In which I complain about Bad Fantasy and engage in Moral Philosophizing
Andrew at Humanized is re-reading the Wheel of Time series. I like to make fun of him for it. This is not really fair of me, since I have not read them; but I've read the blurbs, and the plot summaries on Wikipedia, and I've read random excerpts, and I've heard from many people who used to like the series but gave up on it because it turned into an endless chain of sequels where hundreds of pages go by and nothing happens. So I am fairly confident that this is Not Something I Want To Read. 11 thick, chunky books and still unfinished; the people who have read them all complain that the plot is moving so slowly that it's almost going backwards. Judging by random excerpts I think the reason it is so long is because Robert Jordan spends endless paragraphs describing women's clothing in great detail and explaining what people are thinking. The Wheel of Time also seems to be full of the bane of my personal fantasy-reading existence, the phonetically meaningless apostrophe inserted randomly into made-up words to make them look exotic. Man I hate those apostrophes.
Finally, the map inside the front cover -- the most important part of any epic fantasy novel, obviously -- is not promising. Mountain ranges that run in perfectly straight lines north-south and east-west. Rivers which meet the sea at the ends of peninsulas and not in bays or coves like most rivers I know in the real world. And some really, really uncreative place names: "Mountains of Dhoom". "The Blight". "The Blasted Lands". (All three of those are right next to each other. Gee, I wonder where the head bad guy lives?)
I used to read a lot of fantasy novels, but I haven't read any in years. I happened to be in Borders today, looking through the SF/Fantasy section, and my mind wandered back to the eternal question: What is the difference between good fantasy and bad fantasy? A better way of putting it is: What is it that makes good fantasy good, and bad fantasy bad?
This is something I ponder a lot when making up adventures for tabletop RPGs, too (haven't done much of this lately, since the campaign I was running and the campaign I was playing in at the beginning of the summer have both gone on indefinite hold). It's a question of burning relevance since presumably if you could figure out the secret ingredients of good fantasy you could put them into your RPG.
The pain of bad fantasy
Bad fantasy isn't bad just because it has extraneous apostrophes and endless sequels and geologically unlikely maps. It's not bad just because it rips off Tolkien. The problem is more specific: ripping off Tolkien without having an understanding of what makes Tolkien good. Bad fantasy rips off surface details, like orcs and elves and bands of companions going on quests to defeat the Dark Lord, but fails to rip off the more subtle points: the quality world-building, the fully realized imaginary cultures and history, the compelling plot, the spiritual struggle against an ever-present temptation. These are the kind of things I wish would get ripped off more often!
Bad fantasy is also bad because of pure bad writing. Writers breaking the "Show, don't tell" rule. Writers misusing vaguely medieval-sounding language. Scenes that don't advance the plot. Incredibly cheesy dialogue. Stock characters. Humorlessness. Stories that meander and don't go anywhere. (Any of you guys remember the Talismans of Shannara series? Blaaarrrggg). Angsty internal monologues. (Oh my word, how I hate angsty internal monologues!!)
All of these things are bad, but none of them quite get to the root of Bad Fantasy syndrome. All of these things can happen in other genres, too (the misused medieval-talk not so much).
Genre. That's something to think about. Good fantasy is based on a good solid story first of all, and the author decides that the best setting for that story is a place that's not quite our universe, and so it gets the fantasy label. (JRR Tolkien himself doesn't quite fit this theory, since he wrote fantasy mainly to have an excuse to use his made-up languages and not in order to tell a story. Yet it somehow ended up Good.) Bad fantasy often seems to be the result of an author saying "Hey, I want to write me a sprawling 10-book Fantasy Epic! I'll need a bogus map, various humanoid races, some magic swords, an ancient force of Pure Evil... and... oh yeah, I guess there needs to be a story in there too. I'll just start writing and maybe I'll think of one a couple chapters in." Not much innovation happens when you start by taking the cliches of your genre for granted and then write a story just as an excuse to fulfill those cliches. This seems to happen in fantasy more than any other genre, and the worst part is that the resulting books sell really well, which says something about fantasy fandom, but I'm not going to say what.
I remember something that struck me hard while I was playing through the Warcraft III story mode a couple years ago. There was some cutscene involving the Night Elves, and I suddenly wondered: Why should I care about the Night Elves? Seriously, why? Yesterday I was playing the Undead campaign and I wanted them to win. Now I'm supposed to want the Night Elves to win just because I'm playing their campaign? That would never work if this was a book. There has to be some reason I should care about the Night Elves winning! The game seems to assume that the Night Elves are GOOD because they have pretty girls and they "live in harmony with nature" (which is pretty easy to do when you have wisps who can gather wood without cutting down trees, it seems). And the Undead are EVIL because, well, they are made of dead bodies, and that's unsanitary. It kind of boils down to "Pretty = good, ugly = bad". Thanks, I'll try to keep that in mind when both sides start to look morally equivalent because they both spend their time doing exactly the same thing, which is slaughtering their enemies by any means necessary.
The only interesting story arc in Warcraft III is Arthas, who starts out stereotypically good but he wants revenge so bad that he gets more and more ruthless and finally turns evil and joins the bad guys' side. It wasn't a great or original story (Arthas is basically Anakin Skywalker ) but at least it was a story with some kind of point to it.
The moral core of storytelling
Now we're getting somewhere. Every good fantasy story I can think of is based on a moral theme: something involving the nature of right and wrong, something that gives you a reason why the good guys are good and why the bad guys are bad. All the stuff that bothers me about bad fantasy stems from the same root: the story has no moral core, and thus, no point. In fact, I'm going to propose Jono's Definition of Bad Fantasy as such:
Fantasy without a moral core is nothing but a bunch of imaginary creatures killing each other.
I've just made a dangerous statement, so let me be clear about what I do not mean. I do not mean that the whole book has to have an explicit moral slapped on the end of it like Aesop's Fables or an episode of G.I.Joe. I do not mean that the story has to be an allegory for something in real life, like Animal Farm, or an allegory for religion (please, no!).
What I mean is just this: Any story, as long as it has a conflict with a protagonist and an antagonist (and if it doesn't, it's not much of a story) will inevitably postulate some kind of moral universe, simply because there has to be a reason why we want guy A to win and not guy B. The moral universe is defined by what qualities your story shows as positive or negative, the chains of cause and effect. The author doesn't have to hit people over the head with it in an attempt to teach them a lesson (it's probably a better story if he doesn't). The moral universe is just there, implicit in the story, even in the stupidest story you can think of. Snakes on a Plane has a moral core, apparently by accident, and if we put it into words it would be something like this:
"If you panic and freak out at the first sign of danger, the snakes are going to get you. If you screw over the other passengers to save yourself, the snakes are going to get you. If you keep your calm and work together with other passengers to form a plan, you are more likely to survive."
Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good moral.
Telling made-up stories is central to every human culture on Earth. Most children start doing it as soon as they can talk. It seems to be a hard-wired instinct (which not to say everybody is good at it). What possible purpose does it serve to tell stories which are not true, and which the listener knows are not true? Maybe it's because made-up stories can serve as a kind of mental laboratory for testing out ideas about right and wrong, and then as a vessel for passing accumulated moral wisdom on to future generations.
Let's Overanalyze LOTR some more
To get back to the topic good fantasy and bad fantasy, let me bring up the morality in Lord of the Rings once more. In bulleted list form:
- Sparing Gollum's miserable life: Very Good.
- Succumbing to the temptation to take the easy way out of trouble by putting on the Ring and running: Very Bad.
- Overcoming centuries of distrust between Men, Elves, and Dwarves in order to work together and fight evil: Very Good.
- Trying to use the Dark Lord's own weapons against him: Very Bad.
- Listening to what Gandalf tells you: Very Good.
And so on! Note that these themes are not allegorical, and the book doesn't smash you over the head with them, and they're not symbols for things in the real world. The principles of the story are the simply laws of moral cause and effect which are shown to govern the world of Middle-Earth. Think back on LOTR, pick your favorite scenes, and think about what actions were shown as wise or foolish. All of the good scenes are related to one of the books' several big moral principles. The scenes that are not so related... are the boring scenes.
Two more moral principles I want to point out, which are somewhat subtler than the obvious ones above:
- Courage. Every time the characters act out of fear, they play into the Enemy's hands. Every time the characters act out of bravery, charging into the face of death or whatever, they turn the tide. Things turn out not to be so hopeless. Every single time! Next time you read the book or watch the movie, watch for this theme getting hit in every other scene. The message is: The bad guys want you to be so afraid that you give up. Your own despair is their greatest weapon.
- Arts and Crafts. All of the good races are defined by their creativity: their songs, their craftsmanship, the things they make and invent. The vanished civilizations of past ages are revered for the arts and crafts they made. The bad guys, meantime, are characterized as not being able to create anything on their own; they can only copy, steal, take over, or corrupt the creations of the good guys. Orcs and trolls are corruptions of elves and ents. Minas Morgul is a Gondorian city taken over by evil. The language of Mordor is ugly and unsuitable for writing songs. This is spelled out especially clearly in the Silmarillion, where it is shown that Middle-Earth was created by singing, and therefore all music in this world has inherent magical properties.
There are also some moral principles in LOTR which I strongly disagree with, like:
- Racism. Orcs are bad; they're born to be bad; it's in their genes or something. There is not a single orc who turns to the light side, or who does a single good act. They're just mindless cannon fodder. In Middle-Earth, it seems, your race is your destiny.
- Hatred of modern technology. Mordor and Isengard are clearly industrialized nations. They are full of mines and foundries and pollution, clear-cutting forests and belching smoke. You might take it charitably as an environmental theme, but when all the good races use swords and shields and look to the past for their inspiration, and only the bad guys would be so dishonorable as to invent explosives... it's hard not to see it as just hatred of modern technology in general and romanticized yearning for the medieval past.
You could do a similar breakdown of the themes of any good fantasy novel. The best ones, the ones that are rich and textured and support multiple re-readings, tend to have lots of interlocking themes, not just one. They postulate a nuanced moral universe and then they spend time exploring it.
But there are far too many novels where there's just... nothing. I'm thinking back to The (Thing) of Shannara series and trying to remember what the moral core of those stories were, and... I can't remember a thing. I remember that somebody had to turn into a tree to stop this demon invasion, and I remember that there were these sort of giant caterpillar monsters which made paths of destruction across the land, and a few other monsters and plot points, but I can't seem to remember any of the characters or any point to what they were doing. There were good guys and bad guys, so there must have been some kind of distinction between the two... but whatever that distinction was was probably highly derivative, confused, and not fully understood or explored by the author himself.
Stupid moral theories make lousy stories
There's another category of fantasy novels, which are neither good, nor pointless, but actually evil. You start reading them, and they present a moral universe which you reject entirely, and then you want to throw the book across the room and send the author hate mail. I'm not gonna name names, but there are some blatantly sexist and/or fascist fantasy novels out there!
I gotta come right out here and say that, aside from sexism and racism and fascism, there are two moral theories that I particularly hate. Both of them are sadly much too widespread in today's world. They make for lousy stories. Worse, people in real life make bad decisions because they're following one of these two bad moral theories.
The first is one I will call black and white morality. This is the theory that says, in effect: "My side of this war is good by definition. The enemy side is bad by definition. Therefore, anything that our side does in order to defeat the other side is justified."
In real life, this is the type of thinking that lets people imagine themselves as the "good guys" even as they commit atrocities. In fantasy, this is the type of thinking that leads to "Elves = pretty = good! Orcs = icky = bad! Elves destroying an orc villiage is good, but orcs destroying an elvish villiage is bad."
Please note that a great number of ancient myths from all cultures are based on black and white morality. Ancient myths tend to be shockingly ethnocentric: the storyteller's tribe is of course fully justified in everything they do, while any tribes opposing them deserve to be killed.
(One thing that Star Wars gets right: when one of the good guys commits destructive deeds out of anger, he goes to the Dark Side of the force and becomes one of the bad guys. This shows that it's your actions that determine whether you're good or evil -- not which side of the war you think you're on. The annoying thing about Star Wars is how inconsistently it applies this principle.)
Reaction against black and white morality drives some people to the opposite extreme, the other theory I hate: moral relativism. "There's no such thing as right or wrong, there's just different cultures with different values, and things can only be evaluated as right or wrong within a certain set of cultural values, so please stop judging people and let's all just get along." I have several problems with this theory:
- It gives you no basis for making any decision.
- It's self-contradicting. "Stop judging people" and "let's all just get along" -- those are values. If you're a moral relativist, what basis do you have for saying those values are better than those of an intolerant book-burning zealot?
- What am I supposed to do if I was born into an oppressive, tyrannical culture? What if I want to overthrow it, or just get the hell out of there? Am I supposed to "respect" it and go along with it just because it's "my culture"?
Hmm, someone born into an oppressive, tyrannical culture wants to overthrow it or get the hell out of there: That sounds like a pretty good foundation for a fantasy story, doesn't it? (It's a very common plotline in science fiction). But you're not going to be able to have that story if your book is based on moral relativism.
Moral relativism is pretty rare in fantasy, thankfully. It's mostly found in drab, boring "postmodern" novels written by people who spent way too long in a university humanities department and had their brains melted by the relativist dogma. In a true moral-relativist story, you'd have no reason to root for the protagonist over the antagonist, because they are just two guys with equally valid sets of values.
Space to explore
In between black-and-white and relativism, there is a lot of space to explore. Lots of stories to be told about people facing difficult choices and making themselves good or evil as a result of the actions they choose. One of the things that fantasy does well is to present a world where Good and Evil are clearly defined, where Good is rewarded in the end and Evil punished; it doesn't seem to work that way always in our world so it's nice to be able to read a book and go to a place where it does. But Good and Evil being universal and well-defined doesn't mean they have to be black-and-white to the extent of tribal ethnocentrism. One of the things that makes any book, not just fantasy, interesting is moral ambiguity and moral dilemmas; and these work best in a world where there is such a thing as right and wrong, but no one side of the conflict has a monopoly on either. (Dark Lords who are evil just because they are evil... are really boring.)
I am really looking forward to Harry Potter book 7, and more than anything I want to find out what happens to Snape, because he is the most interesting character in the series, because he is morally ambiguous. Snape is the guy who says to the audience: "Hey, this book is not black-and-white. The world is not divided into good people who love Harry and bad people who hate Harry. There is also me, a guy who hates Harry and has a shady past but who does the right thing... most of the time." This moral ambiguity does not require relativism: what Snape does in book 6 (no spoilers!) is quite obviously an evil deed. But we want to keep reading because we think that he might still choose to go good again in the last book.
While I was at Borders, I picked up A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. I have heard a lot of praise for this book (mostly on the Internet) from people who recommend it as a superior alternative to the works of Robert Jordan. I was curious. It looks promising: the map inside the front cover is the most interesting one I've seen since A Wizard of Earthsea, and there is not an extraneous apostrophe in sight. I read the prologue in the bookstore, and it was well-written and had characterization and plot hooks right from the first page -- not backstory exposition or internal monologues! Huzzah! As I read this I will be trying to identify what is the moral core of the story. I'll write another post about it when I'm done.
I'm not dead, I'm just working 12 hour days and weekends at Humanized. We're trying to release beginning of September and so right now we are in the software development equivalent of the part where we fly down inside the Death Star and blow up the reactor core, knowwhaamsayin? Not much time to write for this page. Sorry. It'll be released soon and then I will be able to have a life again, a little.
Humanized is a great place to work because there is no ego and no politics. Everybody just wants what's best for the product. Everybody including me is willing to say "I don't know", to admit they were wrong, and to recognize and embrace a superior idea no matter who thought of it. Of course this has a lot to do with the fact that there are only 4 of us; but even groups of 4 can still be ripped apart by ego conflicts (look at The Beatles). Not us though. At present we are mad tight.
I will have some real cool stuff to show you soon. Today, if you are looking for something to read, check out Stepehn and Isaac's project to review the top 100 albums of 2004 and 2005.
You-know-what on a you-know-where
I am slightly ashamed to admit this, but I just got back from seeing Snakes on a Plane. On opening night.
Alexis is back from China (yay!) and is in Chicago for a few days, so I asked if she wanted to have dinner and go see the movie which was a cult classic even before it was released. Aza and Andrew came too, and we had Costa Rican food at this place that sells oatmeal shakes. Then we watched videos of past ACEN skits and talked about old RPG adventures until the movie started.
Don't ask how the movie was. It was Snakes on a Plane and that's all there is to say about it, really. The audience was more interesting than the movie in a lot of ways -- they were all in on the "joke", such as it was, and they were yelling and cheering at the screen the whole time. Even during the previews people were yelling out "SNAKES ON A HELICOPTER!" or "SNAKES ON A SURFBOARD!" or "SNAKES IN THE NATIONAL GUARD!" The cheering was deafening when the title came onscreen, and when Samuel L. Jackson came onscreen, and at each of his famous lines, and whenever snakes bit a character they didn't like.
All my friends eventually walked out of the theater at different times. I stayed through almost all of it because hey, somebody has to summarize the plot to them later.
Anyway, Alexis is a lot of fun and I missed her and I'm glad she's back and I hope we can go on another road trip someday soon. And she made me realize that -- this might sound silly, but I miss having friends who are girls. Work is all male and Aikido almost exclusively so and apart from work and Aikido I don't see anybody these days.
Anyway, to everybody who sat through part or most of that horrible, no good, very bad (well what did you expect, it's called Snakes on a Plane) movie with me: thanks for putting up with it and me, and I had a good time anyway.
My subconscious is a weird weird place
Last night I dreamed I was Darth Vader. Well, I wasn't all the way Darth Vader yet, but I was a Jedi and all four of my limbs had been replaced with mechanical ones, but my head was still normal, I didn't have a mask or anything. And I didn't have my "Darth Foobar" style name yet, I was still called "Jonathan DiCarlo, Jedi student". And the Emperor was sending me on some kind of cool mission, right, and I was out on the roof balcony of that palace-type building on Coruscant, and I had already summoned my special personal TIE-fighter type spacecraft, and it was on its way to come swooping under the roof balcony, and I was getting ready to pop open the top hatch with the force and jump in while it was still in midair (which would have been totally sweet) but before I could do that a bunch of Indian women in pastel-colored saris came up behind me, and there was some senator with them. And the senator wanted to introduce me, and suddenly I had to stop being badass and be all polite and diplomatic, which I hated, and I had to try to remember the polite forms of greeting in their language and the polite hand signs of greeting that they use on Planet India, and then take them on a tour of the place. The system we had for high-speed transport within the city was to jump into these tube things; it was pitch black inside and they would suck you up and whisk you away at high speed to your destination. And the Indian diplomat aliens were asking whether it was a scary ride that would make them get sick and throw up, and I was trying to reassure them, all the while thinking that actually it was kinda scary and it probably would make them sick, but I didn't care because I was so annoyed to not be going on my badass mission that I was looking forward to. Impatience is the way to the Dark Side.
Another, unrelated dream, the same night, involved my discovery of an alternate Chicago. I found that I could reach this alternate Chicago by going through some secret abandoned subway tunnels. It was nighttime when I emerged into this incomprehensibly vast space, a sort of square miles to a side surrounded on all sides by massive towering walls of brick and steel and glass. I climbed up to a higher vantage point to get a better look, and below me I saw parts of the L system and parts of the Metra system and parts of the highway system, and I was trying to figure out how they fit in and matched up with the parts that I knew about; there were trains moving back and forth below me, but they matched up with none of the familiar CTA colors we know about. It was all familiar and yet alien at the same time. Far, far above my head there was the underside of some enormous futuristic structure; it was like a spaceship hanging over the city, or perhaps merely an extensive overhang of an incomprehensibly massive future skyscraper, or like the underside of the upper plate of Midgar in FF7. On the bottom surface of this structure, there hung a sort of bubble, a convention-hall sized room with curved walls and a glass floor and a retractable shield, so that people walking around inside it could look down on the rest of the city far below their feet. It gave me vertigo just to look at it. I really wanted to get up there, inside that bubble, and see what those people saw, but it was sealed against Apparation, and I didn't know how to get up there by normal means.
I dreamed I knew the language of cardinals (the birds). Either that, or cardinals had learned how to speak English. It sounded like English to my ears. Unfortunately, cardinals don't really have anything interesting to say; mostly just stuff like "This is my branch, get your own branch!" or "Hey female cardinal, pick me, pick me!"
This segued into a dream about the mating rituals of the Skeksis (those creatures from The Dark Crystal). This was a logical continuation because in the universe of this dream, Skeksis had evolved from cardinals. This part got pretty disturbing because it involved the Chancellor and the Garthim-Master each dressed in drag and doing like cabaret-style dance routines to try to win the Emporer's favor, and he takes the one he likes better back to his chambers, and I don't really like to think about what happens after that.
Also, there was a tropical-themed resturaunt and I was having a really hard time finding anything to order because their menu was like nine pages of alcoholic drinks served in skulls with little umbrellas, and one page of entrees that were all based on dinosaur meat.
Another night, weeks ago, I dreamed that I was a ninja trying to join this clan of ninjas who were all like lizard-men or something, and in order to prove myself I had to asassinate the Easter Bunny. I was sneaking around in the yard (that looked rather like the yard of my aunt's house) which was full of singing, dancing, happy easter candy. While I searched for the real Easter Bunny, I took the opportunity to exterminate (using my weapon of choice, explosive jellybeans) some of his disgustingly cheerful candy minions, starting with the candies I didn't like very much. DEATH TO NECCO WAFERS AND SMARTIES AND THOSE BIG NASTY YELLOW JELLYBEANS! I also killed a few chocolate rabbits, but I knew they were not the real Easter Bunny... the real Easter Bunny was lurking somewhere nearby, and he was sending his minions to get killed and lead me off his trail, the cunning bastard. It will take patience and skill to outwit this foe.
Touched by His Noodly Appendage
I have just sent the following e-mail to Bobby Henderson of The Church of the Flying Sphagetti Monster.
I have recently had a vision, inspired by His Noodly Appendage, of the end-times, when the world will be buried under parmesan flakes from a gigantic otherworldly cheese-grater, and human sin will be replaced with cheesy deliciousness: and the event shall be known as PARMAGEDDON. RAMEN.
(In all seriousness: My friends and I were sitting around thinking up stupid puns, and we realized that "Parmageddon" would be a pretty good name for the Pastafarian end-of-times myth. Every religion needs a story about how the world ends, right? I would like to humbly offer this as my small contribution to the growing lore of the Flying Sphagetti Monster. What do you think?)
Edit: I am now wearing a "Pirates of the Carribean" temporary tattoo that came out of a Happy Meal. I'm fighting global warming.
Iran. Iran so far away.
This is crazy. It sounds like an Onion article, but it's true: Iranian president Ahmadinejad has started a blog. (You can get the English translation by clicking on the little flags on the upper-right). I'm not sure whether this is funny or terrifying.
A guy like Ahmadinejad really makes you put Bush in perspective, you know? The Bush administration may be incompetent and corrupt, but they are nothing compared to Ahmadinejad, who goes on rants where he denies that the Holocaust happens and promises to wipe Israel off the map. Read about Iranian internet censorship. Read about the oppression of women and the horrors of Sharia law, the system that stones women to death for adultery, keeps them in burqas, and gives out the death penalty for converting out of Islam. Ponder the fact that some Muslim groups in Europe are calling for Sharia law to be imposed there as well. Think about how much worse we could have it if a real religious fanatic like Ahmadinejad, of the Islamic or the Christian persuasion, ever came to power in America.
This is especially ironic since back in the middle ages, Persia (=present-day Iran) was far ahead of Europe in science and in human rights. King Cyrus of Persia, in the 6th century, established freedom of religion and abolished slavery. It is incredibly sad and frustrating that a part of the world which used to be so enlightened has fallen so far into its current state of opression and fanatacism.
In the meantime, due to Ahmadinejad's explicit threats against our allies, and his enrichment of uranium, he certainly poses much more of a real threat to us than Saddam Hussein did in 2003. He has claimed the uranium is only for electrical generation. If that were true he should be allowed to have it; but how can anyone trust him when he says that? Yet our military options are limited -- our armies are tied up in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and also Iran is much more of a real country with a real army than Iraq ever was. And bombing their uranium-enrichment sites is likely to just make things worse. At the same time, our current diplomatic approach seems to be going nowhere. I have no good solutions to propose, and I don't hear any from either Republicans or Democrats.
I admit I don't know much about Iran and its glorious history. Most of what I know about Iran comes from comics. (For instance, its national anthem.) But seriously, you should read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. It really makes you understand how terrifying it is that a modern country can transform overnight into a state of inhuman, medieval religious oppression. It also makes you understand how Iran is full of young, smart, modern-minded, pro-Western people who hate their regime but are powerless to do anything about it. There has to be some way to reach out to these people and help them take their government back from the scary clerics.
I also know that America has a history of doing really dumb stuff when it comes to Iran. Like Operation Ajax, in which British and US secret agents worked to overthrow the democratically elected prime minister and replace him with the Shah, in order to prevent nationalization of their oil industry. And then there was the Iran-Contra thing, which happened during my lifetime, but I was too young to remember. ("That I don't recall", you might say. "I do not remember any meetings.") Some, like Stephen Kinzer in his book "All the Shah's Men", that Operation Ajax was one of the worst foreign policy mistakes that the United States has ever made, and that by leading indirectly to the Islamic Revolution in Iran, it helped to create the conditions for the growth of the Islamic terrorism we are fighting today.
These mistakes do not exactly fill me with hope that we're going to find a good solution to the current Iranian threat. Labeling Iran part of an "Axis of Evil" -- although this is in many ways a completely accurate statement -- only serves to convince the large population of young, modern, pro-Western, anti-Sharia Iranians that we are in fact their enemy and encourages them to vote in hard-line scumbags like Ahmadinejad.
On a less depressing note, a random fun fact about Iran is that the music of Queen has recently become the only rock music to be un-banned there. Freddie Mercury is part Iranian, so I hear he is like a national hero to them. This is the same country where being gay carries the death penalty. But Freddie Mercury isn't gay! Of course not! How could you suggest such a thing?
They also allow Cat Stevens, the crazy British folk singer who converted to Islam and changed his name to Yusef. And is rumored to have supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Wait, I was trying not to be depressing. Oops.
Code upgrade again
Ignore ths post guys, this is just a test of some "modifications" that I made relating to "html" tags inside of comments.
I added user links too
Your name in your comments is now a link to your web page, if you have one and I know about it.
If you don't have a link and you want one, please specify and I'll set it. Likewise if you want your link changed. I should probably make a page where you can set this yourself, but I probably won't get around to it for a while.
Likewise, if you don't have an image and you want one, let me know and I'll attempt to draw you.
I added user pics
Hey guys, guess what? I updated the code for this website so that commenters all have commenter images. However, this is not one of those sites where you pick an image to upload for yourself. On this site I draw a user image for you. So come on over and post a comment to see what you look like.
If you don't like your picture, or if you'd rather remain anonymous for whatever reason, let me know and I'll change it or take it off.
And hey, I wanted to draw one of Alexis, but I don't have any reference photos and I can't find any on her livejournal... anybody have Alexis pictures? Cuz I'm not good at drawing people from memory.
And by the way, when I was going through the user accounts, I discovered that my mom has created no fewer than SEVEN accounts with different names. Mom: Please pick one and stick with it!
Finally, if there are any other features I could add to this site's backend-code which you would appreciate -- something that would make it easier for commenters, or easier to navigate, or whatever -- please tell me your ideas!
In which I free-associate at length about musical topics
Some guy named Jeric Smith decided to try to figure out what was the worst rock band of all time, tournament-style. It's all subjective, of course, as he emphasizes several times, but what he did was take all of the rock bands who have sold over 5 million albums (it's no fun picking on a band nobody's heard of) and run them through a single-elimination tournament, at each stage picking out which band was worse and letting it advance. It's quite an entertaining read.
Problem is, it's not nearly as entertaining a read if you don't know anything about the band he's trashing. I may know a lot about certain obscure bands in certain genres that I like, but there are a lot of hugely popular, big-name, mainstream bands that I just know nothing about. (for example, I took a lot of flak from a Doors fan one time for mixing up Jim Morrison and Van Morrison. And is Van Morrison related to Van Halen? Is there a connection between Led Zeppelin and Def Leppard or are rock musicians just all really bad at spelling?)
So, this is where iTunes comes in.
I used to think the iTunes music store was not good for anything. I like the idea of selling music online, legally and cheaply, but iTunes had a fairly shallow selection and their tracks all had annoying copy-protection on them.
They've gotten a lot better. The copy-protection is still there (but it's laughably easy to break: try burning to a CD and then ripping that CD), but their selection is greatly expanded. And they have a lot of guides to relatively obscure genres to help you decide what bands in that genre you might like. Also, being able to listen to 30 seconds of each of a band's songs is actually a pretty good way of figuring out whether you might like them or not. This is a useful service.
With the Worst Rock Band Ever contest in one window and the iTunes Music Store in another, you can understand the exact kinds of badness that Jeric Smith is talking about (or at least 30 seconds of each one) and learn just enough about popular bands to be able to make fun of them properly! Or maybe even discover that one of the popular bands is something you might enjoy! I did not discover any such thing, but you might!
I made some startling discoveries during this exploration. For example: I didn't know who Fleetwood Mac is. Seriously, who the hell is Fleetwood Mac? And why did they pick such a silly name for their band? And then I listened to 30 seconds of each song from their hit album, and I realized that I could sing along to every single song on the album by this band who I don't even know because they all got played so many freakin times on classic rock radio. There are several bands like this, bands that I discovered I knew, though I did not know that I knew them. For instance, Creedence Clearwater Revival, or the Steve Miller Band. Ahh, generically catchy and inoffenssive classic rock, beloved of radio DJs, you are so homogenous and overplayed that you can slip songs into my subconscious mind without me ever learning who performed them or being able to tell one band from the other.
But let's talk about bands that I actually like. I was not expecting to get any hits when I typed Magma into the iTunes music store search field, but SURPRISE!!! Not only do they have Magma albums, they have the infamous "lost" album MDK aka Mekanik Destructiw Kommandoh.
Magma was a "concept" band. A 1970s French jazz "concept" band. I can hear some of you screaming already. But wait, it gets better. All of Magma's music told the epic space-opera story of the planet Kobaiah, which was settled by exiles from Earth, and their troubles, and how the Earth became decadent and corrupt, and they tried to oppress Kobaiah, and there was interstellar war, and messianic figures, and all kinds of crazy stuff. And they sang all of their lyrics in the Kobaian "language". Which they made up. There is apparently an official French-Kobaian dictionary somewhere, not that it helps me much. Magma's music is almost impossible to describe, but if you imagine a cross between free improv jazz and Klingon opera, and then add some funky grooves and a little bit of Carmina Burana, you will be in the vicinity of the right idea. It's, uh, it's an acquired taste to be sure. It's weird and scary and I love it. But most of my friends won't even agree to try listening to it. So I enjoy it alone.
Anyway, Magma fans on the internet say their best album was the 1973 Mekanik Destructiew Kommandoh. And I have been searching for this album for nearly five years now; nobody has it. Amazon can order it for you, but it's not in stock and it's import-only and it costs $40. Forget that. And then last week, I find it on iTunes. It costs $6.93 to download. Because it only has seven tracks. They're much longer tracks than your typical pop song, but iTunes doesn't know or care about length -- all songs are 99 cents. Yes, sometimes they make a song "album only" and charge $9.99 for the whole album regardless of number of songs, but they're inconsistent about it. Last time I checked, you can get the classic Relayer by Yes for $.97 because it has 3 songs on it that are each like 20 minutes.
Maaaaan. Rush was just in Chicago in June and I missed them. Drat and bother. AND there was a concert tour where Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa played the music of their late great dad. That's something I would have really liked to see. It makes me very sad that Frank Zappa was touring during my lifetime -- and from what I hear, his band in the late 80s was one of the most talented bands ever assembled -- but I never went to see him because I wasn't a fan yet. And then he went and died before I became a fan.
At the risk of sounding like a raving fanboy, I must say I think Frank Zappa was probably the single greatest musical genius of the late 20th century. Most people just know him as a rock star with a creepy moustache who sang goofy songs about yellow snow and valley girls. But the guy put out something like 60 different albums in his lifetime which covered just about every possible genre, from rock to jazz to classical to electronic (sometimes all of the above are crammed into a single song, in fact.) He was a huge influence on a whole generation of musicians who followed him. His orchestral compositions have been performed by the London Symphoney Orchestra. And even his silliest rock songs were often musically brilliant. Like, take the song Montana -- which appears to be a silly throwaway song with lyrics about moving to Montana to become a dental floss farmer (?!) -- but if you ignore the lyrics and listen to the music, there is so much going on melodically and rythmically; you could easily arrange the music for an orchestra and it would sound like an excellent classical piece.
So, my hope is that in time Frank Zappa will come to be recognized as one of the great composers and that his music will be performed by many people and live on for centuries.
FZ also did a lot of really scathing social commentary in his music; a recurring theme in his art and his life was his defense of the right to free expression and his opposition to the religious right. He was enough of an expert on the subject that he was called to give expert testimony before a senate subcomittee on music censorship. Here is a video of Frank Zappa's appearance on Crossfire in 1986 where he debated religious-right scumbag John Lofton who wanted to censor rock music lyrics and videos. This is quite an interesting thing to watch; in one sense, very little has changed since the 1980s, since we're still debating the same issues; but in another sense, Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" video seems pretty tame by today's standards. The annoying thing about the "debate" is that there's no structure to it; it devolves into guys shouting over each other, which I guess is what television audiences wanted to see, but I would have preferred a format where each side could give challenges and rebuttals without being interrupted every few seconds. John Lofton makes a fool of himself and proves Godwin's Law by bringing up a completely off-topic Hitler comparison (which is ironic, as the Nazis were really big fans of censorship). But the single most interesting moment, for me, is when Zappa, having stated quite plainly that we ought to be able to say "fuck" on TV, is accused by Lofton of being an anarchist or a radical, he responds contemptuously,
"I'm not a radical, I'm a conservative."
This is not sarcasm. This is absolutely true. There was a time, once, when American conservativism meant standing for individual liberties and against government intervention into private matters. It's hard to imagine now, when the Republican party has become the very overreaching, intrusive, meddlesome, bloated Big Government that it always used to complain about. But there was a time when being conservative meant wanting to protect the Constitution, not wanting to mangle it. Could we get back to that, please?
Back to the subject of concerts I missed, there was apparently Lollapalooza in Chicago last weekend. I did not go because I do not wish to pay money for the privelige of standing around in a huge crowd in the hot sun for hours on end listening to crummy bands. However, I read the list of bands afterwards, and to my surprise there were at least four that I would actually have been interested in seeing (hearing? Why do we always say we are going to "see" a concert when it's the listening that's the important part?). These bands are:
- The Eels
- The Dresden Dolls
- The Flaming Lips
- The New Pornographers
Especially the Flaming Lips. I have heard that the Flaming Lips' stage show involved women dressed as aliens, men dressed as santa, giant inflatable astronauts, and lots of confetti. Man, that sounds pretty fun. I believe they are a Chicago-based band so maybe I can catch them around here some other time.
If you have never heard of the Flaming Lips: they are sort of a modern version of psychedelic rock, with lots of trippy spacey electronic sound effects and weeeird lyrical concepts. The first album of theirs I heard was Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and I admit it: I bought it entirely because of the name. And the cover artwork. And those are silly things to judge an album by, but how could I pass up an album called Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots? Think about it. Luckily I was not disappointed! It's a sci-fi concept album with a pervasive sense of romantic melancholy, cool "soundscapes", lyrics both tragic and comedic, and most importantly, some great tunes. And the liner notes and packaging are full of hidden messages written in Japanese. The singer's voice is a little bit on the whiny side, which annoys some people (hi Stephen!) but it's not enough to bother me. The album before Yoshimi, called The Soft Bulletin, is less of a cohesive whole but it is even better in some of the individual songs. Their newest album is called At War with the Mystics and I am looking forward to hearing it.
The Flaming Lips are one of a small group of modern bands which seem to me to have recaptured something of the spirit of progressive rock. (I think this is a good thing. Some would disagree.) I do not mean that they sound anything like the bands of the classic prog-rock era, but rather that they have some of the same approach to making music: ambition; experimenation; concept albums (or at least, making an album as a unit, and not as a collection of singles); intellectual lyrics; unusual rythms and melodies; blurring of genre boundaries; and long, exploratory songs instead of radio-friendly verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure. Now gee, what modern bands come to mind when you think of those qualities?
Radiohead is the best known. I don't like listening to them, but at the same time I am kind of happy that they exist, that they're doing their own thing and being weird and getting popular for it, and that they're making people admit that concept albums aren't neccessarily a bad thing!
I've tried to enjoy Radiohead, I really have -- Andrew at work has OK Computer and Kid A on his shared iTunes list, and I have listened to them and tried to see what all the fuss is about. Listening closely, I can hear some promising things happening musically; I can get some enjoyment out of it as long as it remains instrumental, but then Thom Yorke starts attempting to sing and that just ruins it for me. And by "attempting to sing" I mean incomprehensible moaning and whining. Why bother writing lyrics which are obviously intended to be Deep And Meaningful if you're just going to groan and mumble so much that nobody can understand you without looking up the lyrics on the internet?
OK, so Flaming Lips and Radiohead. Who else? The Mars Volta surely goes in this category, as much as I despised Frances the Mute. The Fiery Furnaces for sure. I love the Fiery Furnaces (which is good because my list of modern progressives was starting to look like a list of bands I can't stand.) I love the Fiery Furnaces so much I want to marry them, except they are a brother-sister duo and I'm pretty sure that would be illegal. The Fiery Furnaces' album Blueberry Boat is full of songs around the 10-minute mark, full of time changes and key changes, and is a weird blend of electronics, modern rock, old-fashioned American folk music, and what sounds like sea chanties. And the lyrics are a series of adventure stories, full of wordplay and evocative imagery. For a followup they recorded an album with their grandmother (called Rehearsing My Choir) in which she tells weird, sad, slightly creepy stories about growing up in Chicago in the olden days and the band sets them to music. The Fiery Furnaces are modern progressive for sure.
Can I count Deerhoof? They have more of a punk/indie vibe than the others, and they do shorter songs and no concept albums ( that I am aware of ), but daaaaamn they are innovative musically. They simply do not sound like anything else I've heard. They sound alien and exciting and scary. And their use of contrasts is really cool -- from lullaby soft to heavy-metal loud, from oppressive industrial gloom to girly sweetness, and from bare-naked punkishness to lush instrumentation, all in the space of a few minutes. Deerhoof can cover a lot of musical ground in the space of one short but intricately-constructed song.
Finally, I would also like to includ Bjork in this classification. Bjork just keeps getting weirder and weirder, bless her tiny Elvish heart. On her last several albums she has been creating a kind of super-lush orchestral background music out of electronic sounds, classical-sounding in some places, aggressively discordant in other places. And she sings weird weird things in her weird weird voice, and transports you to a futuristic Scandanavian fantasy world. And on Vespertine she seems to be wearing a dead swan and vocally faking orgasm. (Actually I'm not so sure she's faking.) Her latest album Medulla is intentionally nothing but vocals, but the vocals are electronically processed and looped and layered to create a substitute for instrumentation. And she sings in Icelandic, which is nothing new for her -- she sang in Icelandic in her pre-solo career, and she has a whole album of Icelandic-language jazz, called Gling Glo -- but it's new for the audience of her "mainstream" albums. Anyway, Bjork is so talented, weird, and pretentious (in a good way) that I wonder why the prog fandom hasn't accepted her yet. I bet all she would have to do is to release an album with the exact same sound, but a track listing that featured a 20-minute song suite divided up into A, B, C, D, and E movements, and the prog rockers would hail her as their new goddess.
So, that's my short list of bands that are modern and seem to have the spirit of progressiveness going on. What a lot of them have in common is a blending of "alternative" rock (whatever that is ) and electronica, which seems to me very similar to how the early 70s progressive bands blended psychedelic rock and jazz. It's the same thing, really -- they take the genres that are available in the musical landscape at the time, and they make something new out of them.
- The Fiery Furnaces
- The Mars Volta
- The Flaming Lips
What do you think, Other Music Fans Who Read My Page? Am I on to something here or am I being completely naiive and stupid? And more importantly, do you know of any other modern bands who sound like, or more imporantly, have the same kind of approach to making music, as the ones I listed above? Cuz I would probably like to listen to them.
How come open-source UIs have to suck so bad?
Last night I tried to learn to use The GIMP, which is meant to be the free-software replacement for Photoshop. (I could always use a bootleg Photoshop, but I'd rather be free AND legit.)
GIMP is Hard To Use.
OK, so there's dozens of cryptic little icons and hundreds of menu options and dialog boxes. I expected that part. That's bad UI design, but at least it's familiar bad UI design. Also, there are far too many clicks required to execute the simplest tasks, but that too is familiar bad UI design.
Also it's full of modes. Some of that may be unavoidable in a graphics program, since you need to use the mouse to point at things, and the mouse only has 1 to 3 buttons on it, and there are many things I could want my mouse click to do to the picture, so we have the concept of a tool palette, with one selected tool, which is a mode. And then each tool has dozens of suboptions and settings, which are more modes. Bad, but familiar, and I don't have a better solution ( or else I would be writing it ).
What's really bugging me right now is the stuff that isn't familiar. The modes which you don't even know exist until something goes horribly wrong. The concepts and subtle distinctions which you need to know to use the program, like the difference between a selection and a path, which have to be learned the hard way, by trial and error, unless you have someone standing over you to explain them. The things which you don't know that you don't know. The unexpected behavior of a tool which superficially resembles a tool in another program.
In particular, the behavior of selection tools is really throwing me off -- I understand that there are several tools to make selections and then several more tools to do transformations on a selection, such as moving it, copying it, filling it in, etc. But the selection tool sometimes turns itself into the move tool after I make a selection -- and other times it doesn't! And I can't figure out why. And sometimes the selection tool decides to turn itself into yet another type of cursor, one with a little anchor on it, and I have no idea what that's supposed to mean or what it will do if I click it. Sometimes when I make some change, a block of text that I have already entered on another layer will disappear. The layer is still there on the layers window, and it seems to still have the text on it, and to still be in front, but the text can't be seen in the image window. What's going on? The only solution I've found is to delete the layer and create the text anew.
Then, when I try to save something as a .png, GIMP tells me that I must export the image before I can save it, since png doesn't support layers. Why doesn't GIMP just do the export (whatever that means) and then the save, automatically, when I click save? Since that's obviously what the user wants, why even pop up a dialog box about it? Why should the user even have to waste brainpower understanding that GIMP has a concept of exporting which is distinct from its concept of saving a file?
GIMP is not an exception. Though I appreciate many features of open source products -- the philosophy behind them, the fact that they are free (in both senses), the fact that I can look at the source code and find out how they work and in theory even fix bugs myself, the level of support available for them, and the fact that they exist at all given that they are written by volunteers -- these are all great. But the user intrafaces, ohhhhh, the user interfaces, they are not good. They are bad.
The other day, a friend was asking me for advice on a program to do multicolumn page layouts, and he said:
Someone suggested OpenOffice but uh... how do I put this...
I've never seen a linux-born program that had a remotely decent
interface, and X11 sucks.
(He's talking specifically about using X11 on a Mac there, but I think there are plenty of X11 developers who would agree with him!)
First, I must agree with you about the crummy user-interfaces of
open-source products in general and OpenOffice in particular. Open
source is very good at certain things but user interfaces are not one
of them! I've been thinking about the reasons for this and it I think
that it's because there's nobody but programmers working on the
project, and since programmers are used to digging in the guts of a
program and/or using command-line interfaces, they tend to be very bad
at designing GUIs. They tend to come up with a GUI that assumes the
user has the programmer's knowledge of the internal structure of the
code and the arcane divisions between seemingly similar data types and
operations. And then they also copy the worst features of the
interface of whatever Microsoft product they're trying to replace with
their open-source product. Programmers always complain about having
business guys and marketing guys working over them, but at least
marketing guys will sometimes get a focus group to bang on the
prototype and then force the programmers to simplify the interface.
I then went on to recommend LaTeX to my friend. How sad is it that LaTeX -- a 20+ year old program which requires you to basically learn a new freakin' language to typeset your document -- is still a better UI than the open-source movement's flagship word processor?
This probably has something to do with why I don't use any of the Linux window managers. KDE, you suck triceratops eggs. Gnome, you don't suck quite as bad as KDE but you still suck. When I use Linux -- which is almost every day -- I use it in command-line mode only. I never run X11. And it works great that way! The Linux command line has a bit of a learning curve, but everything fits together logically, help is readily available, every command you could possibly want is at your fingertips, and once you're used to it, it is super fast and powerful and never gets in your way.
Why? Why can't open-source hackers make a decent GUI? Is it because they spend so much time on the command line that they never use GUI programs themselves? Is it because their heads are so full of arcane details that they forget how normal users think? Is it because they think of GUIs as chrome and therefore unimportant and unworthy of spending the time to do right? Is it because they assume that just by copying the style of one of Apple's products, you automatically have a good interface? Is it because the decentralized nature of open source development means there is no one person designing the interface from the ground up to ensure unity and consistency?
My coworker Andrew wrote a pretty choice rant about the horror of the OpenOffice interface (unfortunately it's not on the public Internet so I can't give you a link).
I'm still alive, here's a recipe
I discovered that just down the road from me there is a little Thai grocery store, and beyond that a big Vietnamese supermarket. The kind of place that has all kinds of scary stuff like 1,000-Year Eggs and fresh durians and fish maw and grass jelly. I loooooove Southeast Asian food so this is a great find for me. I am going to be studying more recipes and cooking SE Asian stuff all the time from now on! Huzzah!
Saturday my parents and Aleksa came over for dinner, and while Mom was rearranging my bathroom cabinets and Aleksa was playing with my D&D miniatures, I was figuring out how to make the following dish, a Thai cold noodle salad. It is a light and refreshing summer meal.
- Vinegar ( distilled )
- Fish Sauce
- Rice Vermicelli ( 8 oz, or half of a 1-pound bag )
- Limes ( 2 of thems )
- Chicken ( plain, cooked, in bite-sized chunks )
- Peanuts ( roasted, unsalted )
- Bean Sprouts ( the crunchy kind, aka. moyashi or mung beans, like a heaping double-handfull worth, sorry about these nonscientific units of measure )
- A Carrot
You may have to hit an Asian grocery store to get the fish sauce and rice vermicelli. Fish sauce is the secret ingredient of all Thai food and is basically liquid anchovy. It smells disgusting but a little dash of it gives food a great flavor. Rice vermicelli goes by many names; it's long, very thin, translucent noodles, usually sold dry and brittle and folded into a brick shape inside a plastic bag.
Cook the chicken first; you can just grill it in a pan, or use cold leftover or pre-cooked chicken pieces.
Boil a big pot of water. While waiting for that, cut the limes in half and squeeze all of their juice into a bowl. Also wash the vegetables and herbs, peel the carrot, and pick a couple big handfulls each of cilantro and basil leaves off of their stems.
When the water is boiling, drop in the brick of noodles and then immediately take the pot off of the burner. (That's how delicate these guys are; putting any more heat into the system will destroy them.) Push the noodle brick down under the water with a fork and recover the pot. Wait four minutes, then dump it through a colander and run the noodles under cold water until they are thoroughly chilled. They should now be soft and chewey.
Combine the noodles, bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, chicken, and peanuts in a big bowl. You can crush up the peanuts a bit first, or not. Take a peeler and start shaving layers off the carrot into the bowl; continue until the carrot is gone.
In another bowl, mix up the broth. I don't have exact measurements of how much of everything I put in this broth; but it's supposed to saturate the noodles and stuff from underneath, so we need enough to fill the big bowl about halfway up to where the tops of the noodles are. That's going to be mostly water, with enough vinegar and lime juice to make it pleasantly sour, a bit of fish sauce to make it salty, and just a little bit of sugar to balance out the sour and salty flavors. So start with something like 2 cups of water, 1/2 cup of vinegar, 1/3 cup of fish sauce, and 1/4 cup of sugar, and the lime juice, mix it all up, taste it, and fiddle with the balance until you like it.
Serve the noodle mix up into individual bowls, saturate each bowl with the sauce, stir them up, and serve.