious' level, which is beyond our actual control and, one would reasonably argue, makes a mockery of the notion that we 'choose' our actions as 'rational agents'. It may also be argued, equally reasonably, that these 'subconscious' processes are instances of determinism. Never mind that they are very complex. If one knew all the parameters involved in creating them, one would be likely to find that, yes, there's a perfectly sensible chain of, very complex, causation that leads to them being initiated, and that chain has nothing to do with the agent making 'Free Will' decisions.

The experiments I alluded to above, plus a vast supporting cast of related data, have been used by many to question the whole notion of Free Will, as well as such concepts as 'moral responsibility' and so on. If people really can't make rational decisions about what to do, if this 'rationality'--the capacity to reason, starting from whatever premises one cares to start from, with subsequent decision making based on whatever the process of reasoning led to--is just a smokescreen, or at best a reporting system for making explicit the results of processes that are beyond the reach of reason and out of our control, then 'responsibility' pretty much goes out the window. Any psycho, and especially if he's a 'psycho', would rightly argue that whatever he did was out of his control and how dare anybody even consider wanting to, for example, mete out punishment or exact revenge. You can see where this leads.

Don't dismiss this as poppycock and piffle, because you happen to find this inconvenient and/or unpleasant to ponder. It's a serious issue, and it cannot be dismissed with the wave of the that's-obviously-nonsense hand.

This is, we are in many ways...let's call it 'guided' in our decisions by what has gone before; by the events and influences that have led us to this particular place in our lives and circumstances. If we weren't who we are, we wouldn't make the decisions we make, whether those 'decisions' be rational and conscious or pre-conscious, with consciousness merely acting as a, if you will, 'rationalizer'. And, yes, if you look at human behavior from a certain angle, you'll soon notice that, when it comes to behavior, the line between 'reasoning' (pre-decision/action) and 'rationalizing' (post-decision/action) is very blurred indeed; if for no other reason but that everything he 'think' is subject to the delays built into our biological neural networks. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that all explanation of human behavior, and especially that relating to our own, is in effect 'rationalizing'--as is a lot of that which goes on before action takes place; if for no other reason but that the 'rationalization' is actually a post-decision thing, only that said decision might not, at the time we're doing the rationalizing, have led to discernible 'action' as yet.

And yes--in case you've caught onto this--this also very much calls into question the whole distinction between 'thought' and 'action', which seems to become quite meaningless in this context.

'Free' Will is, I think, a canard. Nobody has ever made a decision that could be considered 'free' from constraints on the decision making process--not even if we disregarded the whole issue of neural pre-conscious-decision readiness-potentials. But within the constraints, might there not be some room to move? To say "yes" or "no" to moving the finger that pulls the trigger that shoots the gun that kills another human being? To say "yes" or "no" based on factors that are under our control?

The problem here is that we really need to define who this 'we' is that things are supposed to be controlled by--to some degree anyway? Are we talking about the 'rational agent'? Is there such a thing? Haven't we had that very notion called into question with the experiments I was referring to, where the 'rational agent' is replaced by the 'rationalizing reporter'?

Another problem--yeah, I know; problems, problems, but where are the solutions?--is that it is unclear just what exactly is the 'point of decision'. It would be nice if it could be pinpointed with fair accuracy, like saying "this is where you decide(d)", but in fact one can't. The closer one probes, the harder the determination becomes, almost as if a kind of uncertainty principle prevailed here, too. In physics the principle relates to the simultaneous determination of a particle's position and momentum: the closer you determine one of the two, the more uncertain becomes the other. That's because the observation of one--by whatever means you care to select--involves a technique which will effectively destroy information about the other. I'm still trying to work out which are the two equivalent parameters in the cognitive domain, be it conceptual or the physical equivalents.

Our inability to get a handle on what a 'decision' is, in neurological terms as well as cognitively speaking, makes the whole thing almost impossible to sort out.

There's also the fact that all these readiness-potential studies were done with very short-term processes, which encourage pre-cognitive acts. But what about 'long term' decision making? Like us deciding that we're going to move to Australia? That may have been short-term relative to some people's decision-making processes; but, let's face it, it was something definitely outside the range of your average readiness-potential study.

So, what about long-term decisions? If I decide today that tomorrow I will go to the movies, the actions involved are quite a long way off to being implemented. And what if I change my mind, merely because I decide a bit later that I didn't want to see that particular movie after all?

Questions, questions, with near-limitless potential for dialectic obfuscation and no end to the discussion in sight.

As for the various options shown on the diagram at the beginning, I am tentatively in the Compatibilism camp. It seems like the place with the greatest match to what we 'know', scientifically speaking.

Still, who knows what's 'true' and what isn't. And, as far as everyday life is concerned, let's go with the philosophy of, T'sais, one of my favorite Jack Vance short stories from the Dying Earth collection.

In the tale a witch cast a spell upon Etarr and T'sais, compelling them to become automatons, doing her bidding and only her bidding. Alas, T'sais was wearing a rune which deflected the spell, thus not only protecting herself, but also bouncing the spell back onto the witch. But Etarr had been ensorceled and could only do as he was told, including answering specific questions, but unable to supply unsolicited information.

T'sais broke the spell on Etarr by ordering him to act at all times as Etarr would have acted had he not been bewitched. In this way the spell was anulled.

The same goes for us and Free Will. There is nothing wrong with acting at all times as if we had it. At the worst it'll make no difference, but we'll never actually know, so it doesn't matter. It's like the randomness vs. hidden-variables debate. If you can't ever find out what is true, then you might as well act as if it were--or not, depending on how you decide (or have things predetermined, in which case you're not deciding anything, but you won't know that and...).

Acting under the assumption that we do have Free Will, however, will, by and large, make us feel better about ourselves; for thinking of oneself as slaves to fate, or some f...d-up deity for that matter, is just as bad for one's mental health and good-feeling as being enslaved in the more conventional sense.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Blogging About Blogging and Other Incidentals

Do you 'blog'? Do you read blogs, other than the one you're reading now, either sporadically or on a regular basis? If so, why? If not...well, why not? As for me, I admit, that I seldom read them, mainly because (a) I actually don't have the time and (b) I have found few-to-none that would prompt me to re-visit them, if said re-visit competed with other requirements on my time.

For time is precious and ought not to be spend on things that don't either need doing or qualify as 'worthwhile' doing. Which is why, as a rule, I aim, in my own blogs not to waste my readers' time and give them something they can take away, just like I aim to do in my stories. If a blog doesn't add something to the readers' intellectual and/or emotional life then it's just self-indulgent blather.

This particular blog has a dual purpose, which makes it a tad schiz every now and then. For it can be on topics ranging from 'How's the move to Australia going?' to (coming up) 'Free Will'. Taken as a whole its intention is to keep-in-touch both, as a person with folks who know me/us, or as an author of a book or two they might have read. Or maybe, for someone drifting in at random--as sometimes happens--as a promotional tool. "Who is this guy? A writer? What does he write?" and so on.

Not that it has brought me riches, but there's always the third purpose, which is a record for myself. Because I've been doing this for a while now, and it's instructive to look back at what I chose to 'share' at this time or that. The question posed by one of my readers, a good friend, as to how I come up with these subjects, is one I ask myself as well, long after I've forgotten how I actually did. It's interesting to follow one's perambulations through the nooks of one's mind and whatever context it was that prompted this topic or that.

The nice thing about blogs is that, even if you write about really serious and weighty stuff, nobody's going to come and ask you to produce 'references' or proof. If they did, I'd tell them to go and find out for themselves, because this is a blog and not a treatise. In this way I can tackle subjects ranging from the nature of comic heroes to the fabric of the universe to the question of 'free will'; and I would like you to remember what I wrote just now when I do, because it will be a case in point of my argument.

In this way, it occurs to me, blogs are pretty much like SF&F stories, because nobody in their right mind will ask you for references for all your screwy story ideas either.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Pretender, as well as Dragons, Wizards, Magic, Elves and the Whole Shebang

Media-rich blog coming up.

...starting with the lyrics from The Pretender, the first song on the Foo Fighters's latest album, Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace. If you want to hear all the music, you'll just have to buy the album.

And now to some ranting about stuff, and continuing with the original subject

Seriously, peoples, aren't you getting pretty sick and tired of the standard fantasy/sci-fi offerings of today? I'm not going to mention names, because authors should be cautious about who they point their fingers at. But, again, isn't it getting terribly tedious to be offered yet another novel about a quest by a misunderstood/mistreated/ overlooked hero or heroine, who must then set out, physically or just metaphorically, to set the wrongs to right and gain his or her rightful status and acclaim, with a suitable dash of a small-carbon footprint of political correctness and self-righteous blather?

I just read synopses of these things nowadays, and maybe a few sample pages on the web, after which I invariably am turned off by the unimaginative, homogenized language, dialog and general style, as well as the subject matter, which has at most two layers, and even that's rare, because everything is usually dished up right on the surface. No digging for more layers of the onion required. The damn things are shells surrounding voids.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Tolerance, man!! Besides, or so I ask myself more often than once, can I rightly claim that I am not inside a glasshouse here and throwing some pretty hefty rocks, some of which might just bounce off the glass panes and hit me in the head, instead of those outside. A modification of the glasshouse metaphor, but do I care? Ha!

Then I think over my work and, forgive me for being sufficiently immodest to say this, my conscience rests. I mean, there's no way around using certain standard devices and tricks and symbols; but there are ways of using them that aren't tedious or stereotyped.

The best example is, quite possibly, the use to which the archetypal 'sword' that causes so many things to happen in the first part of Seladienna is finally put. Definitely is not what anybody should have expected, or so I would think. Least of all, I should add, I! But when I got to a certain point in that novel, I suddenly had this epiphany, and I knew that in truth there was only one thing I could so with the sword. The whole thing then was turned on its head, as it should have.

It wasn't 'deconstruction' of the 'sword' archetype, as some might think; just a perfectly sensible inversion, that revealed not only the character of the protagonist, but also put the last nail into the coffin of what might otherwise have been a, somewhat different maybe, but still fairly predictable heroes' journey.

On the other hand, when I look at something like Tethys, the so-far last novel in the series that started with Keaen, I noticed, only well after I was halfway through writing it, that much of what looks like a perfectly sensible trip from A to B to do something that needs to be done, that it was really a classic, archetypal journey with motifs I hadn't even known were there until I started editing it.

What to make of this? I don't know. But it comforts me, because I think that if a story-teller can surprise himself, surely he has a good chance of doing the same with his audience, who would be expected to be even less prepared for what they'll find once they start digging and thinking about what they've just read.

The impression I get from a lot of the stuff that's 'out there' is that the authors were basically bored with writing it. I bet when you ask them, most will tell you that it's hard work. That they are struggling to get these stories out to the world; battling through the creative process to arrive at their masterpieces or whatever; staring at blank screens, trying to give their visions word-ly life.
Well, I tell you what. They're either (a) telling the truth or (b) trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

If they're telling the truth, I seriously suggest that they go and find some other 'creative' outlet. If this isn't basically a fun-process for them--and I do mean 'fun': enjoyable, delightful, adventurous, thrilling, exciting, stimulating--then why in the world are they doing it? Because of the great mystique adhering to 'writing' or being 'a writer', and 'an author'? A 'person of letters'? A 'literary figure'? What utter piffle. These are the worst reasons possible. Still, more often than once do I get the feeling that this is the 'why' of them doing it, and that includes some whose works are sold widely and occasionally with amazing success, despite being, not to put too fine a point on it, shit.

I know, I know. If I'm so good, as I have a notion that I am, why aren't I a best-selling author? Search me. The world is a mysterious place, though I have a few suggestions to penetrate the mystery. Hint: Jack Vance isn't either. Neither is Steve Perry; not right now anyway. Nor is Stephen Gould exactly a best-seller either, though he has some successes, and Jumper is almost out on the screens of the world--almost unrecognizable from what I've seen of it. I find that comforting, because I consider these people excellent company.

Option (b) is a definite possibility also. Marketing bullshit. Some of these (un-named) novels I was going on about earlier, from the p.o.v. of theme and just excerpts I read, look like they were written with the assistance of some plot-design program, where you whip out an assortment of themes and story-lines and characters and then just fill in the blanks. And the style...ahh, don't get me started on the style. Still, I am--a very obscure in-joke coming up--'unsurprised'. Long story, why that's an in-joke, but it has to do with style and language homogenization. Suffice to say that I didn't mean 'not surprised' but 'unsurprised'.

If it is marketing bullshit though, then that means that the authors are complicit in it; which is demeaning. Damn it, if you enjoy story-telling, why not admit it? Admit that it's more fun than chore; that you like spending time on this; that getting paid for it is just serious icing on an already delicious cake! And if you're actually having 'fun', does that necessarily imply that your stories have less depth than those penned by the DAMNs (Deep And Meaningful Novelists) of the world? Is it a sequitur at all? Some of the most 'fun' novels/movies I've read/seen were very deep indeed. They had LAYERS! I'd really like to see some more damn layers in some of the crap that's out there. Layers. Layers. Layers. Delta Foxtrot Layers!! Allow us all some poking around and a chance to find surprising and possibly wonderful things. But let us find them ourselves! We're not stupid, contrary to what many publishers would have us believe; or at least that's what one would think, looking at the material.

And now dear Reader(s), because you've been so good as to read right on to the end of this rant, here's a teaser for a movie I'm really looking forward to seeing. (For those who are wondering where the first part of the music comes from; it's from the soundtrack to the Children of Dune miniseries. Ahh, the pleasures of being a soundtrack geek!)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Why we kiss

OK, so I promised you pictures, but I thought this article here would be just as enticing.

Monday, February 11, 2008

More on God and His Atheists

...or not. After all, the only Gods I'm aware of are those who bear the title metaphorically; like I was calling Ridley Scott "God of the Blade Runner 'Verse". That kind of thing.

Anyway, boring cognitive philosophical discussion coming up, so be warned those who like to 'skim'. Dare I say 'Rua'? Just wait for the next blog with piccies.

For the rest: so tell me, what do you think? Can you have any kind of discussion about Theism vs. Atheism without said discussion being implicitly 'philosophical'? In other words, once the subject is on the table and people have declared their stance, for whatever obscure reason, is the discussion still on the level of...well, think of what's sometimes called a 'coffee-table book' (say a book with Ansel Adams photos), as opposed to, say, a copy of a Camus novel? That's the kind of difference I'm thinking of.

I'm not saying that a coffee-table book is trivial, or anything like that; nor that it is in some way inferior to the Camus novel. It's just belongs into a completely different category of literary work. And the moment a discussion drifts from religiod politics, that being politics driven by religious or crypto-religious agendas, into a state where someone makes a declaration akin to, say, "Science proves that there is no God."... Well, sorry folks, but the coffee-table book was just closed and put down and the Camus Novel opened somewhere at a random page.

It doesn't really matter where the discussion drifts after that. It might go into the area of what is 'scientifcally provable', or what actually are the 'facts' rationalists so love to just take for granted; or it might head toward the illogicality or plain absurdity of the notion of a 'God'. It doesn't matter where. As of a certain point of transition the discussion has become 'philosophical'. Only a determined effort to laugh it off and return to the coffee-table book and ignore the pesky Camus could possibly save the situation.

And, of course, the likes of me, when faced with bland declarations of the self-evidence of the truth of either religiod or atheist assertions, instantly leaps in there and throws a few spanners into the smooth workings of people's self-evidences, especially when I realize that, as people so often do, they have stopped thinking just that extra essential step. For that step, or maybe two or three, will usually take them to a point where they see more than the hillside they're climbing and the sky above, and they'll suddenly notice the hills beyond and the valleys between them.

That was some serious mixing of metaphors. Sorry 'bout that, but it seemed to fit together.

Anyway, for those who really believe that 'science' and the 'scientific method' support either theism or atheism, here are a few thoughts on the matter. Needless to say I think that those who believe this canard are not not just mistaken but really haven't caught on to the full-on existential irony of what science has actually provided us with, namely the strongest evidence yet (and I mean 'evidence') that anybody who is either an affirmed theist or atheist is at best...well, let me be nice and call it 'misguided'.

For the results of several centuries of scientific activity and the creation of tools to support the investigation of the physical universe and everything in it have led us to the almost inescapable conclusion that, to put it simply, we cannot 'know' what is 'true'. We can only conjecture and select between conjectures and live our lives based on those conjectures. These conjectures might also be described as 'existential assumptions', created by...well, whatever created them. Contingency mostly. Occasionally there might be a dash of deliberation and decision, but by and large existential assumptions are implicit and therefore very rarely challenged by those who hold them: meaning all of us. Some of them in principle inaccessible to explicit consideration.

The bottom line is that the brain, in interaction with the world and wider context that it is set in and a part of, creates whatever we 'think about' the world. Some of these thoughts are built-ins which we share, for the very simple reason that we exist. The brains we have today are as they are today solely because the creatures having those brains and whatever these brains 'thought' were more successful at propagating themselves than those who didn't.

You can conjecture that there's got to be 'more to it', and possibly there is. But what I said above is self-evidently true, no matter what else there is or isn't. If there is such a thing as an indisputable existential fact about what we are, surely it must be this.

As for the 'extra stuff', anything happening inside those brains that does not interfere with said 'propagation' activities and successes, is existentially neutral. Anything that aids it should probably be classified as 'beneficial' and anything that impedes it as 'detrimental'. This is a value-free assessment, based only on the metric of 'continuance of the species' if you will. Of course, other metrics could be applied; and are. That's fine, but my point is that those are essentially parts of the 'extra stuff'. I know a lot of folks won't like that, but as an Absurdist with strong leanings toward General Semantics, I find nothing objectionable about it. It's just the way things are, and so what?

The only 'truth' there is, is that because of our cognitive organs (brains) we can not 'know' anything, because we cannot be anything else than what the structure and context of these organs permits us to be. We have no choice but to act at all times as what we are, to have thoughts and concepts circumscribed by what we are. This would be true even if we had 'souls', only then the limiting factors would be different. And, yes, I am aware that what I wrote just now is an expression of these implicit limitations. But consider this: that the existence of 'limitation' is the foundation and substrate of all thought, and that an 'unlimited' entity, if such a concept makes any sense at all, such as your typical monotheist God therefore can't actually 'think'; not in the way in which we understand it. It can only exist, but, or so I would argue, never actually 'act'; because 'action' is just thought made perceivable to those who are capable of observing it.

Because of all this, I'd also like to argue that the whole Theism vs. Atheism debate is actually less than pointless; it is actually meaningless--for reasons that should be clear from what I said above. The phrases "God exists" and "There is no God" are syntactically correct but semantically void. Still, theists and atheists continue to belabor their positions on the matter, each with what they consider cogency, and each with a smugness that attests only to one thing: their lack of preparedness to go and investigate the existential mechanisms that make said smugness utterly laughable.

But then again, who wants to find out, and especially as one gets older, that what one has thought and done for a long time was nothing but the mental equivalent of shadow-boxing?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Is Rick Deckard a Replicant?

Warning! Warning! Warning!
This will be strictly a blog for Blade Runner geeks. Everybody who isn't will rightly turn away with moderate to complete disinterest and/or bewilderment, so I suggest those in that category stop reading right now. Trust me. I'm your friend.

Well, is he?

I, and anybody else, who watched a certain segment of Disk 4 of the Final Blade Runner Cut edition have it on the highest conceivable authority that Rick Deckard is indeed a Replicant. Said highest authority is none less than God, who in the instance goes under the name of 'Ridley Scott'.

That's good enough for me and it should be for you. All the discussions about what means what in the Director's Cut and now in the Final Director's Cut, and especially the unicorn dream/vision, have become utterly and completely nuncupatory, pointless and, let's face it, fatuous. It has been for a long time, of course, because God had pronounced on this matter several times before, but not on video. So there. Canna have more proof than video. Right? Unless it's a conspiracy of sorts, which must needs involve Ridley Scott. Now that makes a lot of sense. Not.

You, too, can watch Blade Runner 'Verse God, Ridley Scott. Courtesy of moi, the internet, YouTube and Adobe. And, let's face it: this is far cooler than the Moses and the Ten Commandments crap! Poor bastard, having to schlepp himself up a mountain after being freaked out by some wally trying to scare the crap out of him by projecting his voice so that it appeared to be coming out of a burning bush. None of this mumpitz today. Just some common-as-muck technology, even though the rendering is a bit creaky. Cause for doubt? Well, a bit further on, though you'll have to buy the DVD set if you want proof, God is more explicit, when he notes that, If you don't get it, you're a moron. Well, couldn't be much clearer than that.

Other commentators on the DVD I watched—Blade Runner actors, writers, a Ridley Scott son, other directors who confessed to being 'influenced' by the movie, yet other cinema and writing-world luminaries and yet other mostly unimpressive talking heads—by and large refused to acknowledge God's authority in the matter. At their most honest they admitted that they really didn't actually like Deckard being a Replicant and hence preferred to ignore it, and never mind God. One who stood out and had a sane kind of perspective on the whole thing was Rutger Hauer (Batty), who said that it didn't change the story and so basically is it didn't matter; though he accepted that Deckard was a Replicant, just like his character. The rest basically said "Screw God. I believe what I want to believe." One of them argued the case against God's recorded! pronouncement on the matter with the convoluted fervor of your average religious nut; only in this instance he was arguing against God. Well, maybe he was an atheist, or the equivalent of it.

There is no Ridley Scott

Go tell Ridley that.

I have acquired renewed respect for Rutger Hauer, an actor I always liked anyway; and who, I think, has been vastly underrated, despite an extensive movie career. His comments on the DVD, plus the simple fact that he basically created that immortal line "All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die." were among the most cogent of the lot.

Back to Deckard and his Replicant-dom.

First of all, with all due regard for Rutger Hauer's cogencies, but I think he's at best half-right when he says that it doesn't change the story. It doesn't change some parts of it, but it majorly changes its spine. It also has what you might call a 'meta'-meaning, which only comes out when you look at the very fact of the denial of God's word by so many others, a lot of them closely involved in the movie, appearing on that DVD.

Purely from a story point of view, we have a major change, in that the main protagonist turns out not to be someone we had erroneously identified ourselves with, and whose 'journey' to finding his humanity we kind of understood as being a 'human' journey. The mold for these stories is classical and if we see Blade Runner that way, then it, despite its profoundly dystopian themes, makes the movie kind of familiar-comfortable. 'Disillusioned former killer-cop finds his humanity by falling in love with robot,' and stuff like that. And, let's face it, that, or a variation on this theme, has been used as a partial synopsis; if, that is, people saw the story at all, and it is amazing how many actually didn't, but just saw the 'world'.

But now...well, there is no 'human' to identify with, but a 'robot' himself. Someone who might not have been alive for all that long before the story starts. Maybe this creature actually never had 'retired' any Replicants at all. Maybe those were just memory implants. Maybe it was just like with the protagonists Michael Bay's The Island, which is an unabashed and fitting action-flick homage to both Blade Runner and Logan's Run.

Bred in a vat, then realesed to the world, Deckard appears very much like a man without a past; unless you watch the voice-over version of the movie, which asserts otherwise; but the voice-over version is shit. There are indications that he has a past, later, but all of these could be manipulative. Personally, I think that Gaff, who seems to haunt Deckard like a monkey on his back, may well be a now-decommissioned former Blade Runner, whose memories were implanted into Deckard so the Replicant could continue to do his job. At the very least Gaff is in on the plot; and so, one would, suspect, is Deckard's (putative) former police boss.

I could go on about all the other consistencies supporting such cogitations, but it's much better to watch the movie, again and again, because it's so cool to discover them yourself. The main point here though is that, once you've accepted that Deckard=Replicant, you're out of your classic-mold story framework, because how can you participate in the journey of something that's not human? No matter how much it thinks it is. No matter how many memories it has and how human it appears to act and respond.

But you see, one of the movie's basic themes is the question about how to define 'human' and how to define what 'makes' one human. Again, like in The Island, does the fact that you weren't born into a human womb with the usual attendant preliminaries, which may include in-vitro fertilization, and that you didn't grow up in the usual way, learning things bit by bit and so on, disqualify you from being classified as 'human'? Does the reason why you were created influence anything regarding your 'human' status? Disregarding your 'true', factual history, if you say, were duplicated at this very instant in a Star Trek Transporter-like device, would that other 'you' be a human being with the same perquisites, legally, ethically, morally, existentially as you yourself? Of what if it were created entirely in vitro and grown in a vat or plastic womb bubble with artificial aminotic fluid, and them implanted with enough of your memories to effectively think it is you. How much, for that matter, do you know you are whatever makes you 'you', given that at any instant you're not really what you were only microseconds ago, and even less so what you were a day ago? How does actual chronology and 'continuity of existence' determine the existential status of what one 'is'?

These are troubling questions and Blade Runner raised them all. It's not the only movie hat has, of course, but nobody claims that. As I argued quite a while ago in a blog, all of this dates far back and is, indeed, another 'classic' story theme, delivered to us and our Judaeo-Christian Euopean traditions by the Jewish concept of the Golem and its status with regards to its human creators. Replicants are golems, albeit not really made from completely 'inanimate' matter; mainly because anybody who knows anything about this realizes that the whole differentiation between the 'animate' and the 'inanimate' is not really what most people think it is. Actually, this may be another bit of terminology that should be discarded, because with what we know now we should also know that it is semantically void.

Blade Runner also advanced the interesting proposition that only by knowing what we are--or maybe exactly and by knowing this thing and nothing much else and then acting upon this knowledge--do we make ourselves 'human'. This is what happened to all the Replicants, because all of them, you may have noticed, had 'emotions'; meaning they were driven by motives other than the 'rational'. Indeed, their emotions were stronger than those of the 'real' humans populating the movie. That the Replicant's emotions did not focus on the same objects of emotion as those of the 'real' humans merely means that they had a different aesthetic, ethical, moral and generally 'symbol' framework of reference. Note that nowhere in the movie is it asserted that Replicants do not have emotions! The purpose of the detection test was merely to figure out whether these are 'human' emotions. And, without being overly flippant, but I have great sympathy for he Replicants' sentiments. For few things make you come 'alive' more than the awareness of your mortality; and if certan death is looming a finite distance in the future and there's nothing you can do about it, the "itch you can't scratch" as Leon put it, this is likely to generate about as much awareness of 'what you are'--mortal, doomed to disappear into the void whence you came--as is conceivable.

In other words, the Replicants actually, by their very nature, are more 'human' than most of us, and for people that is a hard thing to admit. Deckard of course, only figured it out at the end, when finding the origami unicorn revealed the truth to him. He nodded because, I suppose, it not only all made sense to him, but he also realized that events and his actions which led him to this point were, I guess, 'sensible' as well; and maybe he also understood what, if anything, everything that he was about to do actually made sense in that context as well. Meaning that he became a completely realized 'human' in the fullest existentialist sense of the word.

A human, with and despite of his non-human chronology. Ridley Scott made the point so clear that I don't get why some people don't get it.

Those people who don't get it--and there seems to be lots of them, stuck in ruts of thought that in effect make them less-than human, as it would be defined by the movie--demonstrate yet again that stories aren't just what they are but also what they do and what they reveal about those to whom the story is told. In this instance it is probably fair to say that all those who either deny or complain about the fact that Deckard is a Replicant, and who think that it somehow takes away from the story or makes it less accessible or 'humanly accessible', are almost exactly like those so unflatteringly depicted in Blade Runner itself. Like Deckard's putative former boss, Gaff (initially, though he changed as things developed), just about everybody involved in Replicant-creation, the police on the whole, as well as the bllions of ordinary humans, who, by their implicit consent, accepted the existence of Replicants as robots for slave-labor to do the dangerous and dirty off-world work, ranging from fighting and hard-labor to whoring.

That revelation surely must be a pinnacle of irony. I had a good chuckle when it came to me, because it was just so funny. And I do mean 'funny haha', because I have a twisted sense of humor. And I do appreciate that others might not think it quite a humorous; especially those who stand exposed by their reaction, and who have seen fit to react publicly and on record for all to see.

But so be it. The contribution of Blade Runner, as well as the much more widely 'accessible', if you will, Island, to human thought--and, yes, I do mean 'thought'!--goes far beyond 'entertainment', as do the contributions of all great stories.

But, you see, if Deckard had not been a Relicant, all that would not have been so. Which means that I must, respectfully in this case because I respect the man, disagree with Rutger Hauer. Not only does Deckard's Replicant-dom change the story, but in more ways than one it is its essence.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Foo Fighters in Brisbane

Ahh, yes, the guys are'a'comin' here.

And we're going there, too. So eat your collective hearts out. Unless, of course, you happen not to like Foo Fighters. Which means you may not have heard one of the more poetic love songs in the repertoire of what's commonly called 'Rock Bands'.

Since I cited the lyrics of American Pie some blogs back, I thought maybe, on a less morbid note, I'd do the same with Everlong.

I've waited here for you

Tonight I throw myself into
And out of the red
Out of her head she sang

Come down
And waste away with me
Down with me

Slow how
You wanted it to be
I'm over my head
Out of her head she sang

And I wonder
When I sing along with you
If everything could ever feel this real forever
If anything could ever be this good again
The only thing I'll ever ask of you
You've got to promise not to stop when I say when...she sang

Breathe out so I can breathe you in
Hold you in
And now I know you've always been
Out of your head
Out of my head I sang

And I wonder
When I sing along with you
If everything could ever feel this real forever
If anything could ever be this good again
The only thing I'll ever ask of you
You've got to promise not to stop when I say when
she sang

And I wonder
If everything could ever feel with real forever
If anything could be this good again
The only thing I'll ever ask of you
You got to promise not to stop when I say when

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

My Faith Is My Right

Never thought I'd put the slogan/motto of a Catholic girls' school as the title of a blog of mine, but there it is. Actually the real joke is that it isn't the slogan at all, which I read wrong, with me completing a semantic pattern that came naturally to me, while in truth it was all far more...well, 'Catholic'...namely 'Right' was actually 'Light'. Ahh, yes, now that makes much more sense! Still, this error in perception and inference still produced some interesting thoughts, which I'll 'share' with you.

Being of a libertarian (with a small 'l'!) inclination, the slogan--as I erroneously quoted it!--strikes me as self-evidently of merit and, if there are such things as 'human rights' to be considered 'inalienable'--no matter about the 'who' granting them, that being deity, nature or simply, as is actually the case, other people, from time to time and as they see fit--then surely the right to believe what one chooses to believe, however that 'choice' is made, should indeed be a right granted to everyone.

'Faith', of course, is just a terminological placeholder for 'belief', 'opinion', 'conviction', etc. And it is also obvious, at least to me, that, apart from the 'right to faith' aspect of the matter, not all faiths are created equal, if you will. Not all of them have the same grounding in demonstrable reality; though of course we have to be careful about what said 'reality' actually is!

There is another issue, too, namely that of 'choice' and whether a given instance of the concept 'choice' qualifies as such. Again, as one of libertarian persuasion, I am inclined to 'default' to assuming that any choice to believe this but not that qualifies as such--and that any argument by detractors from all quarters questioning it, usually with some excuse for why a choice wasn't either 'free' or 'informed' or 'educated' or whatever nuncupatory excuse they come up with...that any such argument is very probably self-serving on behalf of those making it, a slave as it were to whatever their personal agendas are.

Said 'default' position may be amended according to evidence presented, but by and large the right to think as one wills is about as sacred a human right as I can think of; second only to the right to live--and actually more pervasive than that, for even if deprived of the right to live by contingency one should still be allowed, in one's last moments, to think what one damn well wants or feels inclined to think. And 'faith' is just one aspect of thought, so naturally it's covered under that umbrella.

This all came up because the other day, on a Brisbane suburban train, I sat opposite a mother and daughter, late 30s and early teens, respectively, who, by dress and mannerisms gave me food for thought and made me wonder about who they were, what their relationship was, and so on. The girl wore a very neat and tidy school uniform, and the mother was dressed equally tidily. The girl, on her lap, had an immaculately clean school bag, with the emblem of the school and (most of) the slogan that titles this blog.

While I found myself nodding internally as I (mis)read the slogan, it also occurred to me that there's a corollary to it, the flipside of this particular Janus head. For these people with their in-your-face faith aren't just instances of some general principle of freedom-of-thought-choice, but of an emphatic choice with far-reaching consequences. Also, the girl's choices of what to believe, or so it might be argued by atheists--who provide some of the worst examples of I-know-better agenda-mongers--were possibly not of such a nature as to exhibit a sufficiency of 'freedom' to begin with; probably having been brainwashed, as it were, from day one of her existence. I have no concrete evidence for this, but there's plenty of the 'circumstantial' kind. If you had seen that mother and watched the interaction between the two...

Still, I ask, who isn't in some way or other 'brainwashed'? At the very least we are 'heavily influenced', and, if exposed to excessive degree to one thing and isolated from others, we are what may be called 'imprinted'. In either case, it's probably very hard to get rid of. And, yes, the same applies to being 'imprinted' with or habituated to ways of thought that are skeptical of certain things. Got to be careful with the stones in the glasshouse here. For the fact is that everybody lives in a glasshouse.

Anyway, about the flipside...

The corollary to My Faith Is My Right is To Live With The Consequences Of My Faith Is My Obligation.

And that's where the shit hits the fan, of course. Because even if you don't consider it your duty, life will make you live with the consequences of your thoughts no matter what you think. People are very good at asserting 'rights', but by and large they do far worse at accepting the associated obligations. And, with the Principle Of Cosmic Equipoise reigning supreme everywhere--even if usually it's more statistical than readily-quantifiable and usually rather convoluted at that--that makes for a significant mismatch between what they think is and should be, and what really is.

So, I wondered about the future, because that's what I do; trying to spin the yarn of the lives of these two people beyond the ten minutes or so they sat opposite me on that train. Two main lines of possible scenarios: ultimate submission or eventual rebellion. For that girl wasn't stupid. Subject to mother's thumb and probably smothered in her world view; but not stupid.

Submission or rebellion?

The things we'll never know...

The things we think about when we mis-read something, with a single letter obscured by the loop of a carry-handle...

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Flow of Things

This is a comparative commentary on Stardust and The Golden Compass.

Reasons for this coming up right now (that's just for you, Carys, so you stop wondering!) are as follows:

We got ourselves a very cool 32" Sony Bravia, and to inaugurate it the first ever movie we watched on it was the just-released Stardust on DVD. It was either that or Blade Runner, the Final Cut I blogged about here. In the end it was Stardust and it was good. Great inauguration movie. I think it's very important to start off with such a major piece of entertainment equipment on the correct footing. Then you can say to yourself, and others, "Well, the first move ever we saw on this, was..."

I should add here that Blade Runner followed just couple of days later, and it was at least as good, and probably better, because Blade Runner is one of the few movies worthy of the appellation 'masterpiece'; at least in my book. Also, since Blade Runner was a Region 1 DVD, which I could play from my MacBook through the HDMI inputs of the TV--rather than having to use the HP Laptop, which is set to play Region 4 DVDs, but doesn't have a digital video output--the image quality was whoa!.

Some weeks back we also saw The Golden Compass, which, I guess, tried valiantly to position itself at the top end of the current crop of fantasy flicks. Unfortunately it a) tried too hard, b) wore its various 'messages' just a far too visibly and c) had a mediocre script. Three ingredients sure to nuke any hopes I had had for it.

It also had a whole lot of technical issues with the special effects, much like that other failure, Narnia. That would have mattered far less if the movie hadn't been so heavily reliant on these effects to accomplish its aim; whatever aim that might have been, apart from starting a franchise.

also had occasional issues with obvious green screen quality control, but everything else was so good and so near-perfect that one just didn't care.

I've been trying to figure out the script and script-implementation issues that in the end sank Golden Compass, and I think it mostly comes down to the issue of 'flow'; which is, at its core, a story-telling thing. It's about allowing the viewer to immerse into the tale and be carried along with it in a natural progression of events and developments towards the denouement. Stardust carried this off with an ease that, upon second viewing, amazed me even more than on the first. After all, there was ample opportunity in a movie/story of this nature to be either formulaic to the point of it being noticeable to all but the youngest--who shouldn't have been watching it anyway, because there were potentially quite disturbing things in here. The alternative might have been to go the way of TGC and try to beef up what might have appeared to some as a somewhat facile fairy-tale either with contemporary witticisms or commentary; with pesudo-meaningful profundities; or with overly complicated backstory, populated with unnecessary details and/or characters.

Stardust did neither, confining itself to being a fairy-tale with its roots firmly in the 'classic' and an archetypal 'quest' story, though laced with modern-day sensibilities. Not as melancholy as Neil Gamian's book, from which the tale was adapted, but close enough in spirit to do it justice. Action flowed organically from one event and place to another; and though one might not have known about the next plot point at any given instance, when the point came it was like "Of course. How else could it have gone but this way?" And the background, complicated as it was, never got in the way, because it was explicated strictly on a need-to-know basis, which is an excellent, but often-neglected, recipe-ingredient for good story telling.

TGC, on the other hand, appeared to have absolutely no notion of its path and was cluttered with pseudo-important but basically irrelevant and unnecessary backstory. Instead of the story evolving naturally through a combination of the necessary and the contingent or incidental, it served us up unexpected, and sometimes almost predictable, contrivances, obviously designed to keep the story going; things that didn't have to be there to keep it going, but that were placed there, almost as if the things had been written by computer, according to one of those idiotic story-devising programs flogged to the self-deluded with the aim to substitute method and procedure for story-telling talent.

And then there was that whole pretentious political thread, which should have been delegated to subtext, discernible only to those who cared to discover it. Instead it became a kind of spine and a weak one at that. Thing is that, if this was addressed at adults, they would have done much better to stick to something for adults, like Blade Runner. If it was addressed at kids then it was done so badly that they are likely to miss it completely. If it was meant to be everything to everybody, then the lesson to be learned is that that probably can't be done.

You can't have an 'adult' spine supporting the meat of a 'kiddie' story. Well, you can, strictly speaking, but it'll end up crap. On the other hand, you can have a 'kiddie'-story spine able to carry 'adult' content.

Of course, you need to have an audience of adults who haven't lost some of the kid-like desire just be carried away on a floating carpet of suspension-of-disbelief. Or you can 'mature' the fairy-tale somewhat to elevate it to the state of 'adult fantasy'--and I don't mean 'adult' as X-rated, but as being closer to adult sensibility--and cater for the audience that responds better to flicks with heroes well out of their teens. That way you end up with e.g. Pirates of the Caribbean, Lord of the Rings, Stardust--or Blade Runner. For the latter, as filmed--that not necessarily being the same as the P.K. Dick novel from which it was adapted--was a superb mix of adult fairy-tale fantasy, dystopic futurology and Raymond Chandler style gumshoe flick. It was also done in a very 'classic' and profoundly archetypal tradition, with a neat and almost complete inversion of the Hero with a Thousand Faces theme.

Based on instalment #1 of whatever TGC is supposed to lead into I probably will not waste my money at the movies to see it, and I may or may not bother renting the DVD either. Maybe not even waste my time watching it for free. On the other hand I'll happily watch Stardust with the same gusto over and over again as I have, and still do, The Princess Bride or a number of other flicks that just strike me as simply and unmitigatedly enjoyable.