2012-09-30 Tweets

  • @mark_bousquet Sure thing! in reply to mark_bousquet #
  • Lesson from today @unitytempleuuc "A real apology takes responsibility for the past and charge of the future." #
  • We should remember that what's not right in our strained or broken relationships is often something that's been left unsaid. @unitytempleuuc #
  • Kids are staying warm running around, but it's a little chilly sitting on a bench listening to AJ RAFFLES THE AMATUER CRACKSMAN at the zoo. #
  • #Baudrillard at the Brookfield zoo. Avery and two kids climbing a tree have an argument about whether the tree is real. #
  • Arrgh. Every day I get a couple returned spams from Russian bride emails that use me as the "from" address. Not one proposal of marriage. #
  • Did I mention that my college has a club called the 'Whovians'? http://t.co/ugw2oyCs #
  • The great tension in media has always been that freedom and quality are conflicting goals. #cognitivesurplus #
  • This is getting out of hand. I saw two retro hipster waxed mustaches in the walk from office to train today. #
  • Also, the old bluesman busker with the voodoo idol isn't here today. Instead it's a twenty-something singing Tom Petty songs. #
  • I retweeted that last one b/c I find it hilarious that the Lingerie League has a commisioner. Also, that the LL has refs. #
  • Rehearsal for centuries and sleuths "meeting of the minds" in which I'll play dashiell hammett went well tonight. Self reward? Ice cream! #
  • Just learned that they're remaking Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Sigh. I hope they at least get John Larroquette for the opening narration. #
  • I suspect this will have a minor Streisand effect. http://t.co/sEwz8hy2 #
  • NSFW, Very, very funny. http://t.co/oJuyckAX #
  • Thanks, Pam and Phil, for the creeptastic Halloween zombie. It already scared one neighbor! http://t.co/EGMNytHM #
  • Self Esteem boost: I tell the kids it's my morning to walk them to school. Finn replies "Awwww! I want Mommy." #
  • I'm obsessed with this. http://t.co/rtKE52CS #
  • Good work, Christopher Newport U. http://t.co/pcsBJ2nN #
  • Seeger's 'Hallelujah I'm a Bum' says "Bum bum you been here before." Reminds me of NightAtTheMuseum Easter Island head who says "dumb dumb." #
  • Avery watching Mystery Inc ep"Secret Serum" that just mentioned Sumatran Rat Monkeys. Stealth DEAD ALIVE (Braindead) reference. #zombies #
  • Same episode features a seafood restaurant called THE CRAB NET OF DR. CALAMARI. Awesome. #
  • Finn is reading the elephant tale "I broke my trunk" and inserting the lyrics to "Cotton Eye Joe" in the word balloons. http://t.co/qc1INjsc #
  • AP imposed an upper limit on fact checking Michelle Bachman; almost everything she says is a fabrication of some sort. http://t.co/bXqdH08T #
  • Also, this. http://t.co/kOhJAoLC #
  • @rogerwhitson We still love ya, RW! in reply to rogerwhitson #
  • @lnakamur what are the arguments saying it's not? #slsa12 #oryxandcrake in reply to lnakamur #
  • Blast! Adults used to get 2 muffins each from the half dozen in the pan, but Avery figured out that 6/4 is 1.5 Darn that smartypants! #
  • Watched Finn and Avery deal with teasing and swing hoarding in an admirable way. #ThePlaygroundIsAJungle #
  • You know you did something right when kids are so comfy with the babysitter that they say to you "can you go now?" @sbmalley #

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August/September Comics Roundup

Kill Shakespeare vol 1 League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol 3: Century 2009 Bad Signal Vol 1

Kill Shakespeare, Vol 1
by Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery

Like Fables or The Unwritten, Del Col and McCreery build a world where figures from literature act on their own, with their own plotlines.  In this world, the real Danish prince is sucked through a vortex to a world where all the characters from the Bard’s plays live together, with villains scheming to take over the world and rebels trying to stop them.  It’s fun to see how these characters might have interacted, but some of the pairings don’t work for me.  I’m keen to see where the story goes with Iago, who proves to be just as manipulative as he was in Othello.

 

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol 3: 2009
by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill

Volume 3 of the League has lurched into the challenging territory that most long-running Alan Moore comics wander, a kind of self-imposed inscrutability in which narrative threads become so entangled that the reader struggles to find purchase.  If I’d only read the first twenty pages of this 80 pager, I would probably have been pretty disappointed.  But then things snap into place and the end of the whole project is pretty darn entertaining.  Moore has to be a bit more opaque about how he brings new literature into the story, but let’s just say at one point the League wanders through a wall between two platforms at a train station. Oh yes.

 

Bad Signal Vol 1
by Warren Ellis, illustrated by Jacen Burrows

This isn’t really a comic, but rather a compilation of the better posts from Ellis’ Bad Signal email list.  It’s an interesting snapshot of my favorite comics writer in the early 2000s, with cool ideas about where the medium can go and what he thinks about lots of things.  It’s also a bit too specific to its time, so it’s got a limited appeal.  Not recommended for Warren Ellis novices (For that I’d say Planetary or Global Frequency or the glory that is Transmetropolitan).

Friday bullets

A few upcoming events I’m very excited to attend:

A few things I’m really keen to buy (actually, have bought):

  • Castle Dice, a new kickstarter game from the quality folks who made Miskatonic School for Girls.
  • Humble Bundle 6, more cool new games! Act now!

A few upcoming events I’m very excited to be a part of:

  • October 18th, Southwestern Michigan University, I’ll be giving a talk about zombies
  • October 25th, Northeastern Tennessee State, I’ll be giving a couple talks about zombies
  • November 4th,5th, I’ll be playing Dashiell Hammett in a play at the Centuries and Sleuths bookstore.

A busy six weeks ahead.

Doing Illegal Things Badly

30 Minutes or Less Burke and Hare

Burke and Hare and 30 Minutes or Less

Burke and Hare is the latest of the regular re-tellings of the real and amusing tale of two bumbling business men who turn to murder in order to meet the corpse needs of the royal Edinburgh Medical College.  30 Minutes or Less tells the tale of a slacker and his buddy strapped to a bomb and forced to rob a bank.  Both are moderately enjoyable. A few thoughts:

  • Both films frame the pursuit of crime as one of stupidity and desperation.  In 30 minutes or Less, the criminals who strap a bomb to our slacker protagonist do so in order to raise 100,000 so they can hire a hit man to murder the wealthy father of one of the gang.  In Burke and Hare, they turn to murder in order to raise capital for an all female version of Macbeth and to start a funeral parlor.
  • The police in both films are pretty dopey.  At least Burke and Hare gives them something to solve in the end.  In 30 Minutes or Less, the police become a useful plot device making things harder for the criminals and their hapless victims.
  • Both films play on the hapless criminals trope so common to films by the Coen Brothers.  While neither reaches the level of mania one might expect from such films, 30 Minutes or Less involves a chaotic pileup of amateurish nincompoopery on par with Raising Arizona or Fargo.  Burke and Hare feels much more like a conventional dark comedy.
  • In a strange turn of events made even more strange by the fact that I did not plan it this way, both films turn out to be based on real events.  30 Minutes or Less was very similar to the Collar Bomb killer case, but according to Wikipedia the screenwriters don’t claim to have been inspired by the events.  Burke and Hare were real individuals, and the story of the film is loosely based on their real killings of seventeen people to sell as medical subjects.
  • Ultimately, I think 30 Minutes or Less would have been a more interesting film if its writers hadn’t resorted to so much vulgarity early in the film.  I also thought Nick Swardson’s portrayal as the kind-hearted sidekick to Danny McBride was pretty darn good.

Both worth seeing, though probably not going too far out of your way to see.  Burke and Hare, despite its gruesome subject matter, is a bit more friendly to the refined viewer, as it has less vulgar language.  Isn’t it weird how vulgar language presents a bigger problem for the American viewing audience than do seventeen murders?

Well that was unexpected

Check out the bottom left option in this “related to I Sell the Dead” screen.  Weird, eh?

Once More with Feeling
Once More with Feeling

I suspect all Chaz Palmenteri or Drea de Matteo films end up in the zombie list, just because.

A Princess of Mars

by Edgar Rice Burroughs, read by Mark Nelson for Librivox

A Princess of Mars book jacket
A Princess of Mars book jacket

Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy story about the adventures of Captain John Carter (of Virginia) among the six-limbed people of Mars is a rousing adventure in the old style, with tales of derring-do, sword fights, honor, and villainy.  Carter, succombing to a wound in a mystical cave in the American West, finds himself transported to Mars, where he falls in with a vicious warrior race (the Green men of Mars) and discovers the love of his life, a beautiful princess (of the Red men of Mars).  Because he was raised in the heavy gravity well of Earth, Carter has immense strength on Mars, making him a formidable warrior.  A few thoughts:

  • Having just read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I was particularly sensitive to this book’s depiction of the Native Americans in the West as vicious killers.  “John Carter,” I thought to myself, “you’re trespassing on their land!”  Of course, it’s not hard to read the two peoples of Mars as analogous to the two populations in nineteenth century America.  Burroughs depicts the green men of Mars as vicious killers living in a society based on violence and Communist ideas.    He explicitly explains their nomadic existence as a degradation due to their unwillingness to work hard.
  • By contrast, the Red men live in cities and do the essential work of maintaining the oxygen supply of Mars, without which everyone would die.  (I can’t help wondering how creatures requiring an oxygen-rich environment evolved in such a place, but Burroughs doesn’t go into that.  In fact, his suggestion that high civilizations from thousands of years ago had fallen away and left remnants all over the planet reminds me of a tale of far-future Earth, in which (perhaps) water purifying plants provide the only uncontaminated water in the world, or something like that.
  • There are quite a few science-fictional elements in the novels: hovering ships, rifles that can shoot two miles, bombs, shells that explode when sunlight touches their powder, and an air-refinery that services the whole planet.  Also? Everyone on Mars is psychic, including John Carter.  But while he can hear their thoughts, he can neither send them actively nor be heard by anyone passively.
  • The life cycle of the Green Men is incredibly slow.  Eggs are laid only once every five years, and they are left in sealed remote buildings.  After an additional five years, the tribe returns to break open the building and let out the hatchlings, who will have just hatched.  They are collected into families at random without– we’re supposed to gasp– any idea who their blood parents are.  John Carter suggests that this random parenting process creates the loveless violence that plagues the Green men.  At the same time, the green men have a habit of destroying any opposing incubators they find in their wanderings, thus cutting off another tribe’s young for at least five years.  It’s a particularly grim aspect of the Green Men’s culture, and one of the ways Burroughs helps highlight their vile nature.
  • Last, A Princess of Mars is a classic white messiah fable.  John Carter shows up among the green men and turns out to be a better warrior than any of them are.  Then he leads them to a civilized detante with the Red Men of Mars and teaches them about love and caring and friendship.  What a guy!

Mark Nelson does a great job once again, though something about his vocal styling tends to add an air of humor that I suspect some lines weren’t supposed to have.  That said, I’m continuing to enjoy my journey through Mark Nelson’s audio catalog on Librivox.

Rating inflation

I’ve noticed that Goodreads and Amazon have different rating scales despite sharing a five-star system.  To whit, here are the pop ups on the two ratings systems:

Amazon ratings cues
Amazon ratings cues

Goodreads ratings cues
Goodreads ratings cues

I notice this discrepancy every time I cross post a review on both systems.  I post Goodreads reviews because I like the social element of them, and I post those reviews on Amazon so that I have credibility as a reviewer when I have a book that I want to support, commercially, with a review on the site.  (PLEASE NOTE: I don’t mean that I “support” books by posting reviews that are inflated or untrue.  Instead, I mean that I want my honest reviews to have weight when I choose to post them, so I post many reviews on Amazon to establish that weight.)

In case you didn’t catch it, Goodreads skews toward positive reviews whereas Amazon skews toward negative ones.  The neutral “it was ok” on Amazon is at the three star level, whereas it’s at two stars on Goodreads.   This makes sense if we think about why the sites exist.  Goodreads is a social space, a place where one posts, presumably, ‘good’ reads.  So in pure ratings, having more distinctions in the top half of the scale makes sense.  It really means, though, that there’s a big drop off between 2 and 1 star in the system.  ALL the books one doesn’t like must go in the single 1 star category.  That said, I don’t read very many books that I won’t at least give an “it was ok.”  (Statistics time: of the 786 books I have marked “read” and rated on Goodreads, I have only marked 5 with a single star.  That’s .6%.)  Thus, Goodreads gives you four options for choosing among books you liked.

By contrast, Amazon’s rating system is designed to register both degrees of positive AND negative ratings.  As a result, though, the good ratings are inflated on the system.  Using myself as an example, if most books land on the upper half of the scale, then I have only three ways to distinguish them in Amazon’s system, since TWO of the options are in the negative column.

All this goes to say that the communal rating system on Goodreads is probably more likely to help me find books I REALLY like, and it’s going to be better at distinguishing between books with high and low values.  That said, I often use LibraryThing’s zeitgeist to find new books.  Go figure, eh?

Which ratings systems do you use, dear reader?

2012-09-23 Tweets

  • At wonder Works children's museum with the kids. One hour of ebook reading, here I come. Today it's Carnacki the ghost hunter. #
  • Salon has a good article about the CPS teachers' strike. http://t.co/omoCLnHW #
  • OED Word of the day a lame duck. Quadrigarious: of or connected to chariot racing. Like there's anybody who doesn't know THAT one. #duh #
  • "How a Political Poem Was Bullied Out of Me" by Molly Meacham http://t.co/JOk6t4mj #
  • I like free stuff, don't you? @emusic thanks me for subscribing with a $10 credit just 'cuz. Thanks! #
  • @zachwhalen "Just sent a fax lol" I read this not as a LOL itself, but that you sent a LOL through a fax, somehow. in reply to zachwhalen #
  • @avantgame "positive tweets retweeted…" Is your tweet about positive tweets positive? If I retweet it, which way do I tip the scales? in reply to avantgame #
  • "We Will Rock You" is a good song to listen to right before class. I wish I taught geology. #
  • #Cawelti 80 Detective stories present simple problems. Life goes along well except for the single point that a murder has been committed. #
  • Would limiting yourself to only as many people as follow you improve or harm your tweets? #
  • Rock! @Humble Bundle 6 is out now. Looks great! http://t.co/7ti29IJn #
  • Dude walking by on the el platform, head down, earbuds in, pauses for a moment and does a little jazz hands. #
  • While jenny preps for class tomorrow, we're watching the #Columbo ep "it's all in the game." Written by peter falk himself. #
  • Awesome Batman pic. Happy birthday, Adam West! http://t.co/IW4ePYDr #
  • Reading League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vol 3: 2009. They just found the horrifying remnants of the Hogwarts Express. Thank you, Alan M! #
  • Loved the end of League of Extraordinary gentlemen Vol 3. Awesome villain, awesome last minute hero. Great work. #
  • Oof. 4yo Finn was recalcitrant and ornery this AM. Pestering Avery while she ate and refusing to go away. It was like Occupy My Living Room. #
  • Great post about the history of "you can't shout 'fire' in a crowded theater." http://t.co/1tf8TaFr #
  • Of Monsters and Men, Riviera theatre, Dec 16. Can't wait. #
  • Movie night: The Bourne Legacy. #

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Gunfighter Gothic Volume 0: Blood of the Universe

Gunfighter Gothic
Gunfighter Gothic

by Mark Bousquet

I like Mark Bousquet’s film reviews an awful lot.  It’s always a sign of a thoughtful reviewer when I find myself agreeing with their commentary about a film even as I disagree about whether one should like it or not.  He’s an incisive, insightful writer.  With that in mind, I was very excited to read Gunfighter Gothic Vol 0

Gunfighter Gothic Vol 0 gives the readers an introduction to an alt-history supernatural western in which factions, time travelers, vampires, werewolves, cultists, and all manner of strange creatures range across the old west, in varying states of secrecy.  It’s a riotous romp with lots of action and starkly drawn but believable characters.  A few thoughts:

  • This is a book for people who appreciate a fast pace and a writer who doesn’t waste too much time “sign posting” every detail in the book.  Instead, he lets us stew in the mystery of the world for a bit, letting the reader gather by context what another writer might explain explicitly.
  • Like Dan Butcher’s Dresden files books, Bousquet creates a world in which all mythologies stand together at the table, and regular people are strangely clueless (or perhaps aware, it’s unclear).  It seems that once someone is part of the mystical secret underworld, though, they’re hardly phased by cave-dwelling lizard men or a secret vampire plot to raise a Nazi army to take over the world.
  • The time travel aspect of the book is not as detailed as I would like.  We learn, over the course of the two stories, all about the few people given the power to travel through time, but we also learn relatively little about how time travel works in this universe nor about the creature / being who gave them time travel in the first place.  This is likely intentional, I suspect, as it prepares us for future novels.
  • My favorite faction in the novel were the sun-chasers, a pack of vicious cultists who devastate their own bodies in their worship of the sun and who run rampant across the West, killing and recruiting like the Reavers in Joss Whedon’s Firefly universe.
  • At the same time, the book, which focuses on two tales from the world, often sacrifices character development for action scenes, leaving the emotional arcs of the characters relatively little room to develop among the gunfights.  As much as I enjoyed the action of the book, I would have liked to see a few more interludes in which the characters have time to develop.

Gunfighter Gothic is an enjoyable read, even if it’s a bit too action-oriented for my taste.

(Full disclosure: Bousquet offered a free copy of the eBook from his website last spring, and I obtained the book through that giveaway.)

The coming wave of consumer-created media

My friend Rolfe reminded me of a good exchange about copyright that I encourage you all to read.  Three key posts:

It started with Emily White’s post at the NPR All Things Considered blog:

But the truth is, I’ve never supported physical music as a consumer. As monumental a role as musicians and albums have played in my life, I’ve never invested money in them aside from concert tickets and T-shirts…. As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. I can’t support them with concert tickets and T-shirts alone. But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience. (I Never Owned Any Music to Begin With)

Then David Lowry of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven replied:

Rather, fairness for musicians is a problem that requires each of us to individually look at our own actions, values and choices and try to anticipate the consequences of our choices. I would suggest to you that, like so many other policies in our society, it is up to us individually to put pressure on our governments and private corporations to act ethically and fairly when it comes to artists rights. Not the other way around. We cannot wait for these entities to act in the myriad little transactions that make up an ethical life. I’d suggest to you that, as a 21-year old adult who wants to work in the music business, it is especially important for you to come to grips with these very personal ethical issues.  (A Letter to Emily White)

And last, Jonathan Coulton writes:

There is no scarcity anymore, no discrete physical object to build a business around, no reason to pay for it other than wanting to support the artist so they can make more music, a long term proposition that isn’t always the first thing you think of when your finger is hovering over the download link. Some people support artists even though they don’t have to, which is a lot like how it used to be before there were recordings. You might call that nether world between commerce and charity “patronage.” I believe this is the long-term future of all things, not just music. (Emily and David)

For me, as the Ulmerian who views most developments in culture through the lens of electracy, the third age of human communication, I see this as an inevitable friction point in the shift from scarcity to plenty.  One of the problems of the print age is scarcity of product.  Because its costs a lot to make books, say, we enact cultural rules to protect those book makers so they will make more books.  But we usually ALSO recognize that culture is different from the medium we use to transmit the culture.  The business model in which people become professional musicians by charging for each copy of recordings of their music is likely to go away.

The conflict right now certainly hinges on personal ethical choices — do we pay for music to support the musician or not? But this is an ethic we have set up among ourselves, with the idea that paying for copies makes sense.   It doesn’t make sense anymore.  As an advocate of the rule of law, I’m in favor of phasing out the restrictive copyright terms that currently exist, so that musicians come to recognize the changing technology demands that they find different ways to raise money.  Instead, our law is moving too slowly to keep up with the changing culture technology enables, and we thus find ourselves arguing about the morality of the medium’s message.

At the same time, I see far more people taking small cuts of the big music money pie than ever before.  Individuals build Youtube channels with large followings.  The technology necessary to make high quality (or mid quality) recordings gets cheaper and cheaper, and the flow of money moves around.  But the read-write culture also means that musician is less likely to be a one-way street than it was twenty years ago.

I’ll end with my favorite quote from my favorite episode of the first iteration of ZeFrank’s monumental The Show.  In talking about the “I knows me some ugly myspace contest,” Ze uses a phrase with an utter certainty and clarity that it has become a mantra for me in thinking about these issues:

“As consumer-created media engulfs the other kind…”

Meanwhile, I was going to post a Camper Van Beethoven video, but they don’t have an official channel on Youtube as far as I can tell.  Jonathan Coulton licensed his songs with CC so here’s one of them instead.

[youtube:v=UBe6qE5lrwk]

The True Mysteries of Inspector Blood Murdoch’s Newsroom

That sounds like a show I’d watch.  I was trying to figure out the best way to write about our summer television viewing, which included three separate shows, when I decided to do a “double review,” but in augmented form.  Here we go, a triple review!

True Blood Season 5 The Newsroom Inspector Murdoch season 3

True Blood: Season 5 develops its main thread around the impending war between humans and vampires as a rebellious faction of the vampire leadership takes control and begins preaching a fundamentalist view that humans just exist as food for vampires (as usual, there are about fifty side plots to follow too).  The Newsroom: Season 1 follows Will McAvoy, a popular news anchor who has a Broadcast News / Jerry Maguire moment as he admits what he really thinks, then leads his news show to be more hard hitting and honest in their broadcasting (The Newsroom allows roughly five side plots).  Inspector Murdoch Mysteries, Season 3 continues along as a charming turn of the century police procedural, with its very slow burning subplot of romance between Murdoch and Ogden.

A few thoughts:

  • Religion becomes a central issue in each show.  In True Blood, the fundamentalist “sanguinistas” believe themselves to have access to the one true faith, and they’re willing to bathe the world in blood to follow that plot.  We also see racist killers who want to get rid of all non-humans.  Inspector Murdoch always has a minor undercurrent of religious tension, as Murdoch is Catholic in the predominantly Anglican country (some people call him a “Papist”).  Coupled with a revelation about Julia’s past this season, religion shapes the plot in key ways.  The Newsroom spends the least amount of time on religion, though it does become an issue in the way they deal with Tea Party candidates.  Will wants to ask Michelle Bachmann what God’s voice sounds like, for example.
  • Science runs in the opposite direction.  The premise of the Murdoch mysteries is often the use of science to further law and order, with Murdoch’s interest in science leading to all sorts of plot devices.  This season, he encountered Tesla, again, and had a run in with some eugenicists.  The Newsroom sits in the middle, relying on science more than other sources of fact, but not making it an essential part of the story.  True Blood continues to blend science with the other supernatural aspects of the TB world, though if anything, the nature of the supernatural creatures gets more supernatural with each season.
  • Two series focus on a man at war with himself.  McAvoy struggles between his desire for ratings and popularity and his desire to be true to his spirit as a newsman.  Murdoch struggles with his desire for Julia and his buttoned up puritanical attitude.  I suppose True Blood‘s Terry or Alcide are men at war with themselves as well.  Alcide, especially, wants to be a joiner but doesn’t like to submit to the will of others.
  • We all love enjoyable side characters, don’t we?  They’re cute and rather harmless and they give us fun breaks from the more dramatic parts of the main plot.  Constable Crabtree stands out here as Murdoch’s dependable assistant, a man both clever and a little bit silly.  Andy Bellefleur plays a similar role in True Blood, often capturing our heart with his earnest attempts at getting along (at least after the clusterfsck of season 2).  The Newsroom gives this role to Neal Sampat, the newsroom staffer who maintains Will’s blog and believes Bigfoot is a real possibility.  (It occurs to me that there are potentials for Bigfoot stories in all three tales.  Show runners: call me.

I recommend all three shows.  The Newsroom is my favorite of the three, if I have to put them in order, but all are excellent.

Dr. Scholls is the one who gives ME the present… of COMFORT.

Santa's insoles
This Christmas, walk with the comfort of a jolly old elf.

The Fire-Eaters

The Fire Eaters
The Fire Eaters

by David Almond

I listened to this short children’s novel during the epic Labor Day drive to Florida and back. The Fire Eaters follows a few days in the life of Bobby, a British boy who lives in a coal-mining town and has just started at a new school.  The novel takes place during the Cuban missile crisis.  A few thoughts:

  • At the core of the book are conflicts over identity.  Bobby is a working class boy whose educational prospects are high.  We get the impression that he’s destined for higher education.  By contrast, his friends seem already, at ten or eleven, to be approaching the end of their educational arc.  He wrestles with the shifting relationships and identities that emerge.
  • Along comes Daniel, the son of a professor and an artist, who provokes Bobby to think about the world a little differently, but who also brings his own prejudices and class arrogance to the town.  Daniel makes a project of calling out the vicious corporal punishment used at their school.  Between Daniel and Joe–Bobby’s best friend before school starts–lie a cultural gulf not easily navigated.
  • Bobby also has to deal with his affection for Ailsa, another working-class friend who has abandoned school for the traditional occupation of her family (panning for coal in the ocean shore of their town).  She and Bobby share a deep bond that comes under stress as the novel continues.
  • And Bobby’s father is ill, and has to go to the hospital for more and more tests.  And the world is on the verge of destruction in a nuclear holocaust.
  • Framing the story is the arrival of McNulty, a tattooed, maniacal fire eater and contortionist who prowls the market district demanding “Pay!” in exchange for his terrible feats.  It turns out McNulty is a damaged soul, tormented by his experience in World War 2.

The Fire Eaters is beautifully written and interesting, with solid characterization and evocative descriptions.  Like many such novels, there aren’t clear resolutions of conflicts, but the main character grows from his experiences and his position feels more settled by the end than it did at the beginning.  Definitely worth a read.

See also: Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, The Suspicions of Mister Whicher, Preparing for a Road Trip

Which god do you listen to?

I don’ t know where this post it going.  I suppose the alternate title could be “Random thoughts on evil, Hell, and the religious questions thereabouts.” Also could be “blogging when I should be doing other things.”

1. Constructing Hells
In Surface Detail, Iain M. Banks imagines a post-singularity future in which digital upload was part of many civilizations.  People have “neural lace” technology that captures their brain state and backs it up regularly, so that if they die, they aren’t truly lost.  Some civilizations then create digital afterlives in which the residents can experience the pleasures of Heaven or the torments of Hell.  Which begs the question — why would you create a Hell?  It’s one thing to believe in Hell, but another thing entirely create one yourself.  In Banks’ book, the one representation of why the society needs a Hell is the idea that they’re sinners, a fallen people.  The Hell then creates an incentive against misbehavior.  But he and its other supporters also argue vehemently against publicly revealing that the Hell exists — presumably because its horrors are not justifiable, which then reinforces the moral argument against Hell.

"Pinky" cc-licensed by swanky; I don't know why this came up in a search for "hell"
“Pinky” cc-licensed by swanky; I don’t know why this came up in a search for “hell”

2. The Moral Argument against Hell
In Christian tradition (the only religious tradition I know well enough to propound on here), Hell is a place you go after you die if you’ve failed to live up to God’s strictures on Earth.  Depending on who you talk to, you could go to Hell for a lifetime of small transgressions, a few major ones (mortal sins), apostasy (denying God), or dying with an unclean soul (hence the Catholic last rites and Hamlet’s restraint at the chapel while Claudius is praying).  But all this begs the question of whether Hell is a moral place to begin with.  I’ll grant that the threat of Hell might serve some good, perhaps, by keeping errant behavior in check, but actual Hell?  Once someone has died, actually punishing them in eternal torment?  How can someone justify such a punishment?  How can any transgression deserve eternal torment?*

It can’t.  That’s why many more liberal religious folk define Hell as “the absence of God,” or suggest that perhaps Heaven is like a bonus life, and that Hell is just non-existence.  If you don’t make the Heaven list, you’re just gone after you die.   But this is hand-waving to get away from point 3.

3. God to be Feared
This is what made the Old Testament God so scary — it was likely that you’d end up in Hell.  But God is also depicted as the architect of the universe, meaning He set up the system in which most people end up in Hell.  How the heck can people call God kind and loving when it’s his game that’s so hard to win?  Or that has such awful consequences for losing?  Even the most heinous crimes one can imagine don’t deserve endless torment.  For what purpose?  When I punish my children, it’s not for vengeance but to teach them.  If they aren’t going to learn from the punishment and be able to change, then it’s not for their benefit, but for mine.

A God that would do that, especially for a “crime” like apostasy, is a petty, vengeful being.  The only reason one could use to justify worshiping such a being would be Pascal’s wager.

4. Pascal’s Wager is a terrible bet
I’ve written about this before. More than once.

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5. Euthyphro dilemma*
The simple version of this question goes like this: Is something good because God commands it, or does God command something because it is good?  The follow up is, of course, can God command you to do something that isn’t good?  Like genocide?  While the philosophical mutterings these questions provoke are interesting, I’m more intrigued by the real world application of the question.  If you believe God to be influencing you directly (via a book or through prayer or whatever), then you need to have a direct personal answer to this question.  If God commands something, must it be good and right?

The people who try to justify the Biblical stance on slavery as historical and practical for its day or who try to justify current homophobia in the same way have come down on the “command makes it right” side of things.   But it returns me to the biggest flaw in Pascal’s Wager — how do you know which God to listen to?

* While I’m sure many philosophers have trod this ground before me and in more eloquent ways, I’m influenced a lot here by Matt Dillahunty’s arguments about Hell on The Atheist Experience