Archive for October, 2010

Being the average is a minority position

October 31, 2010

A rule of Internet: It exists. Here “it” is anything that can be defined in three seconds or less; and “exists” means, “is represented online”.

Another rule of Internet: If it exists, there will eventually be a page that collects examples. Be it Sketchy Santas, cats that look like Hitler (“kitlers”), abuses and misuses of bacon, sign-language profanity (on Wikipedia!), or ASCII Airplanes; there will be a collection.

Three more examples; these I just googled without knowing the result beforehand.

Yurts — “Yurt Living” group on Flickr

Hands of famous people — The Hands of Famous People (with palmistry!)

Toilets — Toilets of the World

The canonical comment to all this would probably be “Why don’t these people get a life”, which is a fairly stupid and wrongheaded thing to say, because what’s life except doing what you desire? And if by life is meant, “life like the average”, well, that’s a very small minority that I happily smack around and keep down all I can.

What?

Well, obviously them averages are a very small minority. Assume a human being can be “described” by ten real numbers not related to each other. Let us say someone is “average” if he or she is within the central 75% of each of these values; say, for example, in the middle bulge of a bell curve. These people constitute just

0.75^{10} \approx 0.056,

that is, 5.6%, of this model of humanity; to be in the three-quarters of most common people for ten independent indicators is a minority option! It’s clear that people can be different in a wide variety of ways; what is less understood is that practically everyone is different from any “average” in one or more ways. Add more indicators for more ways people can be different, and it won’t matter if you enlargen your definition of “normal” or “average”; the actions cancel each other out. If it is “normal” to be in some specified 90% of approaches to an subject, then 28 subjects are enough for just that same 5.6% to be that all-normal minority; and we humans can vary in more than 28 ways, surely!

Them normals are a minority, and I’m sick and tired of their normalioarchy and their smug ignorance of their crushing normalonormative privilege! To arms, my freak brothers and sisters and people that don’t care to tell! We are the shock troops of a fight for the right to differ; shock, since that’s what our numbers are! Onwards, with our yurts and kitlers! Snap a picture of a Santa in/on a toilet today — for freedom! Don’t fear the crowd; everyone in it has the same demon capering somewhere inside!

This has been your mathematics lesson for today/tonight; good night/day.

The paper book as an interface and as an object

October 29, 2010

Have been following, with some interest, the slow landing of e-books into Finland over the last few months. There’s one e-book store open, one opening in November, and at least three more in the works; haven’t gotten around to sampling them yet, but am very interested indeed, though the technology is at ENIAC level and the implementation at the Ivan the Terrible stage (“You wouldn’t steal a — bhlaargh! Blood! Blood everywhere! My axe them small dogs steaming piracy loops of greyred innards — “).

Have been making dents in the wall, too, because various people — snobs would be one word for them, I guess — have been making the same stupid arguments against e-books. (Ebooks? Don’t know; don’t care.)

A recent round-up by Helsingin Sanomat gave voice to great many people about the subject; the newspaper apparently has a “stable” of one hundred or so persons of note, artists and scientists and journalists and TV faces, that they regularly ask for short comments about some news subject. That was, this time round, “will the e-book supplant paper books?”

I nearly popped a vein reading some of these supposed arguments.

For example, “the paper book cannot be beat as comes to its interface and durability”?

Has this person, which I out of petty spite refuse to give a name to, ever tried to read a paperback while using the other hand to eat a piece of cake? As near to can’t be done as can be, unless one does grievous and irreversible damage to the book’s spine. And even I don’t have the shovel hands necessary to comfortably read a hardcover with just one hand.

Has this person ever been in a chilly room, with gloves on, trying to read a book? Or in any kind of a reading situation whatsoever, outside a lectern, with Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History or some similar Labradoodle crusher of a book?

Has this person ever frowned and glanced at the page numbers, just to see if he turned two pages by mistake?

Has this person ever been frustrated by the publisher’s choice of font and font size or, heavens help us, margins or the lack of them?

A paper book has a passing fair interface as long as reading is all you are doing; but “cannot be beat” just is not true. It’s a hallelujah moment of some strength when you can turn a page with a twitch of a finger, and realize there’s no need for the tedious fishing and flicking of pages.

As far as durability goes, a fair point, so far. But where are my rainproof paper books, dammit! Not that e-book readers are waterproof either, but that at least I can imagine happening in ten years or so; I don’t really expect to see a complete paperback set of rain- and liquidproof, easy-to-wipe… wait, I don’t like where this is going. My point is, if you want some new external, material feature in paper books, you have to put it in every single book. If you want a waterproof e-book, you just build a waterproof reader and all your books are waterproof! I admit that while I whimper if I drop a paper book, I fairly scream if my e-book reader drops; but that too is easier to improve because the price of the improvement goes to one single device, instead of every single book you buy. (“A drop survival device in a paperback? Adds five euros to the price? Get out of here!” — “The device costs five euros more; but there’s no danger of nulling your library if you drop it.”)

(As for the objection that an e-book reader is not a casual object, really, as you regret losing one a whole lot more than you’d cuss over misplacing a paperback — well, the prices are coming down. Being ignorant of the finer aspects of technology, I don’t see a reason why e-book readers shouldn’t be priced the same as hardcover books are now, eventually. One can get really casual with a twenty-euro device; even with a fifty-euro device, to see how people treat their mp3 players. And of course in any sane world to lose one’s reader wouldn’t be to lose one’s library; any sane system would have backups on your computer, and coupons to reload your purchases; maybe your ur-library would be floating on a cloud somewhere; who knows. How about your paper library’s resistance to fire, floods and theft?)

Another example: “The e-book is a brutally simple mass consumption product that has nothing to do with books or literature. A real book is a philosophical object which” — ah, fuck it, need to place my head in a corner and take deep breaths.

What is a book, anyway?

Is it this papery shell, nothing more? Is bindings and paper all a book is? Are the covers that by which one judges if something is literature or… a mass consumption product? Is it this leafy body which is to be the sole judge of a book’s worth and station; this shell, this incidental piece of pigment and cardboard, and not the soul that beats within? Are the covers that which to judge the book by, really? Does a book’s material birth matter more than the mind within? Is that all?

You, dear lady, are a container racist. (Eh, M-of-E, overreach much?)

I’m pretty sure there are e-books of real literature, too; I don’t think they lose anything essential in transition. Sure, there are breathtakingly pretty, and in my part dizzyingly greed-inspiring, editions of classics and other books; but I’d guess the “common editions” of most books don’t need to be precious objects worthy of display and possession. Some books are disappointments. Some books are stinkers. Some books are made to be read once; others, zero point two times and not more. Some books you just read and then move on. It would be stupid to obtain each in the form of an object worthy of veneration; that’s an honor to be reserved to the books that one treasures and wishes to have around; one’s anchors, one’s talismans, one’s treasures. That’s what paper books should be: not something to be spat out in masses and then pulped if they don’t sell, but precious singular objects that create an altar-mirror which reflects your tastes, delights and desires.

Maybe this would be a fitting future model: Buy an e-book; read it. If you like it, order an individually printed paper version of it, in a font and paper size of your choice, with a cover of your choice, to be a part of your “altar-mirror”. And if you really want to underline your attachment, don’t do such a simple order from some future version of Lulu; invest a bit more in a hand-bound volume. (I’d guess that a bookbinder, given some simple access to printed sheets, could do work like this for a few hundred euros or so. That’s a fair price for a centerpiece.) Who knows, one might even take the sheets and engage in some bookbinding with one’s own hands! (Which I say with a chuckle, because it’s harder than it seems.)

Some books are philosophical objects to some people; but most books are, for most people, not philosophical objects but consumption objects. It’s a bit of a wasteful ad-hoc system that each book is produced as a potential philosophical object; would be much better to make books as consumption objects and trust that those who want a special edition will create a market for them.

Because I’m a foolish optimist, I trust that publishers would not be anal-oral-ouroborosed idjits, and would allow the “localization in paper” and “sheet printing for a fee” that the smooth making of these individualised memorial copies would require; there after all is a copier-sized machine already that can make a cheap paperback.

No reason some such device shouldn’t be one half of any bookstore of the future: the place of printing, and a shelf of examples of varying levels of intricateness and expense, plus objects from binders overseas. The store could also sell the reader devices, and provide one sure port into whichever way e-books would be delivered through; also technical advice and “navigational help” — Amazon is already a daunting experience if you don’t quite know what you want. No doubt there would be a few devices for the in-store use of visitors that happened to leave their own home (“Forget me own head next!”) and still wanted to check what was new. (Or, and this idea really excites me, sheets and small “zines” of e-paper that would turn their internal ink globules with a touch of a data pointer, and become introductory displays for different books du jour. And, frankly, by such a point in history, e-books would have color and wouldn’t mind if you smashed them with a hammer; they would be as much scary technological objects as a flashlight is.)

A lot of what I’m trying to say is, I think, that some paper books are precious, but that preciousness depends a lot on the content and the person who reads it, not on the material itself; and most paper books are instantiated as material-philosophical object manifestation thingamajics merely because there has been no more convenient way to deliver and consume them. Now that one such way is coming, it’s not all that sensible to grow sentimental over one’s ratty Tom Clancy paperbacks.

(Not that “a philosophical object” equals a hardcover — come to think of it, I think I’ll be back to the business of manhandling a printer and a straight-cutter and swearing a lot, because I suddenly have a craving for a small, slim copy of Fungi from Yuggoth that I could carry in a breast pocket; one sonnet per page, or so. This is the hour when moonstruck poets know / What fungi sprout in Yuggoth, and what scents / And tints of flowers fill Nithon’s continents — ah!)

It’s not that e-books are consumption trash and a miscarriage of scientistic modernism, and paper books precious mystical ur-objects of intimate worth; no. The more exact point is, I think, nothing so dismissive: paper books are not the best possible system, except for the books that you personally love and revere, or just tangibly desire. Most books ought to be casual things, casual pleasures, and e-books are just that. Not trash or evil, but just casual, easy, fairly floatsome. And paper books ought to be personal decisions of keeping, not of acquiring; weekend horses instead of the car you ride to work; luxuries instead of casualties. (Luxury-ities? Casualities?) It’s a mistake to cast the thing as a battle of a holy classical thing versus a low-brow new modern one, or as convenience food versus French cooking. There is no such supposed “universal difference”; only the difference between “my casual” and “my precious”; or at most between two neutral tools, one fit for one purpose, and another best fit for a different one. (Myself I’d take a plate of chopped sausage and fries from a grill over French cooking any day; also, I have no interest at all in Paulo Coelho but give me Stephen King and hot shit we’re cooking.)

Compare this — if you buy a bottle of really fine whiskey, you value the packaging, too; all the carving and shaping and fine design in it, because it is an object of intense, nearly ritual pleasure; or so my brother the whiskey enthusiast says. He certainly uses the bottles, whether empty or not, as decorative pieces, as symbols of pleasure. But when you buy milk, you don’t really want it in a glass carafe, do you?

(Just to be fair, the comments mutilated above were from Juha Kuisma, an author, and Akuliina Saarikoski, a journalist. And come to think of it, I ended up agreeing with the second, in a way. Gettin’ in a steaming analytical rage does that, sometimes. My own opinions are those of Mr. M-of-Eris, a grad student of math and a ne’er-do-well netling. And as for libraries, they are holy inviolate temples of the written word, and as sacred as any place in a godless world can be, no matter how that contradicts everything I’ve written above.)

What the hell…?

October 28, 2010

Who does this kind of shit? There’s a university in the city of Oulu, Finland; the university has a ylioppilaskunta, or a student union. Said union happened to opine a while ago, because of two ugly assaults on gays in the city, outside a semi-gay-bar, that it was actually okay with gays, and would like to see a bit of tolerance and communal spirit; nothing surprising or controversial there, but just the common decency of smart people who say what they think.

And now some troglodyte has thrown a few Molotov cocktails at their office, and spray-painted a fenceful of slurs and threats nearby. (Yle news, in Finnish)

Well, slurs I assume, since the news articles don’t bother repeating them and the pictures I’ve seen show such shoddy, abominably horrid canwriting that “death” and “gay” are all I can make out. Must be a character rejected by Clown College because he couldn’t write his own name.

And the bottles of gasoline failed to start a fire, too. Nothing but a bit of soot on the doorframe. Wouldn’t you guess it, the caveman prats are inept too.

I’m pretty shaken by this; I was in a conference there just a few months ago, and… well, Molotov cocktails? Spray-painted slurs? No threatening letters nor gesticulating yellers, nothing of the usual petty harassment, but straight to such massive vandalism? Fuck, why can’t these fucking idiots stay in their own local bar, enlarging their livers and passing their stupid neophobe hatred back and forth until an ulcer kills them? Isn’t their stupid name-calling sullen enmity enough anymore?

Then again, can’t imagine that even the vandal’s Creationist grandmother would be happy about this; it takes a special kind of a homophobe, usually a young, angry male kind, to go from sniffs and slurs into something like this. I hope the bastard is caught and fucked with a black rubber dick. (This is not currently a part of the Finnish penal code, but write to your particular Parliament member now.)

And in the inimitable fashion of student organizations everywhere, head honcho (pääsihteeri) Lauri Sainio isn’t intimidated either (he may be shaken, but he ain’t stirred): “This act absolutely won’t shut us up. Our chosen refrain stays the same: we still will have tolerance and community spirit.” (Tämä teko ei missään nimessä vaienna ylioppilaskunnan suuta, vaan aiomme jatkaa valitsemallamme linjalla. Vaadimme yhä edelleen suvaitsevaisuutta ja yhteisöllisyyttä.)

Keep going, Oulu, and keep your spirits up; they are dying kind, and each generation has less of these Neanderthals; they’re angry because they are walking dead looking for a grave and don’t know it yet; eventually we will bury them and their particular stupidity will be no more. (Well, outside the set of measure zero which is the set of raving lunatics stuck in past and out of time.)

Hobbit dystopia

October 27, 2010

So. Have seen in the news lately that the Hobbit films — made by Peter Jackson, of the book by J.R.R. Tolkien, both of which are names worth a closer familiarity — seem to be headed for a making in New Zealand after all. The harps of the actors’ organizations have not been heard stronger than the golden ring of a cascade of 1.5 billion dollars into the national economy; the movie is in the making once again.

Or, er, the movies. A Hobbit, in two parts.

Which is a fine point to begin scaring the informed reader shitless.

Where do you cut the Hobbit in two? (You orcs in the back row: the book, not the diminutive humanoid. That’s cut in two along the spinal cord, okay?) Because, by the usual rules of movie-making, there seems to be a certain want to end a movie with a bang. Where’s that?

The book has 19 chapters. The Misty Moutains orc encounter ending in the eagle escape seem like the earliest possible spot (6 and 13 chapters per movie), though it’s a bit too early; the escape from the Elvenking (9 and 10 chapters) seems the latest possible point. (If you go beyond that, the Laketown scenes would make a really tedious epilogue, blathering of the details that are the subject of the second movie. If you let the dwarves reach the mountain, you’re running out of stuff for the second movie, and still won’t find an ending with a satisfying bang.) Actually, the only other spot I can think of would be when the dwarves are dragged inside the Elvenking’s little fortress (8 and 11); much like the Two Towers ends with a hobbit (Sam) companion-separated and in severe distress.

Not that I have, cat-burglar-like (Garfield, more like) snuck into Peter Jackson’s Cabinet of Scripts, but I’m pretty willing to bet the split will be at the end of the Mirkwood adventures; it’ll let the first movie end with the Lonely Mountain in view, and the second start with a situation check in Laketown. The elf escape is not a particularly battlesome action sequence, but it lets the coward burglar shine; and the first movie will inevitably be an episodic exposition of a hobbit’s growth anyway. The second movie can then be about the proper disposal of a dragon.

Here’s a panic button: can there really be a movie like the book — one with, now that I think about it, without a single female character? (I think if I’m missing someone, it’s a someone credited as “Female Elf #2”.) More importantly, can there really be a movie without a romantic subplot and erotic tension, no matter how much this is a movie based on a book for the young uns. I think the appearance of Candy, a plucky Hobbit maiden that left Fili tied in a broom closet, is fairly unlikely; as is the appearance of Radagasta the fetching wizardess, wife to Gandalf. (The sound you heard was a fan aneurysm.) But how safe are we from a Dis, a female dwarf (“Dwarf women have beards!”) substituted for one of the dwarves?

Personally I think the right amount of sexual tension could be achieved by having the climax of part one be a homosexual ritual gay orgy of thirteen hairy dwarves; but I fear the cinema-going public is not ready for that, yet. (“Surprise midget porn!”)

Traditionally, a movie isn’t danger, danger, biggest danger. Movies tend to go flunky, sub-boss, the boss of them all. The Hobbit — the first film certainly — will have all manner of dangers that are not directly connected to Smaug the Dragon, the danger at the end of the road. It just seems so likely, so movie-like, to insert a line of “These mountains a fecking immense distance away from Smaug have become wild and dangerous since Smaug came a few centuries ago, which inexplicably hadn’t been communicated to me yet. We must be careful.”

If any connection can be made among the various dangers, it’s to the nameless shadow of Sauron, the anonymous Necromancer of Dol Guldur in Mirkwood. Which will be another interesting point: how to handle Sauron, nameless and almost unidentified at the tale’s edge, without lapsing into a ten-minute story dump about someone who’s just a storytelling excuse. (Gandalf: “I need to leave you on an urgent business. Have care in that ominous wood.” — “I am back, well timed! I and a few of my mates ousted a Necromancer from a fastness. Also, tea and crumpets. You’ve dealt with the dragon already, jolly good. Now a final crisis!”)

Then again, the Hobbit is a story that, already being episodic, could (in my opinion and fan-atic desire) very well include “flashbacks” to dwarvish history — not just to how the Dragon came, but to the falling fortunes of Thorin Oakenshield’s family. Including how his grandfather Thror tried to recover Moria, the ancient delving of Khazad-Dum, instead of the Mountain lost to the Dragon, and was killed by Azog the Orc; and how that led to war, slaughter, and a bitter victory, but not to the recovery of Moria as something already within blanched the only dwarf to look in its portal. Including how Thorin’s father, Thrain, went wandering, and was lost, and was found by Gandalf in a dark and terrible place. Each could be a thirty-second flashback; but since the story is already episodic (the Troll Episode, the Elrond Episode, the Mountain Giant Episode, etc.), it wouldn’t terribly hurt, in my openly ignorant opinion, to have a few episodes from the past, either.

And, ah, I referred to Smaug as “the danger at the end of the road”? Not quite true; so how will a movie handle building up a threat that doesn’t appear in the first movie, and is disposed of halfway through the second one? If they try to combine Smaug’s death and the Battle of the Five Armies… well, then my head will explode, because the Siege of the Mountain becomes something of a farce if the dragon’s still lurking round somewhere. (“Well apparently the Dragon flew away. Possibly to gather an army of Orcs. Now let’s bicker about whose gold this all is!”)

Finally, what about the unfriendly bits? The dwarves are utter shits towards Bilbo from time to time, and it’s an actually glorious moment of deeply felt desire when Thorin near loses it over the Arkenstone; the Elvenking is a prejudiced little shit with not an ounce of trust in him; the Lakemen are more motivated by greed than by anything else, and Bard doesn’t like that dwarves at all; Beorn is a right dangerous character; and towards the end most everyone wants to kill, rob or do both to the others. I hope that all remains. That’s drama. (Also possibly something typical in children’s fiction of English origin; but not an area of my expertise so no more of that.)

Ah, dang you, Peter Jackson, get filming it already! And find a way to make the audiences have a repetitive cashflow hemorrhage so we can have a HBO Silmarillion too! (Sigh, no; but one can hope, no? What I wouldn’t give to see Feanor’s face bright and mad by the glow of burning ships in Lammoth; Fingolfin shining like a star at Melkor Morgoth’s feet; the werewolf wizard demon Thu Sauron’s shadow of delusion and fear slipping through the forests of Dorthonion; Luthien Tinuviel singing in the lightless depths of Thangorodrim; Beren saying “This very moment I do hold the Silmaril in my hand”, and the court recoiling in horror; a storm of balrogs and dragons crawling over the burning walls of Gondolin; Maglor and Maedhros and the final desolation of the Feanori; one hundred more scenes and quotes — but, sad to say, not likely to happen until computer tomfoolery gets a whole lot cheaper still, and not worth happening until someone wants to do it right. And no, no points for guessing if I was of a particularly impressionable age when I first got hold of that book, and it got a hold of me. I’ve been looking for more of the same ever since.)

(In a less serious fashion, there’s this idea: I would also love an anime of the Silmarillion, with all the histrionics, panty shots and implausibly large weaponry that that implied. Wouldn’t be all that loyal to the feel of the original, but who of us doesn’t want to see Morgoth stepping out of Angband to meet the Elf-king’s challenge, as massive, ancient and menacing as Nausicaa’s God Warrior? And Ichigo Kuro— err, Fingolfin there, full of fury and without a shred of hope. Who of us doesn’t want to — well, the sour unadventurous types, that’s who. Miscegenate your obsessions, people!)

Church memory

October 27, 2010

Sometimes things seems to work like this —

1930 — The Church has always been for women not being second-class citizens. Even if they’re a tad flighty, eh, nudge nudge, old boy? Verra central in the Bible, and Jesus said so. Had plenty of girls round him, right-o? And natchurally people of color and we white people are equal in the eyes of the Lawd, in the eyes of the Lawd way of speaking; just have faith that there’s a distinction there. And democracy… well, it’s okay, provided people understand such things don’t need to go everywhere. Not like the non-male non-white non-Christian types have much to say anyway, eh? A hur hur! Science, now, that’s complex thing. Lots of stuff in it. Funny looking rocks mostly, I understand. Keep talkin’ and look what happens; might be this evolutiomationary thing’s not all that hot really. But this “free speech” thing, we don’t need no such thing. If someone wants to say something offensive, why should my little lady’s ears be burdened with it?

1960 — The Church has always been for the equality of races and sexes. That all human beings, save atheists sodomites and dirty furriners, are equal before God is a central value of the Bible, as taught by Jesus! Democracy among us civilized people is indispensable, naturally; have faith in God and in democracy, and all with work out. The Church is for science, provided people understand there are lots of things men are not meant to know. Hey! You godless Darwinist, gedda oudda Miss-siss-sippah! Erm, sorry. Free speech is a complex issue with many faces to it; too complex for you actually, so thus this book is banned. Must be so, for your neighbors think so; and they are decent folks. And in closing: it is an abomination unto the Lawd for a man to love a man as a man loves a woman.

1990 — The Church has always been for democracy and human rights. Universal human rights are a central value of the Bible, as taught by Jesus! Science is indispensable; and it can never be in conflict with faith. (Possibly not even in contact!) The Church is for free speech, fight the power, yo, provided people understand to respect all things holy and shiny and older than they. This is my Jesus; you can’t touch this, you atheist type. Gay marriage is a complex issue with many faces to it. Jesus said, I am the way and no-one comes to the Father save by me.

2020 — The Church has always been for science. Remember the great religious scientists, like Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei! Science is a central value of the Bible, as taught by Jesus! Free speech is indispensable; and it can never be in conflict with faith. The Church is all for gay marriage, provided people understand to respect the Church and don’t get too gay. (Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but… but just don’t.) The question of a “right religion” is a complex issue with many faces to it; this Hell thing is antiquated, really. You’re not going there even if you’re a Buddhist or a… ick… an atheist. But there is a God! For sure! Promise!

2050 — The Church has always been for free speech. Free speech is a central value of the Bible, as taught by Jesus! Say what you want! Even about Jesus! And gay marriage, marriage for everyone, is indispensable, has always been; and it can never be in conflict with faith. The Church is all for everyone choosing their own path, own religion or none; don’t matter if it’s not ours; just don’t shit on our space lawn okay? The question of God’s existence is a complex issue with many faces to it.

2080 — The Church has always been for gay marriage. Marriage for all regardless of race, creed or sexual orientation is a central value of the Bible, as taught by Jesus! And choosing your own way is indispensable, the very heart of religion; such a thing can never be in conflict with true faith; St. Morbo says so. The Church is all for there being no God; it’s no biggie; just don’t… don’t say it, okay?

2110 — The Church has always been for choosing your own way! Believe what you want is a central value of the Bible, as taught by Jesus! But here in the church, not believing in a God is indispensable, the very heart of modern religion; the eternal ethical teachings of religion have nothing whatsoever to do with this silly God character.

2140 — The Church has always been for space-atheism. Space-atheism and humanist ethics, a compassion centred on us being human, peace and love, are the central value of the Bible, as taught by Jesus!

2170 — The Church… wait, how come you all agree with the Church about everything? About all the things the Church has always taught? It’s… Oh. Oh, hallelujah! The evangelical mission is over! All Earth and adjacent planets are converted! Now it is the time for… for the Second… for the Kingdom… oh, for tea and space crumpets I suppose.

Realistic gods for fantasy literature

October 27, 2010

Here’s an idea.

When fantasy has gods, those gods tend to be quite clear-cut: either they’re good gods of all the modern virtues, or then abysmal villains.

Now, permit me to annoy you by taking an atheist point, and considering Yahweh, the Old Testament God, as he is written. He’s not a nice guy; you know the Dawkins words on that. You could paint Yahweh as a villain, if you were of a mind to write a novel of historical fantasy that would really piss off huge amounts of people; but don’t stop at that. Think instead about a god — or in the more general model of fantasy, gods — that are not so simple and agreeable.

Say there’s the mostly good god Eksa Amble, who is all for justice, taking care of your family, speaking out against evil… and also for the idea that all women are soulless semi-animals that can be bought, sold and mistreated any which way a man wants. And since this is fantasy, Eksa Amble really exists. He answers prayers. He hands out revelations. He can be consulted in person, and he tells the questioner that yes, that’s really his opinion; now away you soulless animal person. How would people behave as this went on and on? How would the society adapt?

(It would be a story to make you wash your hands if that god was actually right in the world of the story; also a story to make a lot of other people wash their hands as people tend to not understand writing Draka or Rage don’t mean you yourself support or see things like the story’s world is. That’s the mistake of a ham-fisted moralist. So for the purposes of this post, let’s assume that gods are idealists, and don’t always see the story’s world as it is, but more like how they’d like it to be.)

A carefully constructed story would have some cousin of Eksa Amble in it; morals and ethics are a horrendously involved and messy thing, after all. What’s the chance that a medieval god would make the exact same calls of judgment and value as we modern folks? Or remain carefully obscure about the same uncomfortable subjects? What’s Manwe’s position on divorce? How about Aldur on abortion? What about Paladine and euthanasia? Or Aslan and homosexuality?

What does it exactly mean when a fantasy god is said to be some vague Light, or the Good One? It’s a poor god whose only position is “er, find a farm boy and strike down the Dark One before the world is destroyed”. Most every real religion has more than that: rules about what is okay, what is good, and what’s a sin. Rules about the relation of man and god; rules about the relation of man and man. (Mostly they’re against it. Sorry; abominable joke.) Most rules differ. I understand these things are liable to cause an uproar if written since many readers don’t come to fantasy to see familiar moral conflicts rehashed in unfamiliar guises, especially conflicts their particular opinion doesn’t come out from well (and there’s no pleasing everyone; sometimes not even pleasing a commercial enough plurality); but it would be nice to see someone taking this idea of morally more explicit gods and riding it, seeing how such an explicit force of neutral order influences the people of the story.

(Just not Orson Scott Card. I don’t need to see a homophobe god who’s written earnestly. It’s nice that some authors have either the sense, editor or aversion necessary for not airing their prejudices too much in their fiction. I have a nasty suspicion, but I’m not going to depress myself by looking for a quote, that if Tolkien had been of the mind, he could have turned every single gay off enjoying his writings forever; but Gandalf didn’t opine about the matter.)

(Somewhat unrelated: somewhere round the net there’s a piece of fan fiction that has Sauron-Annatar and Celembrimbor the ring-maker as gay lovers. I understand it is graphic. Good old Catholic Professor Tolkien would no doubt spray his pipeweed across half Oxford if he was still around to know.)

(And why yes, of course I intend to re-find and read that piece sooner or later. I don’t read even nearly enough gay sex lit for variety as it is; I’m not going to find a pairing more likely to fire up my little hetero heart. Legolas, blecch, an elf without a character; but Sauron in a fair guise and Celebrimbor, a working scion of great and gone sires in a time of great doubt and promise? Oh yes; there’s a setting for some drama. And bodily fluids. Also, just possibly, abominable puns about rings.)

Come to think of it, someone with too much free time should find out how the personal moral stances of an author are reflected in the Good Gods they write. I understand Terry Goodkind, an Objectivist, writes stuff that has pretty uncommon morals, and no tolerance for pacifists and victims; myself, I think that makes his books all the more interesting. I’ve read the first four or five; and I loved not knowing just what the “good guys” would choose next. With standard fantasy you pretty much know they won’t abandon their friends, rape, murder the helpless, or the like; good morals no doubt, but the story gets so predictable at times because the sanctity of the heroes needs to be preserved, and the world bends round them rather than them making hard choices.

Actually, I think it’s almost disgusting to see yet another medieval world whose good gods are like card-carrying bleeding-heart Amnesty International humanists. Which, by the way, I say as an Amnesty International humanist (the bleeding was just for emphasis); shoehorning our own ideas in just to be comfortable with the cosmology you make seems not entirely unrelated to how some paintings tend to show Jesus as a blond, blue-eyed devil of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant type. Comfort and unambiguous cheerleading are overrated, if you ask me. People are nuanced enough to cheer Darth Vader even when they don’t think genocide’s a-okay.

But back to the subject of gods in fantasy.

Another thing: being all-powerful is a concept likely to kill the mind of logic; and it isn’t interesting plotting, either. This is quietly acknowledged in quite all fantasy; the gods are Greek instead of Christian; or at most Manichaean, a Good God against an Evil One, both equal in power. There needs to be some tension so the Good God can’t just intone “Let there be a Happy Ending”, and have it be so. (I don’t understand Christian fiction, really; isn’t it predicated on God being too lazy to do the stuff himself? He just whispers his will from the sidelines, confident in omnipotency that he will always win, one way or the other. Where’s the tension in such a set-up? If God wants you to win, you will; if not, you are screwed no matter what you do. The whole thing’s a rat race of the ignorant and the obliging.)

Now, there are a few observations that strike me, the atheist, as important. The first is that a fantasy with gods in it is not a situation like the real world. This real world of ours has no gods; or at best, has only fairly mute and restrained ones. No matter how the Pope asks, his God will not write the law in letters of fire on the sky; He merely whispers. The vast majority of us knows this is the case. No matter how a preacher calls for it, no unambiguous wrath of God crushes a place disagreeable to that preacher’s God; the preacher can only point at a disaster, and find explanations for it afterwards. We all kind of understand this is how things work, though we don’t always express it so. If those truly miraculous things really happened, if a God or gods were really, actively, openly responsive, people would behave much differently. To start with:

  • More orthodoxy. When a heretic is liable to be struck by lightning — or just to be given a talking-to by the Big Boss — there’s less wiggle room for variant interpretations and no room for splitters. (Then again, “accidents” full of supposed portent have always happened to inconvenient people; but a bolt of lightning from a clear sky is no accident.) Those that didn’t speak in the god’s voice but used the name would face a fate like an unlicensed Starbucks, or a “McDonnald” cafeteria with a golden double arch; except with more fire and gnashing of teeth.
  • More clarity. The god still might not answer all questions: who’s to say a god of this model would even be all-knowing and all that? For terror, imagine Yahweh staring at his sandals, muttering “I never thought about that before; but stoning-wise it would be…” But answers or no, at least people would be more sure which sayings were genuine, or accurate. (But would it be wise to use the god as a copy editor?)
  • More focus. Whether the god remained a voice from the light, or sat on a real throne somewhere, there would be a greater sense of someone really paying attention to things. Imagine a few soldiers gathered for a prayer… when a clearly audible voice and a great light appears. Think they would fight harder? (And soldiers with a god on their side might be supernaturally better, too.) How about if an incarnation, a “child of god”, possibly a bearded teacher chap in white, appeared to cheer and lead some particular endeavor? Imagine the Crusades with a physical, miracle-working Jesus leading them, with the Pope and Richard Lionheart by his side. (Imagine the clash when Saladin steps aside and a fellow with a veiled face and a flying horse steps forward, archangels flanking him, and hovering behind him the black stone mountain of Mecca following the Prophet of the Only God — wait, this perversion is getting too weird.)
  • More strife. Tolerance is easy when the gods stay hidden; as the soldiers of WWI could have a bit of unofficial armistice at the Western Front now and then, so religious people all through the ages have found it possible to not smite, convert and shun the infidel, because there hasn’t been someone breathing down their neck. What if those that meddled with outsiders had their blessings withdrawn? Real religions tend to place their rewards more and more into the supposed life after death; what if too much ecumenicism made demons boil out the ground and eat you alive? What if your god really openly told even the moderates that he (or she, or it) really wants this holy war; or wants the infidels expelled, even the dear and financially indispensable ones; or, to not be all gloomy, will not have the foreign ones hassled all the time. (“My god says it would be disrespect to yours to try to convert you.”) Holy wars, and holy detente?
  • Celestial politics. Suppose a pantheon of gods, each with a different “field of work”. People will then offer different prayers to each; but because there’s actual tangible fulfillment riding on these prayers, people would hone ways to pray to the right particular god in a particular right way, or to set gods off against each other to get the best results. (“Justitia, attend to me; give me a fair deal in my dealings. Chaotica, give me your scattershot charm: give me the answer I desire, and take your throw in return; whatever price the stars and the dice decree for your answer.”) Even if there was just one god per nation, there could still be some blackmail from below: a god that doesn’t keep his subjects numerous and happy will be left all alone by more warlike and numerous religions. (Or then a religion that you don’t leave — not because of thugs or isolation or threats of hellfire, but because of the god half a mile high that hears every word you say… and wants worship!)
  • Trouble with morals. Is it moral because a god will instantly incinerate you with a gout of hellfire if you don’t do it? Or will the instant-hellfiring occur because that thing would be good, and hence a god’s fire patrols its observance? Would morals ever change while there was someone affirming them who was more than a rubber stamp for the times? Or, given that the gods would not be omnipotent, would they be unchanging either? (Mind you, if we take Jesus seriously, he certainly is a changing god. Any century of Christianity would no doubt be happy to burn all the following ones as witches and depraved heretics.) And finally, what if one’s god and conscience were in conflict, and there was no hope of reforming the former into the latter’s image? A lot of bitterly unhappy individuals and societies, or a religious Stockholm syndrome? Could there be a revolt against not a religious authority or organization, but against an actual living, talking, walking, thunder-wielding, loud-spaking God? If a revolt, then how about a Magna Carta?
  • What about faith, then? You don’t believe in a god whose existence is self-evident. Makes as much sense to believe in a fork. The point is then whether one serves the god or not; to a believer there’s not much difference between the belief mode and the servitude mode, though. More to the point, there would be no atheism, because Flat Earth atheism is a trope because it is bloody stupid. If a god really openly exists and is involved, denying such a god’s existence would be about as bright as denying the moon. There would then instead be those that cried non serviam, those that would not serve. Their fortunes would depend on the particular god’s vindictiveness and possessiveness. (Or, if there were several gods, maybe a balance of terror of some kind would create “godless zones” where none of the gods was allowed to exercise his or her powers for the fear of setting off a religious war. Or maybe “atheists” would be the only acceptable intermediaries between fractious gods? Or some particular class of people were unacceptable to a god, and hence actively discouraged from worship?)

Come to think of it, this model would make a god more and more like some Oriental tyrant of Akkad or Persia; then again, I’ve heard it said that’s where a lot of our ideas of how gods ought to be comes, from the way servants addressed the king and yokels thought of him and his power. (There’s a whole lot of Christian hymns that would do just fine for a groveling address to a Sargon or a Xerxes.) Which is not a particularly relevant end to this post, unless you twist it round to this thought: modern fantasy’s gods tend to be modern gods of extraordinary vagueness and generic benevolence, and at work in a world which is not a world of real, active gods; there might be something interesting in marching out a few explicit Sky Sargons and seeing how the sparks fly.

And it strikes me that John Scalzi’s God Engines is a nice little example of something like this; there no doubt are dozens of others, but I am ignorant and have an abominable memory, so this is all.

The predictable Ubuntu joke post

October 26, 2010

From Lucid Lynx, my ideas fly to thee —

  • Maverick Meerkat
  • Noontime Nurgle
  • Orgasmic Origami
  • Punctilious Phrensy
  • Quivering Quylthulg
  • Restless Raper
  • Sexy Sadducee
  • Testy Testes
  • Urinating Umber-Hulk
  • Varicose Vampire
  • Weary Willy
  • XXX Xenophile
  • Yucky Yeerk
  • Zipped Zygote

— and then I think, “Wait, it’s this personal taste thing again, isn’t it?”

Vatican Atheists

October 26, 2010

Funny, really: I try my best to think up something relevant to say on Pharyngula, and this is what I come up with:

* * *

Rashbam at #7:

Not bad, but I won’t be impressed until PZ finds an atheist organization within Vatican City.

“And the Vatican Atheists meeting is now in session. What do we have for today?”

“The T-shirt business.”

“I keep telling you, don’t I, that T-shirts are impossible.”

“Well for you sure, you wear that cassock everywhere you go.”

“Beats having everyone ask who I am. Computer support casual stands out here, but nobody notices one more order. And how neat is this, a USB stick in a crucifix! Next time I’m asking them for a CAT cable in a rosary.”

“I still can’t believe you got a robe requisition through for ‘the Order of St. Noname’.”

“I told them he was Japanese. Noname Isoroku, a martyr of something or the other. Do you really think they keep track of all the saints? The reason there are so many Marys is they never can keep ’em straight. Anyway, it’s easy for you to say, you walking round in that clown costume.”

“Clown costume? The Swiss guard uniform is not a clown costume!”

“Ha— oh, the third member comes.”

“Sorry guys I’m late. Oh sheez the day.”

“What took so long?”

“Business, business, always the business. You wouldn’t believe the kind of shaite I get bothered with. Petty, trivial stupid pap shaite. Makes me wanna scream. Two four six eight, time to transsubstantiate, the whole lot. You’d think people could do something on their own, no, they all come to bother me. I swear I would quit if not for the shoe allowance.”

“Right on, Ratzi.”

“Shut up, you and that stupid cassock of yours. Go fix my iPod. Either it works, or I excommunicate Steve Jobs.”

“Jobs’s Buddhist.”

“Do I look like I care?”

The three-modem trap

October 26, 2010

“Nharrr.”

That’s the sound I let out yesterday at about 5 p.m., looming over a computer hardware shelf in Not-Often-Visited SuperMarket X.

The reason was I had noticed, all of a sudden, that Not-Often-Visited SuperMarket X happened to sell modems; something I hadn’t quite realized before. It happened, in fact, sell exactly the kind of a modem I had post-ordered a few days ago, sure that that would be the quickest way.

Also, the exact kind of a modem that had let its magic smoke loose a week ago, and that I had sent back for inspection and possible repair or replacement. Which did mean that in a day or two I would get a brand new modem, and then hopefully a few days later the old one back.

The reason? Aw shucks, in a university town I can always sell a modem. There are all the time new ones who notice that, no, actually they can’t live an austere, Internet-free life after all. But to have the new one post-ordered and the old one in repair… if I bought this one off the shelf, I would have my connection back 24 hours earlier than otherwise. Maybe even 48 hours earlier if the post dawdled. But then I’d have to sell two modems… maybe a raffle or a competition of some kind?

“Hi baby. Wanna have some good time? There’s a 50-euro modem in it for you…”

After a minute of thinking of this, I shook my head and walked away. Three modems is too much for a single man.

(Oh, and as to where I write this from — well, I said university town, didn’t I?)

That Old Time Religion, in Finland

October 26, 2010

Over on Pharyngula, Finland comes up; and do I link to my scrawlings on the people leaving the Lutheran Church? No, I pen the below bit on ancient Finnish religion, since Valhalla, that boorish Norse thing, came up —

* * *

No, no Valhalla for Finns.

Though, being a Finn, I still don’t recall what the traditional afterlife was. Though no doubt it involved alcohol; wouldn’t be much of an afterlife otherwise. (Somewhere away from those Viking types, though. They, the barbarians, have no consideration for the fact that sometimes a man just has to brood gazing into the dark forest for a month or two. The inconsiderate sons-of-elderberries.)

Now let me think. There was Ukko, the chief god, and Akka his wife — through some quirk of language the words nowadays mean “Old Chap/Fart” and “Old Crone/Witch”. Then there were naturally gods and spirits for every nook and cranny, including sauna gnomes, who are the reason the stove screams when you throw water on it. (Not really.) There was Tapio, god of the forest, and his wife Mielikki; the former is nowadays a brand of vodka, and the second a goddess in D&D’s Forgotten Realms. Then there were doppelgängers and evil elvses and things that went “u hur hur fresh meat!” in the night, and bears were all gods, naturally, gods so holy it would have been a terrible thing to say their true name. What the true name was, I have no clue; this is the problem when you don’t say something in a pre-literate society.

Also, though the bear was holy and the king of all animals and the like, of course you were still allowed to hunt and eat it. You just made the feast into a funeral for it, and nailed its skull high up to a tree to look down at any who passed by. (“Hello! I bring news of the God Christ!” — “Is he edible too?”)

Oh, now I recall. The Finnish afterlife and underworld was Tuonela, also called Manala; it’s a dark and lifeless place where the dead sleep. Not waiting to wake up; they just sleep. And will probably gnaw your head off if you go gallivanting there like some fool Orpheus. (This gnawing is a guess based on Finnish nature, not a true real religious fact.) Also there were iron pikes (as in the fish) because what’s an otherworld without a monster or two; and it was a gloomy sunless underground place of hopeless silence and a few brooding faceless gods, though still marginally better than Helsinki during wintertime.

The Finnish creation myth is as universal as to need no elaboration beyond a few keywords: Chaos. Water. Duck. Knee. Egg. Omelet. World. After that, things proceeded as usually. (Those that want to know more, consult any of the several English translations of Kalevala. The Bosley translation from OUP is pretty nice.)

Then there was the main folk hero, Väinämöinen, a bearded old shaman bard slash ex-god, who yea did fashion harps (kantele) from the jawbones of pretty damn big fish, extorted wives from the sisters of foolhardy challengers, helped his friends wreck a wedding, battled an iron bird and befuddled a giant, and generally had a great time until oh he just left, but I think he’ll be back just as soon as you leave, okay? It’s kind of nice that the big folk hero is better known for being a heck of a long-bearded singer and knower and finder-out than for butchering a dragon or two.

Then again, there are no dragons in Finnish myths. Probably too cold up north for them. Or it’s them Vikings mumble mumble grumble the property values where’s my endless silence I’m just asking.

* * *

And in closing — the truth is weirder than anything I can come up with. I didn’t know this about Finnish bear-worship: apparently we believed bears had come from the sky, and did reincarnate.

Compared with Tuonela, that’s a better deal than what we Finns got, and it’s our own damn mythology.

Blast.

Edit: As for the question, “Got any believers in this stuff?”, the answer’s the same as for druids and King Arthur for the Brits. Namely, a few, but they tend to be latter-day romantics.