Sunday, May 29, 2005

I knew you'd come through, Frenchmen! I knew you (much like us) were better than your media and government.
E.U. aux Enfers!
Hang in there, friends, resist. For my part, I shall eat French cheese, get drunk on French wine, sing the Marsaillaise. Vive Vercingetorix! Vive Ste. Genevieve! Vive St. Gregoire de Tours! Vive Villon! Vive Montaigne! Vive Racine! Vive Rameau! Vive Henri Fabre! Vive la France liberee!

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Also found when I was bouncing about the web, this time for Brontë related material: Wuthering Heights, the role-playing game. I can do no better service to the game than to reproduce the disclaimer:

In all the rules, the male gender (he, his, etc.) will be used for our examples. This of course implies the game is not suited for the feeble minds of our ladies.

This work deals with such themes as Suicide , Despair , homosexuality & socialism for the sole purpose of entertainment.

No animals, nor children were knowingly hurt during the playtests of the game.
An excellent review points out some interesting traits:
Rage and Despair are pretty labile; they go up or down all the time, depending on events that affect the character. The GM often rolls d10/2 and assigns a loss or gain, and these in themselves may prompt acts. For instance, if you lose 5 or more Despair at once, you suffer from a fit of joy, which of course is usually seized upon by the player as an opportunity to do something the character is going to regret.

The implications are hilarious and lead to great role-playing, both in the sense of histrionics and in the sense of driving plot events. I especially like the following:

1) In order to be sincere, one must roll beneath his Despair. Think about it. This means that in order to LIE, no roll is necessary; i.e., hypocrisy is the default behavior. It also means that the only reason one DOESN'T lie is because he "just doesn't care anymore," momentarily. That is just too funny.

2) Upon losing or gaining a lot of either Rage or Despair, extreme actions are required. Afterwards, you gain (or lose) a bit back. Without going into the math, there's a small chance that the amount gained back actually prompts the extreme effect of the reverse emotion! This is not likely to happen very often, but when it does, you get the most outrageous see-sawing mood swings. It's definitely worth the wait.

3) Suicide isn't ever required through the system, but it seems perfectly reasonable in a grotesque literary fashion, now and then. The "nipping off to kill myself now" announcement isn't to be found in any other RPG I can think of. The really fun part is not being able to figure out what's more depressing, success or failure.
From Present Simple comes the story of a man, his dream, and the skull-drilling that made that dream reality.
Something I meant to mention earlier, but then I vanished:

The 11th Annual Interactive Fiction Contest.

>click link

You click the link. A new page opens.

>read page

I don't understand.

>get page

You cannot get the page.

>look page

The page contains information regarding the 11th Annual Interactive Fiction Contest. Why don't you create your own parser and join in?
The idea that kitchen knives might be banned as potential weapons was, at one time, parody. Sadly, that farce has begun its slow evolution into policy.

This is not the first vilification of knives. After James Bowie's famous Duel on the Sandbar, his weapon was denounced as far too dangerous. A pistol, it was argued, might miss; a sword could be parried; but there was no defense against Jim Bowie's knife.

I mention all of this as prelude to the 6 1/2 foot folding knife I found trying to learn more about the attempt to ban bowie knives. Really, the absurdity of a ban on kitchen knives is so evident that I can't think of anything political to say.

I do wonder, though, if this future ban will apply to the kirpan which Sikhs wear. If so, I see serious conflict ahead. And I, for one, know enough history to know not to mess with the Sikhs.
Of course, proving things has gone out of style. And why not? Who needs to understand something when we can just manipulate it? Why should we look for perfection when good enough is right here? And so easy, too. It's not like the Greeks accomplished anything with their "proofs".

Via, some time ago, Arts and Letters Daily.
This week: further Hollow Earth. Next week: Odylic fluid v. Orgone energy!

As was pointed out in the comments by Mr. Hardy, of Laputan Logic fame, the theory that the force of gravity experienced by we terrestrial mites is in fact the centrifugal force of a spinning earth fails to explain why gravity at the poles (or whatever axis one chooses) is not appreciably weaker than elsewhere. I confess that I find this objection to the Hollow Earth theory insurmountable, so long as gravitational pull is so explained.

However, and most unfortunately for everyone who wants to talk about something else, there's another option. Without abandoning the Hollow Earth theory, we can simply adjust every vector in the universe to fit our plan. We can perform an inversion.

The basic geometry follows this plan. Let there be created a circle with center A (Euclid, Book I, Postulate 3, and I'm not citing anymore) Let point B be taken on the circle. Let point C be taken anywhere on line AB. Let line AB be extended to point D, such that AC:AB :: AB:AD. Thus, the rectangle AC, AD is equal to the square on AB.

It is evident that, given point C, point D can always be found, and vice versa. The practical application is that, for any point inside the circle, a corresponding point outside the circle can be found. Moreover, we find that as we approach the center of the circle, the behavior is as if, in our alternate hypothesis, we were moving outwards to any given length. Thus, any attempt to disprove the Hollow Earth theory would by flying to the other side of the Earth would fail. The appearance would be that of nearly limitless space, but the reality (from our Hollow Earth perspective) is that space is smaller near the center of the Hollow Earth.

The further one moves away from the outer edge (the Utter East, so to speak) which seems to us to be the surface of the Earth, the more effort it takes to move the same distance. At the center, assuming that the universe is unbounded, time and space cease entirely. The degree of curvature of the universe might be found by determining the extent to which one slowed at the center of the sphere, and how long it took one to reach the opposite edge of the earth. This is, unfortunately, exactly as impractical as, say, throwing a baseball out into space and waiting for it to hit oneself in the back of the head to find out how large the universe is.

Drilling through is no help. One does not "break through" the Earth's crust. Rather, as point D moves to infinited, the drill would "flip" and begin boring through the other side of the Earth. In this model of the Hollow Earth, rather than a shell of rock with space beyond it, we have the universe within a solid mass of rock which goes to infinity (which, of course, corresponds in the Solid Earth model to the Earth's center).

We can invert every law of nature the same way if we choose. There is, I think, no hope that we can finally lay the Hollow Earth theory to rest without invoking first principles.

I must acknowledge the great debt I owe to Martin Gardner and his book, On the Wild Side, for much of this post.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The opera RDA.

I am apparently on operatic Atkins.

Stolen from Møck Turtle Soup.
'Is it that they think it a duty to be continually talking,' pursued she, 'and so never pause to think, but fill up with aimless trifles and vain repetitions, when subjects of real interest fail to present themselves? - Or do they really take a pleasure in such discourse?'

'Very likely they do,' said I: 'their shallow minds can hold no great ideas, and their light heads are carried away by trivialities that would not move a better furnished skull; - and their only alternative to such discourse is to plunge head and ears into the slough of scandal - which is their chief delight.'

--Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

De Laribus1

This post is the result of this article (1 mb .pdf, it's the first one), found when I was cruising Hardscrabble Creek. The article, "That's the Title on the Manifesto: Labor and Class Concerns in Harry Potter" is charming, and deserves a look, but I felt that it missed an important point.

The slavery of the house-elves is disturbing to the modern reader because we are accustomed, rightly, to view slavery as an unalloyed evil. Thus, presented with the pitiful Dobby wringing his ears and ironing his hands, our sympathies go out to him, and with him his brethren. We find, however, in the Goblet of Fire, and further in the Order of the Phoenix that his fellow house-elves are less enthusiastic than Dobby when presented with the idea of freedom. Dobby is, as Hagrid puts it, a "weirdo". The house-elves of Hogwarts, of whom we see the most, are happy in their servitude, and Hermione's attempts to free them or to help them organise insult them.

There is no Real World counterpart to the house-elves relationship with their masters. They are not paid, nor bought and sold like slaves, nor do they exist as serfs. The house-elves' relationship with their employer is magical, and they are bound to the home, it seems, rather than an individual. Kreacher, for example, haunts the home of the Blacks despite his hatred of Sirius.

J. K. Rowling tells us that the house-elves have their own magic, different from wizards. I suspect that this magic is related to their servitude; indeed, I suspect that the house-elves' powers date back to a ancient, possibly prehistoric pact, something like the "old magic" which protects Harry while he is living with a relative.

(As a side note, I should mention that this sort of "old magic" occupies a different sphere from the rather mechanical school Latin and wand-swishing which the students at Hogwarts are taught. It is the same difference one finds between Xerxes in Roverandom, who is "quite a good magician [of the conjuring magic sort]" (the bracketed section was cut from the final draft), and Psamathos Psamathides, who is entirely other. Given J. K. Rowling's difficulty portraying the numinous, it is unsurprising to find both this hypothesized pact and the "old magic" itself rarely and perfuctorily described.)

To return: the house-elves don't care to advance within or destroy entirely the "class structure" in which they find themselves.

Ms. Wendy Alicia Felicity Green Stengel proposes that "[t]he four castes in Indian culture map neatly onto the classes in Harry Potter", and further that the wizards which we are meant to view sympathetically--Hagrid, Ron, etc.--who are uninterested or opposed to freeing the house-elves, are themselves products of this class structure, which shapes their thinking. She identifies the house-elves with the Sudra, the "Servants and Laborers".

From this interpretation she draws the obvious conclusion. If the class structure is like that of the Indian caste system, and if the wizarding world reinforces it at every turn, there can be no other option but revolution.

The fundamental error is, I believe, neatly capsulated in this paragraph:

And, if one does consider class, race, and caste as equivalent, we can discern how the Weasleys and Hagrid can be sympathetic and yet not be engaged in elf-rights: brethren or no, they simply do not see a common bond of humanity between themselves and the house-elves.

"The way the[y] were treating her!" said Hermione furiously. "Mr. Diggory, calling her 'elf' all the time... and Mr. Crouch! He knows she didn't do it and he' still going to sack her! He didn't care how frightened she'd been, or how upset she was--it was like she wasn't even human!"

"Well, she's not," said Ron.

Hermione rounded on him.

That doesn't mean she hasn't got feeling, Ron. It's disgusting." (GoF, 139)
Ron, however, is a product of his class, and shares the common class views.
This is a curt dismissal of what seems to me an interesting point. The house-elves are not, in fact, human. In her haste to map caste systems and call for revolution, Ms. Stengel seems to have missed or elided this point.

In the Real World, slavery is always wrong. In what does this wrongness consist? It is in the violation of the nature of the person who is the slave. We have discovered that no one has a "slavish nature". To be self-determining is a quality which belongs to all people, no matter their economic, social, or class standings. As such, we naturally view all class structures (except possibly aristocracy in its original sense) as social creations and further as wicked. Class is an artificial and indefensible barrier, goes our thought, since we hold that all men are created equal. We see the house-elves, who are rational beings, held in apparent bondage, and are revolted. We desire to free them, just as Hermione does, and when they protest we claim that they must be "uneducated and brainwashed". This conclusion is, so far as I can tell, Ms. Stengel's.

Aristotle's defense of just slavery in the Politics:
It is possible, then, in the manner we are speaking, to start by speculating on the despotic rule and the political rule in animals, for the rule of the soul over the body is despotic, whereas the rule of the intellect over desire is political or royal; and it is eveident from these examples that the rule over the body by the soul is according to nature and is beneficial, and so is the rule over the passionate part of the soul by the intellect and by the part that has reason, but that the rule of both parts alike or by the inferior part is harmful to all. Again, similar remarks hold true among men and the other animals; for tame animals have a better nature than wild animals, and among tame animals the rule by men is better for their safety. Further, of the sexes, the male is by nature superior to the female, and it is for the male to rule and the female to be ruled.

Among men as a whole, too, the same must be the case. Those differing from others as much as the body does from the soul or brutes do from men (they are so disposed that their best function is the use of their bodies) are by their nature slaves, and it is better for them to be ruled despotically, as indeed it is for the inferiors in the cases already mentioned. For a slave is by nature a man who can belong to another (and for this reason he does belong to another) and who can participate in reason to the extent of apprehending it but not possessing it; for the animals other than men cannot apprehend reason but serve their passions....

It is evident, then, that it is by nature that some men are slaves but others are freemen, and that it is just and to the benefit of the former to serve the latter.
The house-elves might well possess this nature. Their happiness in servitude may not be contentment stemming from their "brainwashing", but the happiness that comes from fulfilling one's nature. Hermione plots to free the house-elves; Ms. Stengel calls for a revolution. The house-elves have shown no interest in either.

Naturally, even if the house-elves do possess a servile nature, the relationship between servant and master may well go wrong. Dobby is horribly abused in the Malfoys' home. Kreacher is warped by his time spent serving the Blacks. But these examples of the servant/master relationship gone wrong do not prove that such wrongness is inherent in the relationship. When Dumbledore calls the fountain of Magical Brethren a lie, it may be that he is not suggesting revolution but reform: a return from the extreme of a slave/oppressor relationship not into the opposing extreme of ochlocracy, but to the mean of servant/master. If the house-elves do indeed have a servile nature, the revolution would not simply be unwelcome but harmful.

House-elves need not have any earthly relation with the "proletariat" as we understand it. The "caste system" which includes the house-elves may not be a social creation but a metaphysical fact. J. K. Rowling is under no ethical burden to "free" them, and thus far I have seen little evidence that she will.

There are other interpretations. I am fond of a quasi-libertarian one, in which the house-elves are immortal and have pledged their service to various houses, acting as free agents, in exchange for the powers they possess. In this case Dobby's mistreatment is a breach of contract, and calls for reform within the system, rather than a revolution of it. This is just speculation; i.e. I am drinking now.

But really, it seems to me that if I can suspend my disbelief for the system of physical laws governing the world of Harry Potter, I can at least try not to impose our world's philosophical laws on it.

The real question is, is it wrong to create an inherently servile rational species? I suggest this less as a creation myth for house-elves than as a serious ethical dilemma with which we shall have to deal in our lifetimes. I am reminded of the suicidal cow in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe... and I wouldn't eat a house-elf, either.

1 "People called Roman they go the 'ouse?!"

Monday, May 16, 2005

At last! Stephen Bodio's website is up and running! We will expect a great wealth of esoterica from Mr. Bodio, including but not limited to falconry, biophilia, russophilia, linguistics, Pleistoce-related news updates, epicureanism and lots of ethnocynology. Check back often!

Thursday, May 12, 2005

We're really livin' in the future these days: intelligent skis! They sound a good deal more intelligent than certain skiers I could mention.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Stupid towel!
Dry me faster!
As wet as I am, how can I
greet my beloved?

--Ksenja Gregorjevna Prawne
translated from the Slovak