January 24, 2008

As I think I’ve mentioned before, last semester we read epic poetry; the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Beowulf, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. One recurring theme was that of armor. Achilleus, in the Iliad, has made for him by the god Hephaestus a suit of armor that protects him from all attackers. Aeneas in the Aeneid has a similar suit made for him. Beowulf, however, goes into battle unarmored – the movie Beowulf that just comes out interprets this as nude – trusting in God to protect him.

I don’t know if nude is what the Beowulf poet meant, but battling unclothed has certainly happened historically – the celts, it is said painted themselves with woad and wore nothing else, believing the blue dye would protect them from harm. I don’t know what they thought when it clearly didn’t stop the pilum-throws and gladius-thrusts they suffered at the hands of the Roman army.  Battling in full armor can also be seen in medieval knights who wore full plate armor, covering even their faces.

This is all seemingly tangential, but I think in the end relevant, to my topic of the nature of clothing. It seems to me that clothing is really not fundamentally different from armor. Both are intended to shield you from the outside world. To not wear armor in battle is to declare that you do not need physical protection, that somehow you are safe from physical assault or simply do not fear death. To not wear clothing is to declare that you are not ashamed of your nakedness.

So it seems armor is protection against physical assault and clothing protection from being seen. Most people, I think, would say that, in protecting against sight, the basic goal is to cover up the genitalia. I think it’s more than that, though. Clothing tends not to just cover up what needs to be covered up, it makes us look less like animals and more like machines. Pants hide the fact that our legs are composed of different parts, and make them look like single-width cylinders. Shirts do the same for the torso and, if they are long, for the arms. I have even read that long coats are a good idea if robots take over the world because they’ll obscure the fact that you’re walking, not just gliding, and thus obscure the fact that you’re human. We like to cover up everything but our face and hands so that we can manipulate the world, view the world with our senses, but not be affected by the world directly – we are protected by our clothing. Put like this, clothing takes on an almost Gnostic character. Which shouldn’t surprise; according to Christianity, clothes are a result of sin – but they are also, strangely, a gift from God, who gives Adam and Eve real clothes after he discovers them wearing fig-leaves.

This almost body-denying nature of clothing applies to men, definitely. I know that many guys, including me, rarely if ever wear shorts, and many of those will also wear long sleeves and coats whenever possible. I’ll also note that it’s usually the more intelligent – some might say pretentious – guys who follow this practice, and the less-so ones who don’t. But the goal of female clothing is clearly different – they want you to look at them.

This doesn’t go only for the… well, sluttish way many girls dress today. Even modestly dressed women don’t hide the fact that yes, they have breasts, yes, their legs curve, yes, their face and their hands are not just floating there in midair attached to lumps of cloth. In other words, they don’t hide that they are attractive, in a not-necessarily-sexual manner (c.f. my earlier post on that subject, Amor).

Why the difference? Perhaps because men won’t fall in love with a girl they aren’t sexually attracted to – but, really, I think it’s more than this. Like I said, it isn’t primarily about sex, for at least some women. Some of it probably has to do with the fact that (and I don’t care if you think this statement is sexist) women tend to be more earthly than men, who seem to be much more strongly tempted by gnosticism. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; no, we shouldn’t be gnostic, but if males tend naturally towards hiding their bodies more I don’t think that means we have to fight that tendency.

At least, I don’t plan on doing so any time soon. Even if it is flawed, I figure it can’t actually be sinful, and I really would prefer to wear a trench coat almost every day. Besides being potentially gnostic, they’re just cool.

Speculative Fiction Revisited

January 21, 2008

Christmas break is now over and I’m back at school. My main accomplishment over the break was to get six pages, single-spaced, into a new short story I’m writing. I’ll post it when I’m done. But since I’m not done, my break has really produced little I can actually show people. I did manage to finish editing the Epic of Vaniyera (an Orbivm campaign) and upload it, but since I didn’t write that myself, it’s not quite the same.

I’m not huge on linkage, but this article seems relevant. Specifically, it seems quite similar to the argument I made in this post several months ago. But his claim is broader – he wants to say that speculative fiction (which is what he really means by “sci-fi” in the title – sci-fi is a type of speculative fiction, as is fantasy) is the only source of literature of philosophical merit.

I don’t know if I’m willing to make that claim. After all, there are plenty of great works of literature that aren’t speculative fiction. But I do agree with his claim that

there are, at the risk of sounding superweird, only so many ways to describe reality. After I’d read my 189th novel about someone living in a city, working in a basically realistic job and having a realistic relationship and a realistically fraught family, I was like, “OK. Cool. I see how today’s world works.” I also started to feel like I’d been reading the same book over and over again.

Great works of literature, while they don’t have to be speculative fiction in the sense of dealing with what cannot happen – dragons destroying villages, or interstellar travel, or One Ring to Rule them All – do, I think, have to do with something out of the ordinary. Take what are considered the greatest works of literature. Shakespeare’s plays, even the ones that didn’t have magicians or witches or ghosts (the Tempest, Macbeth, Hamlet), were not about ordinary people doing ordinary things. The historical plays (all of the Henrys) were about nobility – not exactly ordinary people – doing extraordinary things. About the great struggles of the people, not about the day to day doings of them. War and Peace, Crime and Punishment; war and crime are not something people do every day. So on and so forth.

What great literature does not deal with most of the time, I think, is “a basically realistic job and … a realistic relationship and a realistically fraught family”. So to the extent that modern “literary” fiction deals with those things, yes, modern “literary” fiction has failed to be literary.


January 16, 2008

Recently I have spent a considerable amount of my free time (and I have a lot of it, until Jan 22nd when school starts again) playing tetris – or, rather, Gnometris, a Free tetris clone. It is a form of procrastination, yes, but it is also a good de-stresser, and it exercises the brain, according to Wikipedia. So it isn’t a complete waste of time.

Anyway, it’s quite fun, like I said, but I have one complaint with it. The scoring is absurd. The reasoning being that making harder clears should be worth more, you get 40 points * level for clearing one row at a time, 100 points * level for clearing two rows at a time (a 20 point * level bonus), 300 points * level for clearing three rows at a time (an 120 point bonus), and 1200 points * level for clearing four rows at a time, the maximum (an 860 point bonus).

This makes sense on paper – accomplishing what is hard should be worth more, right? – but in practice it rewards poor tetris playing. Take a look at these two screenshots:

About to get one row and 40 points:
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About to get four rows and 1200 points:
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The former is playing tetris well – clearing lines quickly so as to get to a higher level and more points. The latter is playing tetris poorly – stacking up as many rows as possible and waiting for that line-shape (that might never come) so as to get that giant bonus. The good strategy works on any tetris level – and indeed, I can get up to level 14 using it. The latter crashes and burns by level 10 – you just can’t stack up bricks forever, you know? But at level 10, if I’m playing using my so-called “good strategy”, I’m nowhere near my limit.

The problem is, playing using the so-called “good strategy”, my high score is 47520 (and I think I got lucky there and got a four-clear without intending to). After I sat down and decided to play a game using the “bad strategy” – without any practice at it, mind you – I got 79840 points, blowing my previous high score out of the water. This makes sense, after all; at those low levels, the blocks move so slowly you can afford to use that strategy, and doing so racks up an enormous number of points before you even get to a decent difficulty level. Someone using my “good strategy” simply can’t keep up.

It might be excusable if the “bad strategy” was advisable for the first ten or so levels, and then you had to switch to the “good strategy”. But this is simply not the case. The number of points possible in levels 10-14 using my “good strategy” is significant, but nothing compared to how many would result from one lucky four-clear, so the best strategy would still be the “bad” one.

Now, if the “bad” strategy works and the “good” one doesn’t, why am I calling it “bad”? Because it doesn’t require skill in the same way that the good strategy does. You play by stacking up as high as possible and leaving narrow craters for l-shapes to fall in, not by trying to keep the blocks as low as possible and leaving yourself room to maneuver. If I could capture video off my desktop, I would film myself playing using the good strategy and then the bad one. One clearly requires skill, and the other doesn’t. It feels wrong to have to play in a style that requires no skill in order to rack up points – when that’s necessary, it means the way points are given out is flawed.

So what would I suggest? Well, the bonuses could work if they were reasonable – 1200 points for a four-clear and only 40 points for a one-clear is absurd, and, like I said, leads to bad tactics, but 40 points for a one-clear, 90 points for a two-clear, 150 points for a three-clear, and 220 points for a four-clear, or something similar, might work.
Even better, though, would be to remove the bonus for clearing multiple rows at a time altogether. The fact that you’ve reduced the height of the structure by several rows and thus gained valuable maneuvering space is reward enough, and you shouldn’t gain extra points for getting into a bad situation and then escaping it. If you insist on having scoring variation – not a flat 40 points * level for clearing a row – give bonuses for dropping the bricks quickly. That actually takes skill – being able to decide quickly where the next block should go.

P.S.: The Tetris effect is very real. I see multicolored tetraminos…

Book Review: Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman

January 14, 2008

I recently read the book St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. It is a sequel, of sorts, to A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. Canticle came out in the 60’s; this book was published in 1997, posthumously – Miller committed suicide in 1996 – and finished by a ghost-writer.  Canticle is one of my favorite books, but I was hesitant to read the sequel. I was fairly certain it wouldn’t be as good as the original – and I was right. Still, it was interesting.

The basic premise of Canticle was that, sometime in the 20th century, there was a nuclear war. Civilization self-destructed. What was not destroyed by the nukes was destroyed by the survivors of the war, who decided that the intelligentsia was to blame for the war and thus all books must be destroyed. A certain Isaac Leibowitz, however, founded an order of Catholic monks to preserve the Memorabilia, as it was called, and eventually civilization restarted itself (and fell again, and will eventually restart and fall once more – Miller’s view of history is cyclic). The work is divided into three parts, one taking place in the 26th century (Fiat Homo), one in the 32nd (Fiat Lux), and one in the 38th (Fiat Voluntas Tua). I would say more, but this isn’t a review of Canticle, but of its sequel.

Wild Horse Woman is a much different kind of book. It is set around a hundred years after the events of Fiat Lux. Instead of presenting a grand view of History through a series of vignettes, it focuses on one man (Brother Blacktooth St. George) and how he influences the conflict between Church and State. The ‘State’ here is the Empire of Texarkana, and the ‘Church’ is, of course, the Catholic Church, transplanted to New Rome (i.e. St. Louis, Missouri) after Rome was destroyed and now in exile in Valana (somewhere in Wyoming, I think).

The political situation is interesting, but more interesting, I think, is the relationship of the title – Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. The Wild Horse Woman is the Nomad goddess, and the book is really in many ways about the relationship between the pagan and the Christian. Specifically, Miller seems to be drawing an identity – not just a similarity – between the Wild Horse Woman and the Virgin Mary.

He also speculates about the divinity of the Virgin, and invents a “Northwest Heresy” that claims “her womb is the primordial void into which the eternal Word was spoken”. Clearly this is, well, a heresy – but in the book, it is endorsed by Blacktooth St. George, who becomes a sort of mystic. The book, then, is also about mysticism versus religion. Miller was a convert to Catholicism, but fell  away from the Church after Vatican II and embraced a sort of Buddhist spirituality probably similar to that of the character Wooshin. In the book, a pope (who turns out to be an anti-pope) is elected by the name of Amen Specklebird who endorses a Zen-like paradoxical spirituality founded in mysticism. I personally can’t understand the mindset of a mystic. With relation to mysticism, this book mainly convinced me that it very easily leads to heresy and ought to be avoided. Perhaps that was Miller’s view as well – perhaps he regretted being led away from Catholicism.

Overall, I think, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman is not as good as A Canticle for Leibowitz primarily because much of the power of Canticle came from its power as a piece of speculative fiction. It gave us 1700 years of speculative history and in doing so made a persuasive case for a cyclical philosophy of history. The sequel deals only with one small time period in that history, and in doing so becomes less a piece of speculative fiction than a religious and political drama that just happens to be taking place in a post-nuclear-war world.

Still, it wasn’t a bad book. It was worth reading, I think. It didn’t ruin Canticle for me. So I would recommend it – with the caveat that it’s theology is very confused and you’ll need to put in some effort to figure out what exactly is going on.

Lord, Liar, Lunatic

January 7, 2008

C. S. Lewis is known for his trilemma, an argument in favor of Jesus’ divinity. Lewis says that, since Jesus claimed to God, he must either have been telling the truth (Lord), been lying and known about it (liar), or been himself deluded (lunatic).

This is often derided as a false trichotomy – there are, it is claimed, other possibilities. Jesus, it is said, did not actually claim to be God (“rabbi”). Or he claimed to be God but only in some sort of pantheistic sense – everything is God, so he’s God (“guru”). Or Jesus as we know him is essentially a mythological character anyway (“myth”).

Now, I could take each of these objections separately, but I think they all reflect the same flawed mindset. New Testament scholars saying that Jesus didn’t actually claim to be God; people who favor the Gnostic gospels saying that the true Jesus is found in those, and in them, Jesus seems to be a pantheist; others claiming that Jesus didn’t actually exist; all of these result from rejecting the narrative the New Testament lays out and substituting another.

The New Testament is pretty damn clear that Jesus is God – or, at least, that Jesus claimed to be God. So how can we arrive at the conclusion that he didn’t actually do so? Only by saying that the Jesus presented in the New Testament is not the historical Jesus – that they don’t give an accurate representation of him, and so we have to try to ignore them and discover through other means what Jesus was really like.

The scriptural scholars do this by dissecting the Gospels and drawing conclusions from them that, well, make little to no sense. I’m no expert on their methods, but the ones who come to the conclusion that Jesus didn’t claim to be God seem to do so in spite of, not because of, the evidence in the Gospels.

The gnostics do this by saying that the Gnostic gospels are more accurate than the New Testament gospels. The problem here is that, well, they’re not. The Gnostics are free to claim that the New Testament is unreliable – but it’s absurd to claim that the Gnostic gospels are more reliable.

The atheists do this just by saying that the New Testament is historically unreliable and, even if we have nothing better to give us data on what Jesus did and taught, we can’t use the New Testament as a base.

The problem with all of these, I think, is that the New Testament is the best source of information on Jesus that we have. It’s clearly more reliable that the Gnostic gospels. It’s certainly more reliable than the theories of scriptural scholars doing their work 2000 years after the events in question. So why not use it? Even if you reject that it is divinely inspired, it’s better than nothing. And it’s pretty clear on the fact that Jesus claims to be God. It leaves lord, liar, and lunatic as options, but it rejects rabbi and guru.

What about myth, then? It is true that we can’t know for certain that these are the only three possibilities. But, it’s also true that, as far as we know, there might have been a man living in South Africa in 10000 BC who claimed to be God and then drowned himself, and that he was the “real historical Jesus”. Such speculation doesn’t accomplish anything. The historical Jesus is either what is presented in the Gospels, or there is no historical Jesus that is historically significant. This would make Jesus a myth – but that doesn’t mean what some claim it means. It means that Jesus didn’t exist. Either lord, liar, lunatic, or nothing. “Nothing” is a possibility – but nothing else is. And a “nothing” possibility seems rather redundant. I could claim right now that Caesar Augustus didn’t exist, and you couldn’t contradict me, but what would be the point?

So, yes, I think the lord, liar, lunatic, trichotomy is valid. It isn’t the best piece of apologetics, but I think it is a valid argument for why those who claim to “respect Jesus as a teacher but not believe in him” are intellectually dishonest. And really, that’s all it’s intended to do.

Come Wind Come Snow Come Winterland (January)

January 2, 2008

January in Texas is not like January anywhere with decent weather patterns. In other words – it doesn’t actually get cold. It gets somewhat chilly, but no more.

It’s interesting, though; I’m from Texas, and I complain about the weather here, but many of the people from further north prefer the Texas weather to their own. This reminds me of the opening of the TÝR song Eric the Red;

What brings you here my friend, what brings
you north to where hell is of ice
South from the sand dunes where hell is of
fire, why have you come so far

In the south hell is of fire, but in the north hell is of ice. Hell, in other words, is weather taken to the extreme – if you live in a cold climate, you have to fight the cold to live, but if you live in a warm climate, you have to fight the heat.

My preference for snow over a burning sun would seem, then, to be a case of the grass being greener on the other side. Perhaps it is. I suspect that if I lived somewhere cold, I would dislike the extreme cold just as much as I dislike the extreme heat

I would still prefer, however, to live in the cold rather than the heat. It seems to me that it is more natural to have a hell of ice rather than a hell of fire. After all, heat is energy, and cold is simply the absence of heat. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the evil to be fought to be an absence of energy, rather than to have evil be a positive force? Thus a cold climate is better than a warm one, because it will make you fight the cold rather than the heat.

If I can reference Dante’s Inferno, look at the ninth circle of hell – the sinners there are trapped in ice, not fire, and that is a worse punishment than those in less low circles perishing in flame.

So… who from Wesnoth or Orbivm does this make me? Well, clearly I have to be someone from a fairly warm climate, warmer than average. Wesnoth doesn’t really have any warm climates, so it’ll have to be from Orbivm. The most obvious place to go would be Nemidia, so I’m going to say – Jugarthus Massaesylus. He was born in Nemidia but ended up in the north, in Silvia, and died there alongside his commander Caius Regilius. I imagine he too preferred the cold over the heat; otherwise he would not have traveled several thousand miles north from his homeland as he did.

Jugarthus’s main role in the Legion is to act as advisor to and mouthpiece of Caius Regilius, the tribune.  Now, another thing about this month will be… I’ll have a rather large amount of free time. We don’t go back to school until the 22nd. During that time, hopefully, I’ll be able to get quite a lot done. Hopefully. But if I imitate Jugarthus in this, as I suspect I will, I won’t actually accomplish much because I can’t initiate anything myself – I can just seize upon something and run with it. We’ll see.

So here’s a picture of Jugarthus. Remember, it’s not pink, it’s tcolor.

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