Talking Animals WTF?

May 30, 2009

A common motif in children’s movies (and books, for that matter) is that of talking animals. But not all talking animals are created equal. There are two different kinds of talking animals in children’s stories: the ones that have their own civilizations, and live basically independently from humans, versus the ones that coexist with humans and can even talk to them.

Of course, thesee two different kinds of talking animal stories have subgroups. Take the stories where there are only talking animals – no humans. (I include here stories where humans exist, but don’t play a big role, and there are no human characters or there are only a few minor human characters and they can’t understand the animals’ speech.)

One of my favorite kid’s movies of all time, The Lion King, has only animals as characters, and so in it the characters, while animals, are essentially human. Their animal natures don’t really have much effect other than to give an instant characterization: lions are royal and brave (generally speaking), monkeys are clever, hyenas are deceptive and ruthless, etc. But the characters themselves are basically human. The plot would make just as much sense with human characters, though the movie would be worse.

On the other hand, the book Watership Down (also one of my favorites) actually uses the fact that these are animals, not humans; the rabbits are very, well, rabbity, not very intelligent, not making very big plans, etc. There are humans, and how they endanger the rabbits is important, but the gulf between rabbit and human is so great that humans are essentially gods – they don’t care about rabbit society, and aren’t expected to. The humans can kill the rabbits if they want to, but just as often don’t care at all about them. The rabbits are the main characters, they aren’t humans though they have some human-like characteristics, and the humans are basically gods.

Now take those stories where there are both humans and talking animals, and the humans are, generally speaking, the main characters. This poses an interesting problem as to how to portray the animals. A common error, I think, is to present the animals as basically human, and to imply (through having some animals able to talk) that all animals are equal with humans. This just causes moral confusion.

I recently saw the movie Up (the reason for my making this post in the first place); in it, there are dogs with collars that make them talk basically like humans, and the plot centers on the main character trying to protect a bird (not even a talking bird!) from being captured (not killed, captured!) by the villain. Why exactly would it have been wrong for the bird to be captured and brought to America? I really have no idea. It makes no philosophical sense, I’d say. But emotionally, I think it had something to do with how the dogs were able to talk. This is my problem with stories with humans and talking animals where the talking animals are essentially human.

For an alternate kind of story with talking animals and talking humans, I have to turn to fairy-tales – the story of Cinderella, as told in the original German (Aschenputtel, which I read in German class once upon a time). In it, there are birds that help Cinderella out by giving her clothes, and who protect her by revealing her sisters as frauds (the sisters cut off their toes and heel so they can fit into the tiny shoe, and the birds call out “Ruckedidu Ruckedidu, Blut ist im Schuhe!”). They can talk, yes – but they’re not people. They don’t have personalities, per se. They’re basically nature embodied. We would be somewhat disconcerted if these birds died, because they can talk – they give us this link to nature, to understand what nature “wants”. But they don’t make us think that animals are human, or that we should feel bad when we kill a bird and eat it.

Hm. Interesting Tolkien connection; he talks about talking animals in his “On Fairy-Stories”, saying that the presence of talking animals was a clear sign that something was a fairy tale. It is, I’m pretty sure, this last kind of talking-to-animals (and not the animals-are-human kind!) that he was talking about. Anyway, good essay. Worth reading.


I Was There In My Dreams

May 24, 2009

I had a very strange and vivid dream a few nights ago. It went something like this:

It is raining and dark outside. The world is coming to an end, and only I can save it. But I decide doing so would be too hard, so I don’t. Instead, I somehow break into someone’s car, steal the CD player lying on the floor of their car, and begin walking around – I’m apparently at a university of some sort, though not the one I attend. I’m looking for CDs to listen to, because I need to find the right music to listen to – maybe this was how I was supposed to save the world in the first place, I don’t quite recall.

But the first CD I find is filled with really bad music (which I listen to anyway – the rest of the dream has a truly horrible soundtrack), and after that, every time I pick up what looks like a CD (these things are lying around everywhere – on tables, in chairs, on bookshelves, etc), it turns out to be a DVD. I know I saw a DVD of season 3 of the Simpsons, and a few movies I can’t remember. I keep frantically walking around trying to find something good to listen to, but couldn’t. Then I woke up.

Where am I going with this? Well, partially, just to relate the story of this strange dream I had. But also, to point out how much more… exciting, in certain ways, this dream was than reality. And how much more exciting every dream, really every story worth telling, is than reality.

We tell stories about things we have no experience in – how many of us have ever actually had to save the world (none), or lead an army into battle (almost none), or even been in war at all (some, but not anywhere near a majority)? Most people have had romantic entanglements of some kind, but how many have been as intense as those of Romeo and Juliet – they both commit suicide rather than live without the other – or Othello, who kills his wife out of jealousy then commits suicide when he realizes he was tricked? (None.) In a sense, literature isn’t about life at all. It’s about what life could be – about a potential that few of us will ever realize.

I don’t think this makes it worthless. Nor do I think it means we ought to move to a literature that is about everyday life, excluding anything extraordinary. Partially, because doing so means moving to a literature that is boring. But also because doing so means saying that the world as it is, and our life as it is, is all that there can be. There is no potential for anything better.

The title of this post is a reference to a song by TYR called Dreams. It’s about what this post is about – how mythology isn’t about life, but it’s about what we dream about, what is possible but not actual.

One Way of Avoiding the Issue

May 21, 2009

I  recently read The Anubis Gates, a sci-fi/fantasy/time-travel book by Tim Powers involving an English professor specializing in Romantic poets being brought as a tour guide to 1810 to listen to a lecture by Samuel Taylor Coleridge who gets stuck there (err, then).

There’s a lot of stuff I could say about this book, but what I want to focus on is, the romantic (lower-case “r”) element of it. One thing I’ve noticed in the various Powers books I’ve read (Declare, Three Days to Never, The Stress of Her Regard) is that Powers isn’t particularly good at doing believable female characters or believable love stories. He gets around this in The Anubis Gates by… well, basically never having the two characters who are fated to get married (time travel, remember?) interact, or have any romantic tension, and end the book by bringing them together and implying that yes, they do fall in love and get married.

This all reminds me in some ways of Aragorn and Arwen in the Lord of the Rings – that romance is always in the background, not the foreground. It’s one way of avoiding having to portray romantic love convincingly: just say it happens off-stage.

I think it works in LotR, though, and not in The Anubis Gates. Why? I think it’s because in LotR, it’s in the background because it has to be – it’s not a particularly important part of the plot, they’re already in love when the story starts, and so it doesn’t feel like cheating when we see them get married without seeing their falling in love. (And we do see that, kinda, in the appendices.) Also, Arwen isn’t that major a character, so Aragorn is in love with someone who’s already off-stage; it’s OK to have the romance be off-stage as well.

But in The Anubis Gates, it is a major part of the plot, is talked about over and over, and is the only reason at all for one of the main character’s presence (the girl really isn’t important except because she eventually marries the guy, but she’s present throughout the book). So the two characters involved are on-stage, but the romance itself is off-stage. And not that plausible. It’s like he set up the romance, then decided it would be too hard to write it actually happening, so he didn’t try.

Ah well. I guess the lesson is, be careful about when and how you portray romances in a story. If it’s not done carefully it can be an irritating distraction, not an addition to the story.


May 14, 2009

Firstly, an amusing website:

Secondly, regarding the recent increase in piracy off the coast of Somalia; the one good thing to come of it, in my opinion, is that people are reminded of what actual piracy is. It involves armed robbery, hostage-taking, and death. Whether making unauthorized copies of a movie or song is immoral or not, it is nothing like actual piracy in its severity. No internet pirate ever killed someone.

Now, on to the Pirate Bay trial. So, the legal debate itself – whether or not providing links to copyrighted material is illegal when you are not providing the material itself – is interesting, but fundamentally irrelevant. I tend to think the Pirate Bay should have won the trial on legal grounds, but I can understand the case against, given current copyright law. Really none of that matters, though; what everyone really cares about is whether or not piracy itself is wrong. Is it even possible to ‘steal’ information?


Turin’s Manifesto on So-Called Intellectual Property

I like to look at this historically. It used to be that data was intimately bound up with physical property. Before the printing press, copies of books were made by hand; the book was valuable for its content, yes, but primarily because it was rare, difficult to produce, requiring hours and hours of painstaking manual labor. If someone wanted to make a copy of a book they had in their possession, they were free to do so; it would require a lot of work, and the new copy would certainly be theirs, since they created the physical artifact.

Then the printing press came along, and it became easy to make many copies of something – if you owned a large and expensive piece of machinery and could put in enough manual labor to produce a single copy of it. Making one copy and making a thousand copies required the same amount of initial effort, with little extra effort added for each copy. This made it so that, if someone wrote a book, they could publish it and make many copies of it, selling each of them for a slight profit – but that the few other people who had printing presses (not just anyone, since almost no one had such presses) could make their own copies of the book and sell them.

There seems something unfair about this; person A wrote the book, but person B profits from selling it because he just takes the text and prints it, giving nothing to person A. It was because of situations like this that copyright law was invented – giving a limited monopoly on the rights to print copies to the person who wrote the book. Anyone would still be allowed to make their own copies by hand, if they wanted to, but it would require so much effort they would be better off just buying a copy; copyright law’s purpose was to make sure that, when the common man bought a copy of a book, he bought one from the person who actually wrote it.

And copyright was for a limited period of time, because eventually the work would become public knowledge of sorts, and it wouldn’t make sense at that point to restrict access to it. That, or it would be forgotten, and it wouldn’t make sense to stop people from making copies of a book that would otherwise never be read. It’s better not to have laws that destroy knowledge.

In the last few decades there has been a radical shift in how easy it is to make a copy of something. Making an electronic copy of an electronic document takes seconds, and costs next to nothing, and almost any form of data – movie, book, song, whatever – can be made into a digital file. So when someone “pirates” something, breaking copyright law, they’re not anything like the people who set up printing presses to make money from books they did not write; they aren’t making money, the people getting copies of the books and movies and songs aren’t being tricked into paying the wrong person for the content; rather, data has been divorced from physical property, and people are beginning to act accordingly. When books had to be physical objects, it made sense to say that those objects could only be sold by the people who actually wrote the books; now, when books can be costlessly transferred online, it makes little sense to say they still must be paid for, and that it is stealing to create a digital copy of something and give it away for free. Again: Copyright law is a cumbersome legacy from a time when there was no way to transfer information except through physical property.

The basic point I’d like to make is that advances in technology require us to come up with different ways of encouraging the arts. Yes, the existence of internet piracy may cause a problem for the current music and film industries; that doesn’t mean we need to get rid of internet piracy, which is a natural result of the current state of technology. Rather, it means we have to find new ways of making sure artists can make a living from their work.

Before the printing press artists functioned under a patronage system; the poet Vergil, for example, was under the employ of the emperor Augustus. When the printing press came along books could be sold directly to the public for profit, and so capitalism and the arts became bedfellows. Now, with internet piracy making any profit from selling something along the lines of the current system dubious, a new system is needed. What it will be, I don’t know. But something has to change, and getting rid of internet piracy isn’t the answer.

Summer Has Begun

May 14, 2009

So, I had my last two exams today (err, yesterday, it being 2 AM and all), and I am now entering summer vacation.

It’s kind of a strange feeling; I’ve now been at UD for as long as I was at any school since 5th grade, and when next semester starts it’ll have been longer. And I’m not sure what next semester will be like. I’m in a student apartment with a friend of mine and two people I don’t really know, and all of us are considered “intelligent”; it’ll be an interesting experience. Also, one of my closest friends is transferring to a school where she can be a music major; it will be strange not having her here. All in all next semester will almost certainly be more exciting than this one.

Anyway, these are my plans for the coming three months, in no particular order:

  • Re-read the collected works of Gerard Manley Hopkins in preparation for my Junior Poet class
  • Read Camus’ The Stranger, for no particular reason
  • Read assorted books from Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, again for no particular reason
  • Re-read Shakespeare’s four major tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Macbeth)
  • Watch seasons 4-7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I’ve seen 1-3 this semester)
  • Somehow obtain Battlestar Galactica Seasons 1-4 and watch them
  • Finish my Wild Era Orbivm campaign, decide if I want to start another one or if I’m done writing campaigns for Wesnoth
  • Finish at least the prologue and first chapter of the book I’ve started writing, and perhaps complete another short story (I’m finally getting serious about this writing thing)
  • Take Calculus III so I don’t have to take it during the school year

So, this is what will occupy my time, for the most part. (Perhaps) noticeably absent from this list is, getting a job. It’s not that I would mind getting a job and making money; I just don’t expect it to happen. I really have no marketable skills. I like talking about literature and philosophy and mathematics. If anyone wants to hire me to do that, I’m in. Otherwise…

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming. Coming up next: something about copyright and the Pirate Bay trial.

Empathic Aspies

May 11, 2009

A radical new autism theory

This is a fascinating article, for me at least. I have a brother with Asperger’s Syndrome (a mild form of autism), and this explanation makes a lot of sense to me based on my observations of his behavior.

Anyway, it’s currently finals week, so no long rants about life, the universe, and everything; I’ll get back to our regularly scheduled programming at some point after Wednesday night.

I Feel That

May 8, 2009

People should stop using the phrase “I feel that”/”I feel like” to mean “I think that”.

This is something I’ve noticed more and more over the last few months; people seem to think that making assertions about their beliefs and opinions is somehow offensive, but making assertions about their emotions is not. The idea being, I suppose, that we have control over our beliefs, and so if we think something that runs contrary to someone else’s beliefs, we are intentionally contradicting them, while we don’t have control over our emotions to nearly the same degree, so if we feel something differently from someone else, it’s not your fault and you’re not casting judgement on the other person anyway, you just feel differently.

In other words, it’s a kind of sickly relativism. And it really bugs me, because it signifies a larger shift away from rational debate. As soon as we start taking differences of opinion as personal insults, we lose the ability to reason with the opposition, and it all turns into a question of who’s more emotionally persuasive.

Ah well.

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