The End of Western Civilization?

June 26, 2007

I usually agree with what I read in crisis. But this month, Robert Reilly, the music critic for the magazine, was talking about popular music, and how he thinks it has been going downhill compared to “old show tunes” (I suppose he means popular music from before around 1950) because popular music has stopped taking its influence from ‘high’ music (my term – since ‘classical’ refers to a particular time period). He hints at how this is a result of Western Civilization’s implosion, brought about by our godlessness or somesuch.

First of all, I don’t like such apocalyptic talk. It seems to me like a metanarrative that doesn’t make any sense. Every generation, of course, has the tendency to feel that its descendants are destroying what is left of the culture. But if they were actually right, the world would have collapsed into chaos long ago. I see Reilly’s complaint as another symptom of this. Here’s why.

To start – Reilly says that the old show tunes were superior in quality to today’s popular music – his basic proof being that he likes the old music, he doesn’t like the new. I call this the ‘argument from nostalgia’. There’s a tendency to forget the mediocre – mediocre means, almost by definition, forgettable – and to remember only the very great. This isn’t a bad tendency in general; usually you only need to remember the important deeds, good and evil. But music (and art in general), unlike, say, politics, isn’t divided into good and evil; great and mediocre is the only standard. So the forgetfulness tendency tends to skew our view of the music of the past. Sure, you remember a bunch of great songs from that period. But there were assuredly many more mediocre songs, we just don’t remember them, because they weren’t worth remembering. Today, we can’t automatically screen out the mediocre – we don’t even know immediately which songs are which. But that doesn’t mean no great songs are made anymore.

Now, Reilly’s explanation for why popular music should have declined so (which it hasn’t – see above) is that the old popular music took its influence from the old high music, while the new doesn’t. This is evidenced by the fact that much of modern music ignores basic musical structure (building up to a climax and having an actual ending, instead of e.g. continuing in a loop and slowly fading away into nothingness). And this is true, of some modern music. Perhaps most.

(The difference, incidentally, would perhaps be best reflected by the fact that the author of music used to be considered the composer, but now it has shifted to the performer – because the focus is now not on the quality of the music but on how well it can be performed. There is some truth to this. For some reason Reilly doesn’t point this out.)

But I maintain that there are still bands today that are quite good, and could perhaps even be considered artists rather than performers. And good artists. (Most of them are good because they take influence from high music. I’m not contesting Reilly’s assertion that popular music is bettered by taking influence from high music; I’m arguing against his claim that popular music no longer does this.)

Some examples (most of them drawn from the world of metal, since that’s mostly what I listen to) –

Rhapsody of Fire. Their songs can be a bit repetitive, and their lyrics can certainly be cliched fantasy stereotypes, but the instrumental aspect of their work – which includes not just guitar, they use a whole bunch of instruments – is astounding. They take a strong influence from the Romantic period of high music, as well as from film scores (which are kind of midway between high and popular music, I think). I wouldn’t claim that any of their albums constitutes a cohesive work of art, but some of their individual songs do, such as “Silent Dream“, which is currently my favorite song.

Blind Guardian. Their album A Night at the Opera is, in my opinion, very close to true art. They have a variety of types of songs, their instrumental work is good, and their lyrics are actually intelligent (and able to provoke intellectual debate – I disagree with their views on Christianity, I think, but their songs “Precious Jerusalem” and “Sadly Sings Destiny” are two of my favorite). I would much rather listen to this album than any of the show tunes Reilly is so fond of. You might not like this style of music, but admit, it’s very well. I would claim for Nightfall in Middle Earth the same honor, though much of its greatness comes from its reliance on the greatness of Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

TÝR. Their Erik the Red and Ragnarok both have original works and traditional ballads with new instrumentals. Both are certainly worth listening to, and some of the tracks I would claim to be just as artfully done as anything by the above two groups.

I’m not claiming that all metal is art. I agree that there is a great deal of it that isn’t. Much of what the above groups have done I would not give that distinction to. But some of it I would. And all of it I would say is just as much worth listening to as much of the old popular music. That same sentiment would apply to many non-metal groups, which I won’t listen here because there are too many of them.

My basic point is that popular music has not gone downhill. Yes, there is a lot of bad stuff, but there always has been. And there is some good stuff. And there is even some that I would say is good enough to not just be popular music. So stop the cries of apocalypse, at least when it comes to music. It simply isn’t coming, much as you might believe it is.



June 23, 2007

Last Wednesday (the 20th) I was at the Rangers baseball game where “Slamming” Sammy Sosa hit his 600th home run.

That was cool, I admit, but the very idea of celebrating the 600th occurance of something makes me think about the fact that the 600th occurance of something is only worth celebrating because we happen to use a counting system based on the number 10. If we had evolved with 3 fingers and a thumb instead of 4, we would have celebrated his 512th home run (though we would have called it home run number 1000), his 576th (=1100th), and, if he gets it, his 640th (=1200th).

And even given that we evolved the way we did, there’s no need for us to use base ten. The Babylonians used base twelve. (Incidentally, Tolkien’s Numenoreans did so as well.) And we could have counted base six on our hands just as easily as we do base ten. Use one hand for the ones digit and the other for the tens (well, sixes) digit, and you can count up to 100 in base six (36 in base 10). That seems to me considerably more efficient than using base ten, where you can only get up to 10 (that would be 14 in base six) on your hands. If you couldn’t tell, I’m partial to base six. Count with me now – one, two, three, four, five, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, twenty… fifty-four, fifty-five, one hundred!

My basic point is that the number ten has absolutely no significance. We use it only because we happen to have ten fingers and happen to have decided to count on our hands in one particular way (and not a particularly good way). It is absolutely meaningless when it comes to actual mathematics.

Yet we cannot escape from it, because we were brought up to count base ten, and it is very hard to change that habit. I don’t have any proposal to change that; and it isn’t like switching to a different base would really fix anything. But we could at least stop emphasizing in our culture the significance of insignificant things, by stopping this inane celebration of events that are only meaningful because they are divisible by the number 10 or some multiple thereof.

So some part of me wants to say – do not celebrate Sammy Sosa’s 600th home run. It is no greater an achievement than his 599th, or his 598th, or his 601st which he hit last night. We shouldn’t be comparing ballplayers against meaningless standards like 500 or 600 home runs, or 5000 strikeouts, or 300 wins, or 3000 hits. We should be comparing them against each other. Much more interesting than Sammy hitting 600 would be Barry Bonds passing Hank Aaron with 756. Celebrate (or boo, as I will) that as much as you want.

And They’re Up!

June 21, 2007

Click on the ‘writings’ link at the top of the page. Or just click this. Not everything is there yet, but a lot of it is. More is to come. In the future I’ll make a note in my posts whenever something new has been added.

So far, there’s a play, six poems, and a short story, but there’s another short story in the final draft phase, and I write random poems all the time so you never know when one will appear.

There’s also a 16x8x4 (cantos x stanzas/canto x lines/stanza) epic about Alfhelm the Wise in the works, but don’t expect it to be done any time soon.

An Apology

June 19, 2007

I realize that I haven’t published any new Wesnoth campaigns for almost a year (the most recent version of Fall of Silvium came out last August). I apologize for that. There are a couple of reasons for it.

First of all, I started writing a campaign about Mal-Ravanal and got several scenarios in before abandoning it (I had wanted to make a more RPGish campaign but I eventually decided that to do so would take considerably more work than I was willing to put in). So I ended up spending considerable time on a never-to-be-published campaign. (I couldn’t even publish it if I wanted to now, because I lost the files – and Descent into Darkness does a lot of what I wanted to do, though it could use a lot of improvement, and I would rather work on making that campaign better than on reviving the Mal-Ravanal campaign.) That was kind of disappointing, but it wasn’t completely wasted, as it meant more experience with WML and some cool scenario ideas.

Then I started spending more of my Wesnoth time working on the Imperial Era itself (and its spinoff eras) than on any campaigns. This has paid off in some ways – the IE is essentially done and a lot of progress is being made on the Feudal Era.

I also began a campaign about Alfhelm the Wise but little progress was made. And real life intervened on a couple of occasions, variously taking away any free time that I might have to write campaigns and sapping the intellectual and artistic energy that’s needed to write them. So what little time I did spend on campaigns ended up not producing a whole lot of actual maps and scenarios. But it did lead to my developing a rich backstory that will hopefully make it a more interesting and captivating campaign that the usually fare (which is the whole idea behind the Orbivm project, after all). I do plan on finishing Alfhelm sometime soon, hopefully before school starts up again.

And what time I didn’t spend writing scenarios and such I spend on other creative exercises. Only one of these have I put online (Þe Hall of Valhalla play), but there are a bunch more on my computer and on scraps of paper in my room. I’ll be putting all of them on the web in the next few days.


  • The completed Imperial Era has already been published and we’re looking for feedback on it; go try it out, please.
  • The Feudal Era will probably be out by the end of June.
  • Alfhelm will be out by September at the latest.
  • All of the non-Wesnoth stuff I will be putting up on a website for all to see sometime in the near future.

Essentially – it may have seemed to be a dry school year, but a lot was happening under the surface, and it will all be revealing itself over the next few months. It should be a good summer.

Oh, I also plan on finally improving that next-to-last scenario in Fall of Silvium so that you don’t randomly lose half the time. But I haven’t actually sat down and done anything on that yet so it didn’t make it into the list.

There is no Joy in Mudville

June 14, 2007

… mighty Casey has struck out.

I think +two months is enough time to at least render a preliminary verdict on the new Rangers manager, Ron Washington. Essentially – he’s no good. He should have stayed as a coach, because he doesn’t know what he’s doing as a manager. Reasons:

  • He seems to me to be a micro-manager, especially with regards to defense, and this is why the Rangers’ defense sucks. He’s supposed to be leading a ‘return to the fundamentals’. But major league ballplayers already know the fundamentals. It’s’ not just condescending of Washington to lead such a return, its counterproductive. It makes the players not confident in their abilities. I had uneasy feelings when I first heard that he was ‘bringing back pepper’, but I was willing to be optimistic. No more.
  • He’s overly optimistic. Even after our horrific May, he was talking about how we’re going to win 20 games in June. Well, 14 days in, I think we can see how much nonsense that was. Some optimism is OK, but not if its clouding your judgement. He seems to think that all the pieces are about to fall into place, and he doesn’t need to make any more changes. That’s clearly not true.
  • He was brought in to be a player’s manager, but reports are that he isn’t all that popular in the clubhouse. Why would this be? Look at the above two reasons. He’s incompetent, and players can’t like an incompetent manager no matter how nice he is. Plus, if what I’ve been reading is true, he can’t handle the authority he’s been given. He was yelling at Teixeira for not trying hard enough. That’s nonsense.

But, but… we brought Washington in precisely because he was optimistic, popular with the players, and would improve the defense! Well, I would posit we made a horrible mistake. And we should have seen this from the beginning. Why would we hire someone with essentially no experience managing?

I hope I’m wrong with this assessment, but as it currently stands, I’d rather have Buck Showalter *shudder* as manager rather than Washington. We might not be the best team in the majors, but we sure as hell wouldn’t be 23-42. Nothing against Washington, but he wasn’t cut out to be a manager. Not everyone can do everything.

(I know that ‘Washington is no good’ is the verdict of most people up to this point, and for much the same reasons as I have above. There’s not a lot I can do about that. Sometimes the majority’s right.)

Primer on Meta-Narratives

June 11, 2007

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the ideas of “liberalism”, “conservatism”, etc. And most have probably heard of stuff like Marx’s historical dialectic.

But all of these represent a broader class of what I will call meta-narratives – narratives about narratives. They are attempts to explain why the narrative of history is the way it is. (I first read the term meta-narrative in a book by John Holdane, called An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Religion, but I’d had it in my head without a name long before that.)

There are a great number of meta-narratives to choose from. The question, to my mind, is which, if any, should a good Christian endorse? What is the nature of the Christian meta-narrative?

Well, to start with, I’ll consider the two meta-narratives I listed above, liberal and conservative. The problem with both of these, I think, is that they just don’t seem to fit the facts.

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Liberalism cannot be true, according to Christian belief, because man is fallen, and he is simply not progressing of his own accord to a perfect society (the eventual destination of the upward-pointed era). And we also believe in the fall of man, but the story of liberalism is that of man continuously climbing upwards.

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Conservatism is tempting for one who, like me, does not like many aspects of today’s society. However, there are real problems with it as well. Firstly, do you really want to claim that the introduction of Christianity to the world was truly a bad thing? That the graph kept going down even after 33 AD? And yes, many aspects of the modern world are bad – but we shouldn’t have an idealized view of ancient times. Many aspects of today’s world are an improvement upon the past.

Well, then. These are the two most well-know meta-narratives, mainly because they are both simple, easy to understand, and tempting to adopt. But they are not only simple, they are simplified. The world just isn’t like that, exactly. Before I start constructing a Christian meta-narrative, here’s a few more to think about.

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There is, of course, the simplest of meta-narratives – “there are no meta-narratives”. This is the maxim of the postmoderns. They say that trying to find grand patterns of rising and falling in history is a hopeless task. Men, it is said, often try to find patterns where there are none.

The Christian problem with this is that, we believe, God does have a plan for the human race. It may be that much of history is just our milling around waiting for the Last Judgement, but there is some sense of change. The world changed in 33 AD.

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The cyclic view of history is that “history is doomed to repeat itself”. Great empires rise, grow decadent, and fall. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The problem with this is that history is not eternal. It has a beginning, and it will, eventually, have an end. And some sort of process is clearly being made – technology is increasing ever more rapidly, population is growing exponentially. Something’s happening.

Well, so much for narratives that I think are completely wrong. let’s start thinking about a Christian narrative.

Intensifying Cyclicism
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Enter the revised version of cyclicism – intensifying cyclicism. This is the idea that history is repeating itself, but growing ever more important. Hitler was worse than the Renaissance Popes were worse than Nero, but the United States is better now than it has ever been in the past, and it has always been better than any other nation in existence.

This isn’t particularly anti-Christian, I don’t think. It tells nicely the story of “rise, fall, redemption, rise, fall redemption” that played out so often in the Old Testament and the New. Something like this is quite a possibility. Though the confusion between secular and religious progress seems like a problem.

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This can be fixed by saying that history is not the story of stuff getting “better” or “worse”, but of different aspects of human life getting better or worse, with the sum total of humanity staying about the same.

It will probably have to be a feature of any eventual ‘correct’ narrative. The question is, should we as Christians even care about the secular half of the narrative? Or should we only worry about the religious half? So far I’m leaning towards an intensifying cyclicism with Tocquevillian modulation.

Still, we have not confronted a major difficulty. There is a historical – not mythic – event that has to be placed somewhere, and which, it cannot be denied, permanently changed something.

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Are we just going to place that at the top of one of the crests? Or at the bottom? What?

Here are some attempts that place focus on one definite time in history. Perhaps they are possibilities.

Golden Age
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There are two problems with this. Firstly, the height of the Church was not the death of Christ, it was the 13th century. Or so one might plausibly claim. The death of Christ was the founding of the Church, not its apex. Unless we are to believe that the founding was also the apex – that the Church has been in decline ever since it was founded. But that seems like a very anti-Catholic belief to me, even if some Christians are able to hold it.

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So maybe Christ’s death wasn’t the high point of Christianity in the sense that everything’s been downhill since then. But was it the low point? The ‘literary’ model – that name comes from the fact that Hans Urs von Balthasar’s interpretation of Christ’s death has been called literary – would say that stuff gets worse, there’s a climax (which is at the bottom not the top on this graph, because it graphs goodness not intensity), and then the plot is resolved.

The thing is… the plot wasn’t resolved. Christ was raised, we were redeemed, but now we have to live our lives, fundamentally changed, yes, but still living life on earth. And we have been for two thousand years since then.

I don’t have an answer. My best guess would be oscillation, which begins by calming down, but then at Christ’s death begins intensifying again. But I really don’t know. I know what it has to capture – I know what the facts of history, secular and salvatory, are – but I don’t know quite how to fit a narrative into it, except the very basic statement that it’s a story of “creation, fall, redemption”.

Perhaps the answer is that we shouldn’t try to fit meta-narratives onto things. That sounds like postmodernism, I know. And I really don’t want to be a postmodern. But I can see why it is tempting.

If this seemed like it rambled on a bit, it’s because I started writing it a couple months ago, then finished it a few days ago, and the focus of the piece changed a bit over that time. Sorry about that.

Metallic Grey

June 6, 2007

Whenever a conversation in Real Life ™ turns to music, it eventually comes out that my preferred genre is that of “metal”. People have one of two reactions: “oh, that makes sense”, and “what the heck? I didn’t expect that”.

The latter one usually comes from people who have some knowledge of the genre and so realize that, given my personality, it is inevitable I would end up listening to bands like Rhapsody of Fire, Blind Guardian, and Stratovarius.

But for those who aren’t so familiar, here’s a basic run-through of the bands I listen to and why it makes perfect sense for me to do so. (Note: This post may sound condescending; I’ve been told that whenever I talk about this I tend to give that impression. I apologize in advance.)

(ignore the video in these links, the audio’s all I care about right now. Youtube’s a good place to get links to songs for free.)


Rhapsody of Fire – These guys are a power metal band from Italy. True, Italy isn’t Scandinavian, and these guys don’t sing about vikings. But they do sing about epics of sword and spear, mainly epics of their own creation. They’re often a bit clichéd in their stories, but that’s not really a problem for me. Plus, these guys have a lot of classical music influence in their work, and they’re a lot of fun to listen to simply for the instrumentation. They describe their music as “movie score metal”, which I think is pretty accurate. Incidentally, Christopher Lee (the guy who played Saruman) appears on several of their albums, doing voiceovers. (I linked to their song “Silent Dream”, which is probably my favorite song overall from any of these groups.)

Blind Guardian – A German power metal band. I prefer their later work, when their songs slowed down, became intelligible, and they released an entire album about Lord of the Rings. They take a lot of historical influence, which of course I would like, and have songs about King Arthur, Pontius Pilate, and more. (the link is to “Maiden and the Minstrel Knight”, which is about the story of Tristan and Isolde.)

Stratovarius – Here’s the first of three Finnish bands on this list. They’re pure power metal, with song titles like “Fight!!!”. They’re also a lot of fun to listen to, and their lyrics are catchy for this type of music. “Gotta be the GYP-sy… the Gypsy in MEee”. (This song, “Land of Ice and Snow”, is very not typical for them. Most of their songs are much faster-paced and more violent sounding.)

TYR – A guy named Erik (“with a K”) from school put me on these guys. They’re Faroese, which means essentially Scandinavian, and they make Viking metal. They sing a lot in their native tongue, which supposedly sounds a lot like Old Norse, and, unlike a lot of Viking metal bands, they don’t do death grunts. It should be obvious that I would like music like this. (“Regin Smithur” is the only TYR song I could find on youtube, but it’s not my favorite. That would probably be either “Dreams” or “Alive”.)

Sonata Arctica – Another Finnish band. These guys started out doing less fantasy-inspired stuff, and some of that is pretty good too (I like “Shy”), but now they’re very similar to Stratovarius, and my comments about that group apply to this one too. These guys don’t seem to have a great grasp of the English language, and have a lot of strange turns of phrase in their songs. (“Kingdom for a Heart” is pretty standard power metal, though of course sung with a strong Finnish accent.)

Dark Moor – These guys are from Spain, I think. They and Kamelot are very similar, in my opinion, and are both close to the later Sonata Arctica and Stratovarius, but without the Finnish accents. Straight-up power metal, essentially, with a lot of historical influence and a lot of generic “go fight kill the enemy have courage” songs. (“Before the Duel” is of the latter variety, I think.)

Kamelot – These guys sound very similar to Dark Moor, though their lyrics are less often historically based, and they have a great liking of the concepts of immortality and fate. (“Karma” is about a king who realizes he is about to die and will have to pay for what he has done.)

Therion – These guys are Swedish, and they play symphonic metal, which essentially means there is a lot of classical music influence. Their songs are much slower paced and even trance-inducing, and their lyrics deal with all sorts of mythologies, Sumerian, Greek, Aztec. My listening to these guys probably makes the least sense of any of these groups. (“The Dreams of Swedenborg” is about… well, I’m not really sure, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it.)

Nightwish – The third and final Finnish group, Nightwish was also first introduced to me by Erik. They have a female lead singer, which makes them different from all of the above groups, and they’re best classified as symphonic metal, though I’ve also seen them called operatic metal and gothic metal. They sing occasionally about Lord of the Rings, which is the main reason I like them. (“The Carpenter” is from what I can gather about Jesus Christ, though I’m not sure what message it is supposed to send. Probably an anti-Christian one.)

Leaves’ Eyes – The female singer is from Norway, the rest of the band is from Germany. Their albums are, like many in this realm of music, story-telling. One of their stories tells of the voyage of Leif Eriksson to the New World. All in all, they seem to me like a female-fronted version of TYR – and, since they’re female-fronted, they focus more on the emotions than on the glory of the battle. But that doesn’t mean I can’t like them. (“Farewell Proud Men” is about the wife, I think, of Leif Eriksson as the ships leave across the ocean to explore and, eventually, find the new world.)

These aren’t all the bands I listen to – I use Pandora, and will usually listen to whatever comes up – but these are the ones I thumbs-up the most. They’re not in any particular order, either. But they should give some idea of what I mean when I say “I listen to metal”, and some idea of what “metal” IS. And hopefully it doesn’t sound too condescending.

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