Doctor, Heel Thyself

Back in December, I (speaking as, if not a registered Democrat, then at least as a registered anti-Republican) feared that Trent Lott’s relatively painless ouster from the position of Senate Majority Leader would save the Republicans from the perils of "overreach."  Turns out I needn’t have worried.


Soggy And Hard To Light

Finished it in less than 72 hours.  All my favorite Hogwarts characters were there, Harry expanded his magical arsenal and was less of a wimp than the last time, more intriguing details of the Potterverse were revealed, and Rowling garnished it all with those tasty Briticisms that us culturally insecure Yanks just can’t get enough of.  Yup, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire delivered in all particulars.

What’s that you say?  The "new one"?  Oh, you mean this 870-page doorstop sitting next to my mouse?  Ah, yes.  Haven’t so much as cracked it.

First, a word about hardbacks vs. paperbacks: historically, I’ve done a significant plurality if not a downright majority of my reading on buses.  A further portion of my reading time comes in the interstices surrounding the activities (school, work) to and from which I ride the bus.  These circumstances dictate not only that my books be easily portable but also that they suffer the abrasions of jostling in my satchel with a minimum of degradation.  When you add the consideration of price, paperbacks are the clear winner in almost every case.  On those rare occasions when my anticipation of a new release is so keen that I cannot wait for the paperback, I usually join the queue at one or both of my local library systems, which eventually (often more quickly than I expected) provide me with a hardback edition armored in about a kilo of cellophane, free of both charge and proprietary concern for depreciation.

So what am I doing with a copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix less than a week (or so) after its publication?  Well, my kindly mother was at Amazon selecting Order of the Phoenix to read on holiday in Napa Valley, and she couldn’t resist upping ITEM QTY to 2 and bestowing the second copy on her favorite son.  So why haven’t I dived in or even finished it by now?  Well, the thing is, despite the fact that it’s been over two years since the hardback came out and almost a year since the paperback release, I hadn’t even acquired Goblet of Fire by this week, let alone finished it.  Fortunately, my mother had a paperback edition of Goblet lying around (she must have escaped the hardback hype last time), which I duly borrowed.

Although its comparative length was not irrelevant, my reluctance to pick up Harry Potter #4 had more to do with my uneven satisfaction with #1-3.  Like most geeks I have an enduring relationship with "children’s" fantasy fiction, but I was relatively ignorant of Harry until the publicity machine geared up for the hardback release of Goblet of Fire and the impending film adaptation of Sorcerer’s Stone.  Of course, whatever curiosity I might have had was repelled by my distrust of the hype.  If so many, well, Muggles were into Harry, how good could it be?  My less reflexive friends, however, were unanimous in their praise of Harry, and so I scoured the used bookstores for paperback editions of the first three books.  I plowed through all three in less than two weeks.

I suspect that I did Rowling no favors by compressing three iterations of her increasingly predictable formula into so tight a period.  I quite enjoyed the drawn-out "awakening" process in Sorcerer’s Stone as Harry was tantalizingly introduced to the notion that he really didn’t belong with the Dursleys, but I was dismayed at the prospect of having to endure summer with the Dursleys at the beginning of every book.  By Prisoner of Azkaban, I was grumbling for Harry to be adopted by the Weasleys already and have done with it.  Similarly, the deus ex magica climaxes both undermine Harry as a protagonist and Rowling as a reliable narrator; the closing expositions are just too exhaustive (and exhausting).

An "ethical" mystery is one in which the reader, if she is attentive to all the clues dropped by the author, can reasonably be expected to puzzle out before the author spells it out.  Whether Rowling’s predictable structure is her preferred form or an imposition by her publisher intended to insure a winning formula, it’s possible that Rowling might have tried to off-set this predictability by littering the narrative with apparent red herrings which don’t explain anything until the penultimate chapter when Dumbledore tells us how.  This might be rewarding (if challenging) in a story set entirely in our Muggle world, but when Rowling introduces a brand new spell, artifact, or secret society in every other chapter, and when the characters (all adults, notably) Harry has had every reason to believe are trustworthy turn out to be shapeshifters or otherwise under Voldemort’s control, it’s hard for all but the most juvenile readers not to regard it as cheating.

Any fantasy geek will tell you that it’s not the characters that matter, it’s the world.  To most kids our world is boring, and it only gets more boring the more you learn about it.  It does, however, have the advantage of having rules which more or less apply all the time.  Fantasy worlds are (hopefully) less boring, but it’s difficult to create consistent rules that will allow characters and readers to navigate such worlds meaningfully.  As delightful as the examples of magic in the Potterverse are (and as impressive as they are rendered in their film adaptations), for me they are only as satisfying as they are consistent.

Now, I am perfectly open to the theory that Rowling’s project is the Education of Harry Potter who, like us, was raised by Muggles and is therefore ignorant of the wider magical ecology.  Such a project would necessarily require that the "ways of the world" be revealed gradually, as Harry keeps bumping into assumptions and common knowledge held by the wizard-raised students.  Unfortunately for this project, Lord Voldemort has been hunting Harry as part of his ambition to plunge the wizard world back into chaos since the very first book, and while many of the series’ characters turn a blind eye to this glaring fact, Dumbledore and the other authority figures in whom Rowling has reposed our trust do not.  It would seem, then, that it behooves everyone who would resist Voldemort that Harry is brought up to speed on all the magical politics, personalities, and (duh!) assassination techniques known to wizardkind.  Instead Harry is forced to rely upon partial conversations overheard at the Weasleys’ breakfast table and Hermione’s fitful research efforts.  That Harry is excluded from Dumbledore’s strategy briefings and returned to the mind-numbing wretchedness of Privet Drive every summer might be Rowling’s plan to keep us in childlike wonder throught all seven books, but to me it cannot help but seeming like Rowling’s distrust of the reader to remain interested in an increasing immersion in a complex fantasy world, or her distrust of herself to provide it.

A prime example of Rowling’s "shifting goalposts" is her theory of evil and its reflections in the four Houses at Hogwarts.  One might expect a children’s book to incorporate the perils of first impressions and misleading appearances.  The Durselys and the Malfoys of the world may be vile but they aren’t necessarily murderers.  Yet the whole ceremony of the Sorting Hat is given such a teleological finality (except for, of course, Harry) that we are encouraged to see House as destiny.  I resisted this assumption by resorting to the argument: If Dumbledore permits the House of Slytherin to endure, it can’t be the hotbed of Death Eaters Rowling lets us think it is.  Yet it turns out to be exactly that.  When we have reached the end of the seventh book and Voldemort is finally dead, will the wizard world undergo some sort of post-Nuremburg deSlytherization?  The Malfoy family exterminated, root and branch?  How far does Rowling’s absolutism* extend?

As Harry’s first introduction to the magical realm, Hogwarts is at first presented as the center of the wizard universe.  Oh, we hear about Arthur Weasley’s job at the Ministry, but as "incidents" increase and alumni meddle in Dumbledore’s affairs, Hogwarts seems less like Wrykyn and more like the Battle School.  Then, just when we think we’ve got a handle on the school politics, rivalries, and family connections that will bring about or prevent Voldemort’s return, in Goblet of Fire we are introduced to the fact that there are other wizarding schools, the details of whose allegiance and resources are dribbled out at Rowling’s convenience.  If, viewed over seven volumes, this shaggy owl story turns out to make for a satisfying epic, then Rowling will deserve our applause.  Viewed from the 700-pages-every-other-year perspective, however, it’s hard not to regard each installment with the weariness usually reserved for the lopsided dramatic pacing of NBA games.

Of course, I’m critical of Rowling because I find so much in the Harry series that’s worthwhile, and I wish she’d minimize the ominous-yet-inscrutable omens and mysteries so that I might enjoy the oh-so-scrutable wonders and delights.  The complex ecology of magical beasts and non-human races, the delicate balance of Muggle relations, the clever details of what a given spell will and will not do, and above all, the society-in-miniature that is Hogwarts; to me, these are what make Rowling’s world memorable to child and adult alike, and are what is threatened every time Rowling jiggers with The Rules as she’s written (or omitted to write) them.

So what are my plans for the weekend?  Oh, nothing.

*  I realize that the absolutism in Tolkien (to take a personally favored example) is no less pervasive and appearance-driven than in Rowling, but in Tolkien there are many occasions where characters (almost always Men or Hobbits, tellingly) either rise above or sink beneath expectations and appearances, and non-humans fill arche- or stereotypical roles.  In the Potterverse, the non-humans (Dobby, Myrtle) are the ones to watch for character development, whereas if Ron Weasley or Draco Malfoy ever defy expectations it is certain to be the result of the Imperius curse or some unrevealed (and unhinted at) motivation.


"We Have Both Sports: Hockey And Baseball."

I just started reading Colby Cosh’s blog ("Come for the comix and Diplomacy, stay for the Canadian politics and Quebec-bashing."), and his employer up and dissolves on him.  Leave it to Cosh to make the perfect Simpsons allusion.


Star-Bellied Snitches

I disagree with Porphyrogenitus on a great many things, but he’s spot-on when it comes to Quidditch.

"I Am Not An Algorithm; I Am A Viral Agent!"

So I waited four weeks after the premiere to see The Matrix Reloaded; is that long enough to escape the obligation to give SPOILER warnings?  Probably not.  Go take the red pill and come back.

If I shared many fans’ and critics’ misgivings about the anticipated sequel, it was due to the high expectations set by the first film and hard experience with sequels and "bridge movies."  It’s been almost 30 years since the first summer blockbuster, and our jadedness is approaching the encrustation of the Great Barrier Reef.  It’s hard to fault anyone from pre-concluding that a film so riddled with marketing strategies should have been necessarily hobbled in its ambitions for creative complexity or narrative consistency.  And after Twin Peaks I have always been chary of series whose mythologies were episodic in conception rather than elaborated from a comprehensive vision which governs every chapter.

What I don’t have patience for are objections that there was too much exposition or too much time spent in dirty, boring Zion.  Such gripes imply that the chief attraction of the first film—and, therefore, the reason why anyone would want to watch a sequel—was the masterfully-choreographed fight scenes and the attendant reality-bending special effects.  Never mind that what distinguished The Matrix from every other action movie in the post-CGI 90s was its first-rate science fiction premise: Philip K. Dick meets The Terminator.  Surely, goes the whinge, we should have less exposition in the sequel, not more.  This is anti-intellectualism at its most breezy.

The Matrix movies are, after all, studies on the nature of motivation, so it’s probably helpful that some screen time is set aside for the characters to, you know, acquire some.  Whether one feels that, when they finally did arrive, the action and effects sequences lived up to, surpassed, or disappointed the standards set by those of the first film, I am happy to report that they did not intolerably distract from or confuse the delicately layered conflicts between the various theories of Reality and Purpose offered by Neo’s many antagonists (and make no mistake, everyone’s an antagonist).  The pacing problem alone was immense; the necessarily euphemistic Architect scene had to maintain tension, impart complex tone-shifting exposition while preserving the possibility that the Architect might be maliciously deceptive, and provide a germ of catharsis for an otherwise anti-climactic film.  No wonder they decided they couldn’t wait longer than six months to release The Matrix Revolutions.

The Architect tells Neo that there is nothing new(neo) under the sun, and the same applies when science fiction dabbles in theology.  Ken Mondschein does a fair job of explicating the classical religious roots of the cosmology constructed by les Frères Wachowski, and Martin Marprelate provides a logical framework for many nagging questions about motivations.  What I find intriguing is that this may be the first version of the "world created by Satan" in which humans are Satan; we created the machines which created the Matrix, after all.  This puts quite a different spin on those who, like Cypher (and, to be honest, many Matrix fans), would prefer to be plugged into the Matrix; if God let Satan create the deceptive material world to tempt us into sin, it is our duty to resist, but if we did it to ourselves, then the option to bliss out on the Matrix’s many pleasures loses some of its dishonor.  (While it is probably inconsistent with what we know of and can expect from the Wachowskis’ plan for the (or this) One, I remain fascinated by the suggestion that the Merovingian is a previous incarnation of the One.  Why such an entity would survive (or be preserved) after the last Reload of the Matrix is unclear, but the Architect moves in mysterious ways.)

Of course, I can’t help but note that my favorite detail of the Architect’s revelation is that Neo is the sixth incarnation of the One.


The Liberal Rush Limbaugh Karl Rove Lord Voldemort

I, for one, am far from fed up with the Politics of Personal Destruction™; I only wish my people were better at it.


We Have Met Los Desaparecidos...

Jim Henley calls for a little alarmism, and I think he should get it.

It was a really bad day, all right? Thousands died. Decent people who did nothing to deserve their fate. It was awful, just awful. Hate and scorn are the only emotions appropriate for the perpetrators, grief for the victims. But we cannot let ourselves be ruled by fear for the rest of our lives. It is not manly. It is not womanly. You would insist that your child face such fear down. Life is so much easier for the brave, let alone more dignified. Live and die like human beings or live and die like whipped dogs. We have that choice. We are making that choice, and at almost every juncture, making it wrong.

Read, as they say, the whole thing.


Simple, Neat, and Wrong

Everyone likes Lileks.  I’ve liked him since 1998 when someone sent me the URL for the Insititue for Official Cheer, and I immediately linked to it.  He’s a dead-tree writer, but he has an easy facility with geeky metaphor that typified early web authors, over which his embarrassment is clearly a mere professional affectation.  He also has no qualms about sharing adorable anecdotes about his 2-½-year-old daughter, which might be a put-off to rabid Child-Free folk but which I (for predictable reasons) find all too engaging.

I’ve been reading Lileks’s Bleat for over a year now.  It’s not a traditional blog, but it does function to compile a nigh-daily sampling of Lileks’s temperature and pressure, with the informal precipitation that comes from writing for free.  Lileks’s basic mode is one of Midwestern rationalism.  Rather than stridently fulminating from his pulpit, Lileks selects a bit of bloviation from our overheated discourse and proceeds to deflate it; usually not by direct rebuttal but instead by mocking extrapolation of the speaker’s logic.  The effect is to create an impression of moderation, that the greatest sin is to become so enamored of your political beliefs that you become so hyperbolic that James Lileks will have to come along and put you down like a lame horse.  It’s called satire, and it has a fine tradition.  Yes, and I find Lileks to be quite adept at the form, even (or, I should say, particularly) when he targets a set of beliefs that has significant overlap with mine.  I would much rather be dressed down by Lileks’s tangy irony (still not dead!) than wade through self-congratulatory sanctimony; the former reminds me to be judicious, the latter makes me dig in my heels.

It’s when Lileks abandons reason that he ceases to persuade.  I have nothing against passion in debate, but Lilek’s common-sense rhetoric breaks down when subjected to the heat of his prejudices.  In the stable of hobbyhorses that is the blogosphere, indulging in slippery logic is mostly harmless.  When called into the service of rationalizing a national scandal, however, it deserves greater scrutiny.

Look, we were told that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Saddam was a threat, Paul Wolfowitz rescued Jessica Lynch using a Jedi-Knight lightsaber. Lies! All lies! Storm the White House with pitchfork and torches, friends—it’s impeachment time!

Calm down.

Lileks’s patronizing whoa-take-a-deep-breath patter obscures the fact that his argument is no less motivated by a rabid leap of kneejerkism.  We are assured that while bickering over the legalistic pretext used by the Bush Administration to package the war is mere partisan frippery, the dubiousness of supporting a military response to 9/11 by attacking a country with no demonstrated responsibility for 9/11 somehow burns away in a kiln of self-righteous fury, as if sifting through a crematorium were a grownup way to make foreign policy.

Lileks is not alone in supporting the war on terror, and he is not alone in ascribing his own motives to the Bush Administration.  The neo-cons have their own ideas about remaking the Middle East, and they think the Bush Administration is behind the program 100%.  Such people don’t seem to care that the Bush Administration didn’t give a fig about nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or totalitarian dictators until, after 9/11, it saw an electoral strategy in them.

Lileks’s appeal to reasonableness permits him to claim, with a reassuring dismissal of dissent, that the invasion of Iraq was all about 11 September 2001.  His lack of reasonableness prevents him from seeing that it was probably more about 02 November 2004.


The Hunt Of Angels

I’m beginning to agree with David Brin; due to the relentless advance of surveillance technology, our expectations of privacy will be revised whether we like it or not, so we might as well be proactive about it.  What needs particular attention is the reluctance of corporations and governments to suffer the same scrutiny.  I myself have run afoul of Starbucks’s infamous ban on photography on their property, and while it didn’t quite rise to the level of a human rights violation, it’s absurd to maintain that my artistic ambit (such as it was) was outweighed by the putative threat to Starbucks’s "trade secrets."  In the ongoing struggle to determine what is "public space," it behooves would-be gargoyles to acquaint themselves with their rights.

At the same time, I cannot deny that, for me at least, there will always be an illicit thrill inherent in the act of photography.  Chris Marker put it thus:

Photography is like hunting, it’s the instinct of the hunt without the desire to kill.  It’s the hunt of angels . . . One stalks, aims, shoots and—click!  Rather than killing someone, one makes them eternal.

"Eternal," as in encased in amber; sounds to me like "assimilation" (aren’t we about due for a Godwin’s Law corollary for the Borg?).  Unquestionably, there is satisfaction to be gained from perfecting one’s craft, and I’ve been gratified by the reception others have given my work.  But in both the act and the appreciation of photography there remain the irreducible elements of voyeur and voleur.

I’m For The Free Market Unless It’s, You Know, Inconvenient

In the circles in which I travel, both physically and virtually, Techno-Libertarian memes have become sufficiently prevalent that it is considered Received Wisdom that top-down, legislation-based attempts to fight the spamdemic are doomed to failure.  I have therefore become slightly alarmed by encountering increasing numbers of non-denuncatory references to Christopher Caldwell’s recent Weekly Standard piece, in which he demands immediate government intervention to save him from his Inbox.  I’d like nothing better than to explain why Caldwell is an idiot, but Evan Kirchhoff has already done so.


One-Twenty-One Twenty Or Fight!

Josh Marshall is correct in calling the Texas State Republicans’ non-census-driven gerrymandering attempt a breach of uncodified political tradition and in calling for more light to be shed on Tom Delay’s role in the affair.  Y’all already know my feelings on the Electoral College; one of the pillars supporting that rickety institution is the notion that geography should determine polity.  I know, I know; it’s probably the least evil way to organize constituency, but isn’t it just a little bit demeaning for adults to call these reasonable political entities?

Anyway, if we’re going to let the Precambrian right use demographics to effectively outlaw the Democratic Party in Texas, perhaps out here on the upper Left Coast we can shore up our base a bit, too.  While we’re at it, why stop at Congressional Districts?  Let’s revisit House Resolution 348, which created the current border between Oregon and Washington.  A simple glance at the precincts shows that the real divide should not be north and south but east and west.  Accordingly, the border should be drawn not along the Columbia but through the Cascades. The western state will be called Cascadia, of course, with its capital at Vancouver.  Let’s call the eastern state, oh, say, Eudaho, and its capital can be at The Dalles.

The Metropolitan Touch

James Surowiecki wins the prize for the most deft and least forced recent setup for closing with an otherwise gnomic Shakespeare quote.

The Metropolitan Touch

James Surowiecki wins the prize for the most deft and least forced recent setup for closing with an otherwise gnomic Shakespeare quote.


Lady Mondegreen

Jason writes in:  I also thought of you when the lyrics sites started to get sued. I’m of two minds about this one.  Screenplays are protected, right.  So I guess lyrics should be too.  But the lyrics databases fulfill a need.  And I’m glad someone is doing it.

Put me down in the category of people who are, when opening a new CD, dismayed when no lyrics are provided.  I rarely trust my ears, and as my vocal talents are limited, text is a much more portable referent.  While it is clear that, like screenplays, song lyrics are literary works deserving of copyright, it is questionable whether they have artistic merit independent of the resulting song (or film).  Certainly lyricists and screenwriters feel their work has value in of itself, but is that why anyone else values it?  To my mind, no amount of "unlicensed" lyrics are going to approximate the effect of hearing the songs for which they were written; they will only make me want to listen to the songs again.  Public lyric registries, like screenplay libraries and repositories of fan fiction, only increase the value of the original artists’ work.

Then there’s the corollary issue of the "accuracy" of published lyrics and shooting scripts.  Even leaving aside the thorny problem of non-studio-recorded performances, even in studio recordings a singer will often modify (slightly or not so slightly) the words from the published lyrics.  Which is the "true" lyric?  Which has more meaning for the listener?  Which is protected by copyright?  Screenplays are in a similarly ambiguous state, particularly as so much more information (camera angles, scene descriptions) is subject to "corruption."

Of course, we simply have to get used to the idea that such works are no longer fixed but evolving (if agonizingly slow in certain cases).  It’s been about 20 years since I first noticed "unseen" footage in a film re-edited for television broadcast, and not long after that I saw my first cinematic "restoration" or "director’s cut."  When DVDs first came out, I quickly predicted the dissolution of the notion of "canonical" screenplays and even finished films; directors could now cut one film for theatrical release and another (or more) for the DVD.  Were there Elves at Helm’s Deep or not?  You be the judge, then RESUME FILM.

Original Childhood

Someone recently asked me the difference between guilt and regret.  I chewed on that one until I breezed through a Hallmark’s, and then it hit me: guilt is Mother’s Day and regret is Father’s Day.