Roma!

August 29, 2008

Update: I’m in Rome now. WoOt and all that. Posting rate to decrease, probably. More comments on Rome as I think of them.

For now, all I have to say is – ruins are awesome. We spent today going around some of the major spots in Rome (St. Peter’s Basilica and the Pantheon, mainly), and along the way passed by a bunch of old Roman ruins they had excavated. They were amazing. Not to say that the Basilica and the Pantheon weren’t amazing too (St. Peter’s was, if possible, more impressive than I had expected it to be), but they are so in different ways. With ancient ruins of random buildings, you just get this sense of how ancient the city is, how long buildings can last, and also the feeling that, even if the building lasts for two thousand plus years, as some of these have, they will, eventually, fall apart. The ruins that we see are just a fragment of the building that was once there.

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Three Days to Never

August 24, 2008

First of all; I leave for Rome in three days (Wednesday morning, to be precise). But that’s not what this post is about.

No, I’m talking about the book Three Days to Never, by Tim Powers.

In my recent post about Doctor Who, I talked about how that show, while lacking somewhat in plot, manages to have interesting characters, and, for all its inconsistencies, and interesting secondary world. The works of Tim Powers seem to me to have the opposite strengths and weaknesses; he has interesting plots, and does a quite good job with the world-building, but his characters are poorly done.

So far I have read Declare, about spies during WWII and the Cold War who are trying to find a second Ark built by Djinn who are trying to escape, and Three Days to Never, about how Einstein actually discovered time travel and his grandson/great-grand-daughter need the help of the Mossad to stop that technology from falling into the wrong hands.

In both of these, Powers takes actual historical facts – none of his books, supposedly, directly contradict established history – and weaves them into an alternate universe that is a mix of sci-fi and fantasy. For example, the 1973 Israeli strike against Iraqi military facilities was not intended to destroy WMDs, but rather to destroy this time travel machine. And there are demons who live in 5-dimensional space who are guiding the progress of the evil forces trying to get their hands on this time travel technology. And so on. And he has just the right amount of scientific explanation and correspondence with reality to make this stuff at least somewhat believable. It’s quite impressive, really. (It’s also interesting how Powers is a practicing Catholic and the worlds he creates are always pretty much consistent with the Catholic worldview.)

But, well, Powers can’t portray characters effectively. There are romances in both of these books, and neither of them are really believable. They both follow the formula of “flawed heroine who has enough good in her to redeem and be redeemed by the hero”. They even both have the female character start out working for the bad guys but switch over to the good guys. And neither of them are really sympathetic. He has problems with the other characters too – they seem cliche, for the most part – though his main problems are with the females.

Still, they’re enjoyable books. If nothing else, read them for his theories about the truth behind Djinn, ankhs, swastikas, the Nazis, the Soviets, and the Mossad.

—-

And a small digression about Harry Potter. As I mentioned above, it seems possible to look at fantasy fiction writing as having three main categories – the characters, the plot, and the mythopoeia (this is obviously ignoring the quality of the prose, but I’m OK with that). Now, Harry Potter has good plot, and decently laid out characters (though I dislike most of them) – but horrible mythopoeia. Truly horrible. It’s not just that J.K. Rowling is bad at it  – it’s that she doesn’t care about having it make sense, at all. She prefers throwaway gags (like all of the silly character names and titles of the magical textbooks) to building a world that is actually somewhat convincing. This is my main complaint with her, and it is a huge one. She ends up with a fantasy world that no one would ever believe existed or could exist.

Now, Doctor Who isn’t coherent either, but this is less of a problem because Doctor Who is intentionally absurd – one of the main messages of the show is that the universe is much more complicated than we know, and we will never understand all of it, so it makes sense for the world to be somewhat chaotic and incoherent – while Harry Potter has a serious, straightforward plot. There’s no excuse for an absurd fantasy world. It’s as if Rawling just said “well, it’s magical, so it doesn’t have to make sense!” and went from there.


Sports and “Sports”

August 23, 2008

I’ve been watching some of the Olympics this week (despite the fact that I think the USA probably should have boycotted them), and thinking about the nature of the competitions.

One thing I’ve noticed – and I’m not saying this is a particularly startling insight on my part – is that the sports can, for the most part, be divided into two categories. There’s the ones where you win by earning points, or runs, or whatever, through your own actions, and there’s the ones where you win by convincing judges to give you points. Examples of the former would be, say, baseball or soccer or tennis or the 100 meter dash or something like that; examples of the latter would be stuff like gymnastics, diving, synchronized swimming.

Now, is it just me, or is there something seriously wrong with the latter type of “sport”? I’m not sure they even deserve to be called “sports”. Sports are supposed to be tests of the athletic skill of the competitors. The competitors in gymnastics, diving, etc, are athletes, certainly, but it seems to me that these so-called sports are not testing their athletic skill – they’re testing their ability to convince the judges to give them points. This leaves the ultimate responsibility for determining the winner in the hands of the judges, not the hands of the competitors.

Which means that ideology-related bias (I could easily see a judge from the US not giving high marks to a gymnast from China because those two countries are seen as adversaries), home-field advantage (it seems to just be acknowledged fact at these Olympic games that the Chinese have an advantage in judged “sports” because the roar of the crowd is louder for their athletes, making them seem more impressive), and pure whim play much too large a role.

And don’t try to tell me that the way the judges determine the scores is in some way scientific and they are just applying a set of simple rules to what they see. Even if that is in theory the case, it is clearly not the case in real life – a sport where one judge can give a 10.0 and another an 8.5 to the same dive, for example, cannot be based on objective observation of what happened.

Still, you do have sports that are kind of on the border – I don’t know much about boxing, and so am not sure if it falls into the sports or “sports” category, and while it seems like wrestling is objective, there are apparently judged involved to determine when exactly to award a point. And even with sports like baseball or football or soccer, you have umpires or referees who have an influence on the game even though they are on neither team.

But I don’t think this is the same thing. With calling balls and strikes in baseball, for example, the umpire does have to make the call, but he is saying that an event happened a certain way. He is making a call about facts. With judged sports, they are not making calls about facts, they are translating their opinions into a pseudo-scientific scoring system. They are not saying “this dive was worth 8.5 points and anyone who disagrees with me is in error”, they are saying, “oh, let’s see, he did X, Y and Z well but messed up on W a bit… let’s give him an 8.5, that sounds about right”. And different judges can come to different conclusions, and give different point values, and this is seen as acceptable, even perhaps a good thing.

Good thing, bad thing, I don’t care – but it does make it, in my opinion, not a sport.

It would be interested to see what would happen to the Olympics if all of these “sports” were taken out, though. Most people probably wouldn’t watch if the Olympics consisted only of track and field and swimming and soccer and stuff like that. But it would be more of a contest of pure athletic skill. It would also probably result in the US beating China in the Olympic medal count; right now the US has more medals total, but the Chinese more golds, but I suspect this is largely a result of the Chinese winning in the judged “sports” (IIRC they swept men’s gymnastics, and diving too, and did really well in the women’s of both those sports too) – if you take those out, the US probably wins by a hefty margin. I don’t know, though; the US probably has a lot of medals in those sports too, after all.


No, just the Doctor

August 20, 2008

I have happened, this summer, to see a few dozen episodes of the show Doctor Who. I still can’t make up my mind about the show.

There are obvious problems with it. It isn’t particularly concerned with internal consistency, or even making sense. The main character, the Doctor, is the “last of the time-lords” – even though it makes no sense to be the “last” of a race that has the ability to time-travel. He possesses a “sonic screwdriver”, “psychic paper”, and a “TARDIS”, all of which are basically magic. None of the science in the show makes any sense.

Also, the acting is not particularly good, the writing is often silly (though these two seem to work together – the characters do seem realistic, because they act like normal people would act in these situations – i.e. really wooden and stupid and not very eloquent), and the way the Doctor gets out of danger is often completely implausible – for some reason his enemies always let him monologue for fifteen minutes and never shoot him even when they have the opportunity.

Still, the show is fascinating, despite all this. My theory is that this is because the situations and worlds it presents, implausible as they are, are extremely creative and you can’t help but watch them play out. Take the Vashta Nerada – a race of tiny gnat-like creatures that resemble shadows and disguise themselves in and as shadows and eat everything. Basically tiny flying piranhas. And they have taken over a library the size of a planet. And the Doctor has to find a way to get out of the library alive.

Anyway, I think this says something about how powerful mythopoeia is. The power of the story can make you forgive the silliness, the absurdity, and everything else – you can treat that part as if it was “so bad it’s good”, but the world-building parts are actually “good”.


Apologies

August 15, 2008

For the lack of updates this week. I have been busy preparing for Rome – I leave on the 27th. Expect rather sporadic posts until then.

Anyway, I don’t have anything brilliant to say right now, so I’m just going to direct you towards the newest piece of writing I have uploaded; it’s not new, exactly (I wrote it in October 2006) but it was lost on my old hard drive until my dad decided to do some moving around of stuff (he got a new computer, made his old computer into the family computer, and moved everyone’s /home/$USER files over) and stumbled across it.

It’s basically a mock canto for Dante’s Inferno about intellectual property. I give you, the lost Canto XXV.V.


More on Music

August 6, 2008

It’s been a while since I have listed the bands I’m listening to on this blog.

Now, my taste in music remains the same as it has been for a while: ++epic metal. My favorite bands are still Rhapsody(of Fire), Blind Guardian, Kamelot, and TÝR. But I have started listening to some different bands recently too, and there’s a new TÝR album out as well, Land. So, without further ado, a list of bands I listen to that I haven’t described before:

  • DragonForce. You might have heard of this band; they’ve gained a sort of popularity due to the opening track of their album Inhuman Rampage, “Through the Fire and Flames”, being the final bonus track in the game “Guitar Hero III”. (I have actually played that game a few times, though I don’t own it, and beaten TTFAF on ‘medium’ difficulty; it is quite a fun song for that game, and I can see why they picked it.) Their strengths are that they have two really good lead guitarists, a quite good keyboardist, and a lyricist who is rather good at writing cool-sounding fantasy-themed lyrics even if they don’t really hang together into a coherent, well, anything.Their weaknesses are exactly what you would expect given those strengths; they rely too much, IMO, on long guitar solos. First of all, almost all of their songs are formatted like so: introduction with lyrics and guitars and/or keyboard, guitar/keyboard solo(s), short stretch of lyrics and guitars/keyboard again, a long series of guitar/keyboard solos, and an ending with lyrics and guitars/keyboard. Their songs tend not to have much of a sense of purpose – they have some lyrics, and then play around on their instruments – which they are quite skilled at, no doubt – and then they have some more lyrics and the song ends. Their songs tend to be 6-7 minutes long, but they could stop after 3-4 minutes and it would be just as good – they just keep going because they like to play around with their instruments. This results in the listener being really into the song for the first few minutes and then growing bored (since I find lyrics more interesting than instruments, this usually happens for me about when the singer stops singing). My second complaint is that their lyrics tend to not really make sense. This is somewhat intentional on their part; I remember reading somewhere that they take their music seriously but not their lyrics. Still, I would like to be able to tell, for example, whether the lyrics are from the point of view of the “bad guys” or the “good guys”, and sometimes I can’t even tell that much – not because the story seems to be morally ambiguous, but because you just can’t tell what’s going on, or if there is anything going on at all rather than just a bunch of cool-sounding fantasy lyrics that don’t mean anything.Still, for all my complaints I do like DragonForce, and listen to them a lot. My favorite song at the moment is “Soldiers of the Wasteland”.
  • Elvenking. You know it’s a strange band when the members refer to themselves as “Aydan”, “Damnagoras”, etc, rather than having actual names. Last.fm claims they’re similar to Rhapsody(of Fire), but, really, they’re not – Rhapsody(of Fire) is much better. I don’t really know how to describe Elvenking; their songs somewhat irritate me, but I keep listening to them, and they do seem to have a sort of merit to them.
  • Ensiferum. This is one of the only bands I listen to that does “death growls”. I normally don’t like death growls, but they work well with Ensiferum, I think. This band sounds, I think, basically like a harsher, angrier version of Rhapsody – they have the bombastic guitars and keyboard, and a real strong fantasy sound, but the vocals are more aggressive. I rather like it; much better, anyway, than something like Amon Amarth which has the anger but not the power. They are rather similar to, but better than, I think,
  • Turisas. Both of these bands are Finnish, too; it must be something about how much power metal has come out of Finland that makes even the non-power metal bands (these two are viking metal) still sound something like power metal – the fast guitars and orchestral sound being key. Turisas uses death growls as well, in about equal proportion with normal vocals.
  • Falconer. This band is Swedish, and does not have a whole lot going for it, but not a whole lot against it either. It is somewhat generic power metal. Still, it is fairly good; they have some folk influences, a decent guitarist, and their lyrics are not bad at all. They also have an instrumental song on their album Northwind called “Black Tarn”; any use of the word “tarn” gets them points, in my opinion.

And, finally, a summary of the new TÝR album Land. It’s quite good, but not nearly as good as Ragnarok. I actually have some of the complaints I have with it as I have with DragonForce, even though their sounds are wildly different from each other – namely, that the songs on this album tend not to have much arc to them, and rather they just find a cool riff and noodle around with it for five minutes. Some of the songs don’t have this problem – the opening track, for instance, though it almost doesn’t count since half of it is just a poem being recited, not really music at all – but tragically, the two longest songs both do.

Now, I’m a big fan of long, >10 minute epic metal songs, but they have to be done correctly. Blind Guardian and Rhapsody both know how to do this; the longest BG song, “And Then There Was Silence”, about the fall of Troy, manages to have enough variation, what with tempo changes, dynamics changes, and sudden stops (about three minutes into the song everything goes almost silent for about five seconds), to remain interesting for the entire 14 minutes 3 seconds. The same with the two longest Rhapsody(of Fire) songs (they have seven over ten minutes, but only two are over fifteen minutes) – Rhapsody even  goes so far as to divide them into five sections for one and three for the other, and each section (they’re 3-6 minutes in length) each has its own feel to it. And it certainly helps that all three of these epic-length songs tell a story. With Ocean (ten minutes) and Land (sixteen minutes), though, there is no real story to be told, and so while the lyrics are cool, the music is cool, and the sound effects are cool (the sound of waves on the open ocean is used at the end of Land, and in Ocean, if I recall correctly), I come away from both of them just thinking, “these are just too long“… which is a real shame.

Also, only three and a half of the songs are in English (Ocean, Land, Hail to the Hammer, and part of Brennivin), and, as cool as it is to listen to songs in Faroese, Norwegian, and whatever else they throw at us,  I honestly prefer listening to songs in plain old English – it means I can understand what they’re saying and follow the storyline of the song. For me, lyrics tend to be more important than anything else (not to say that nothing else is important!), and so while I can handle having a few songs in other languages, I would have preferred to have a bit more English on the album.


Orange vs. Orange

August 2, 2008

This is not a review of the book A Clockwork Orange.

I read that book recently, and the first thing I realized, upon reading the introduction, was that my entire life I have misunderstood the title. It is not “a clockwork orange”, as in the color; it is “a clockwork orange”, as in the fruit. It is not a clockwork that is orange, it is an orange that is clockwork. These two things are radically different, but someone aware of only the title of the book and not of the title’s meaning could easily confuse them.

Though obviously it has no meaning for the actual book A Clockwork Orange, I somewhat prefer my version of the title. There is something striking about it – for one, since its denotation is identical to that of “an orange clockwork”, but it is not “an orange clockwork”, it places an intriguing emphasis on “orange” rather than “clockwork” – the focus is not on the fact that it is a clockwork , but on the fact that this clockwork is orange.

What would it mean to have something be orange whose definition was the following?

  1. A mechanism powered by a coiled spring and regulated by some form of escapement; the power is transmitted through toothed gearwheels and used to drive a mechanical clock, toy, or other device.

I have no idea. I do know that it seems to me to be an interesting image, and an interesting turn of phrase. But, since there is a book titled “A Clockwork Orange” as in the fruit, we will most likely never see “a clockwork orange” as in the color used anywhere, for anything. Only one of those phrases can be prominent, for once one of them is, the other will always be seen as a play-on-words, a parody of the other, not an actual phrase to be used in anything serious. So “a clockwork orange” as in the color will never be seen, anywhere. Perhaps (though probably not) “a clockwork red” or “a clockwork purple” – but never “a clockwork orange”.

Oh well.

Language is funny sometimes.


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