Monday, August 27, 2012

I recently finished reading Earth's Children by Jean M. Auel. On the final analysis I both liked and hated this series.

I liked it because of the detail and setting background and the interesting situation that was developing. And I hated it because the interesting situation was never resolved and the writing style got progressively worse from book to book. It is small wonder then to learn that several of the books struggled to find a publisher.

We start in "Clan of the Cave Bear" with a great fictional situation where a young human girl is growing up with a group of Archaic Homo Sapiens of realy undetermined species. Nominally they are Neanderthals however their way of life would be primitive even by Neanderthal standards, and they are missing quite a number bit of the sophistication that we would have expected in actual Neanderthal culture.

In any case its an excellent story with a strong protagonist, and a strong antagonist. Occasionally the writing does drift a little and fall into paragraphs of narrator description that is overly technical, but this is rare.
The next two books are still good, though the amount of archeological detail progressively increases. We also start getting overly detailed flashbacks to the previous books and a few too many, also overly detailed, sex scenes. Some of the sex scenes are actually important to the story, but these loose their impact due to the constant repetition.

Its however when we get to the fourth book that the real truble starts. Here there is an overly simple story of getting back home, with a few episodic adventures along the way. If anything the flaws of the first books become amplified. Ayla nad Jondlar's sex life is revisited in tedious detail again and again. Flashbacks likewise increase in frequency and duration and the descriptions of scenery mutate into academic descriptions of Ice age ecology that go on for pages and pages, only to be repeated almost verbatim several chapters later. At least the author does maintain a good paragraph structure, which makes it easier to skim the teduious bits, and I certainly did do a lot of skim reading in this book.

Possibly the most interesting event being the encounter of the tribe who's name starts with A'. Later they are retconed into being of largely mixed stock. And its a pity that this idea is not obvious in this book as it would make an interesting counter to Ayla's general desire to reconcile the two species of human. All in all Plains of Passage was still a reasonable book.

And then we get to the last two books, and for me at least, massive disappointment. It took Jondlar one and a half books to get over his racism and fully accept that the Clan are humans. And yet for most of his people this seems to be almost a non-issue. Which makes me wonder how Jondlar came to have views so much stronger then the rest of his people.

The next problem is that there is no credible antagonist. Instead we have a motley crew of the jilted woman who no one particularly likes. The cave drunkard, and 3/4 cast who's very existence makes no sense, really you'd think that his mother, who was considered to be an abomination, would have been exposed especially as her mother didn't survive the birth. And finally the old adversary of Jondlar's who is now a rather inept acolyte shaman. The problem is that all of these adversaries are already at the periphery of their society, sure they may hate Ayla but there is almost nothing they can do about it.

After all the buildup in previous books this is an extreme letdown. Instead Jondlar should have returned to find an altered situation where his enemies, who are now Ayla's as well are in positions of power and his friends and relations have been reduced. This strange woman's arrival should have been that catalyst that almost started a civil war among the Zelondoni. At least then Ayla would have had something to do which is slightly more interesting then having a baby and looking at some caves.

And then there is the other anticipated conflict that never arrived, that between the modern humans and their more archaic predecessors.Heck this one was even been hinted at as recently as the fifth book, and it never arrived. THe clan was hardly mentioned in the final book. Instead what we got was more flashbacks then we knew what to do with. Worst yet some of them actually contradicted the original book. Such as the claim that the Marmut of the Lion Camp was first, when he most definitely wasn't.

Instead of the promised racial conflict we get a tour of various archeological sites. And Ayla going public with her revelation about sex. What is even more frustrating is the relatively small amount of conflict this generates. You'd think that this if nothing else would have caused some kind of break, with some subgroup of the Shammen refusing to make it public and taking their caves away, we already had the Zelondoni of the 14th cave set up as a potential adversary, but nope, she shuts up and accepts the news along with everyone else. Heck by the end of it when we get the internal monolog of Ayla's few detractors fuming about how she was able to waltz in and change everything, I found myself agreeing with them.

So I finally got the the last page of the last book, and then I turned it looking for some kind of closure or climax to the story. Is this is? I asked myself. I may have enjoyed most of the journey, but the destination was really not worth it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Harry Potter

So I finally managed to get through the last book. Looking back on the HP journey and really it has been mostly fun. Mostly we have a cast of great characters on all sides. And some great stories to boot. However it is not all a bed of roses and the later books too seem to suffer a bit form lack of editing. The biggest points being that The Half Blood Prince doesn't seem to have much in the way of a major plot. Its just a several subplots merged together, so much so that it feels like a one year filler in the story. And the last book has long periods of extreme drudgery between, interspersed with some truly awesome scenes.

My view on the overarching plot would be as follows :

* It was disappointing how little time in the spotlight Ginny got, especially once the Harry - Ginny romance was established. I would really have expected her to tag along on the final mission, by accident or design.

* More hints about Dumbuldore's dark side should have appeared earlier. In the end he turns out to be rather a Machiavellian character who even managed to shock Snape at one point. The whole limbo scene was rather annoying in this regard, and the and I had a hunch that you might survive anyway line seemed rather shallow and annoying. In my opinion the Christian allegory here feels like something Rowling stuck in to mute some of her critics, rather than something that was intended all along.

* By the same token as the above Snape should have become the Headmaster at
least one book earlier, so that Harry would then have to deal with Principal
Snape for a while. Actually seeing how Snape, who navigates the waters
between appearing to be on Voldamort's side and at the same time trying to
protect the students of Hogwarts from him at the same time. A who killed
Dumoldore mystery where Harry suspects Drace would have been a better story
than the one we actually got in the Halfblood Prince.

But really the plot is not the thing that threw me out of the story the most. What really made suspension of disbelief difficult was the world building. Building a plausable society is hard, building a plausible shadow society that somehow exists in parallel to the very day is even harder. So far the following points have bugged me:

Didn't do the maths
Having just one teacher per subject puts a real limit on how many students could be at Hogwarts. And claiming it's the only magic school in Britain buts a major limit on magical population. Really having 600 students at Hogwarts would have been pushing it.

Having established a small magical population the Ministry of Magic seems unbelievable large. there just does not seem to be enough witches and wizards to warrant such a huge and sprawling public service, especially considering how little they actually provide. For instance the only public utility is the floo network.

Gringots, the wizards Bank also seem kind of large for the amount of Economic activity that actually takes place. Ditto for extreme specialists such as Olivander. Wands don't seem to wear out. A careful wizard might buy 1 wand in their entire lifetime. 99% of Olivander's business would then be the before school rush of first year students.

Modes of transport

At the start of the series we have wizards riding broomsticks and using Owls to deliver things. Under those circumstances using a train for longer journeys, when you have a lot of baggage, kind of makes sense.

Then we get the floo network and all of that breaks. Why go to Kings Cross station to catch a train that then has to get to the Scottish Highlands, when you could use floo powder to take your kids directly to their common room?

Indeed considering that floo powder can get you for place to place near instantly, why bother with a boarding school at all? Children could just as well live at home and commute to school. The floo network is a telephone and rapid transport system all in one.
Why give your letter to an owl that could be intercepted, or killed by accident, when you could just pop through the floo network and drop your letter or parcel off in a couple of minutes.

And then we get teleportation. At first it seems like a dangerous and difficult trick that only the most experienced wizards attempt, which is not so bad. Then we learn that it is as common in the Wizarding world as driving is in ours. Really Young witches and wizards going for their Teleportation test is kind of cheezy. But the big problem is that it completely breaks everything that went before it, suddenly the night bus and the floo network, not to mention owl post nolonger make sense. Even the broom becomes something that no one would really use for anything other than recreation.

In my opinion teleportation should not have been added to the Story. At least not for the ordinary wizard. It should have been a feature of the Dark mark, something that Voldamort developed. By virtue of having some of Voldamorts Soul, let Harry pull it off in an emergency. But that's it. And to prevent House Elves replacing the Owl post, make it so that they explicitly cannot take anything with them. Picture the added mirth of Harry first seeing Dobbie wearing one of Aunt Petunias best tea towels as a toga.

Portkeys on the other hand are a neat idea, and in the absence of teleportation
do seem to make sense when large numbers of wizards need to travel. The one
plot element I did not like was the ease with which Dumboldore could make one.
In any case you'd think that the only magical Hospital in Britain would be on
the Floo network.

Restictions on Underage Magic

Well, you could set up enchantments to monitor every child between 11 and 17, 24 hours per day to make sure that they don't do any unothorised magic outside of school. Or you could just put their wants in a magically sealed locker. Really why are young wizards allowed to run arround with wands if they arn't allowed to use them?

As others sites have pointed out the sheer amount of magical surveillance involved in policing these restrictions is very Orwellian. And once you've established that there exist spells that can achieve infalable survalance the idea that anyone can hide from the ministry becomes rather implausible.

A registry of Wands and the ability to forensically determin who's wand cast
what spell in a given location, much like real world police can match a bullet
to a particular gun, would have been much better. The trick to avoiding capture
is then to avoid using magic. Forcing our heroes to use muggle forms of
transport during book seven would have been rather interesting, especially for

Armed and Dangerous

I don't think there is any real way to fix most of this bit, as it does seem to
be an integral part of a magic school. But I'll note them anyway.

Every high school kid is running around with a loaded weapon, that can fire an
unblockable death curse if you get them angry enough. Sure most injuries can be
fixed in the hospital wing fairly quickly, accept for the instantly fatal ones
that is. Note that sport of choice does not seem to have anything in the way of
safety precautions at all. You'd think the helmets might be used, and perhaps
some enchantment to catch any player unfortunate enough to fall off their

And then we have potions which for some reason are not regulated anywhere near
as heavily as wand usage. Mind control, pain and death spells are unforgivable
curses. Yet you can legally buy mind control potions at the local joke shop. And
as for the rest, there's probably a recipe for them in your text book, or
failing that in the school library. This includes the infamous polyjuice
potion which can be misused in so many ways.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Land of Mists

Proffesor Challanger is a major chacter in several of Author Connan Doyle's books. He is a man of utmost scientific regiour and reason. WHich makes the last book he appears in all the more puzzling as in it he, following the Authors footsteps accepts and embraces the reality of mediumship.

One key event within this book sees a not so well of, but very well meaning medium get entrabed by undercover police oficers who come to him with a conncoted story aimed at exposing the fraudulent nature of his abilities. And indeed where this the real world said abilities would have been exposed when ti was revealed that the name the young police woman mensioned was not her fiance but her dog.

Unfrotunatly in the real world self proclaimed psychics are freqently very wealth and at the same time very rarly investigated by the authorities. And where a private citizen tired to do so, even a jurnalist, he is almost asured of being dragged through the court system, on charges of liabel. So it is good to know that a few still dare to investigate the mediums of today.

The real world method seems quite similar to that used by Doyle 100 years ago. Put down a name of a person who does not exist, because he is a dog, or just a sufficently obscure fictional character, and the deception will be revealed.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Roleplaying Games we may never see.

Atriums and Ardvarks
Baths and Bandicoots
Corridors and Crocodiles
Dugouts and Dingos (Adventures in the Australian Outback)
Escelators and Elephants
Foyers and Fauns
Gorges and Gargoyles
Houses and Humans (of this one is called the Sims)
Iglus and Iguanas
Jails and Jaguars
Kitchens and Krackens
Locations and Lurkers (the most generic system ever)
Moseliums and Mummies
Nests and Narwals
Opisthodomos and Octopuses
Palaces and Pelsiasours
Quaries and Quails
Roofs and Roosters
Saunas and Salamanders
Turrets and Turtles
Universities and Unicorns
Vestipules and Vipers
Warrens and Wearwolves
Xystums and Xenomorphs
Yachts and Yetties
Zoos and Zebras (I guess this woudl be sim Zoo)

And we have an entire alphabet though really Opisthodomos and Xystums are a bit of a strech.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Mere Christianity

Answering a challange from a redditor to read this book. And here is what I found.

In rhe Preface there is an interesting tangent about words loosing their descriptive meaning, and becoming mere terms of praise or condemnation. Lewis is wrong in suggesting that Non believers would be eager to use the word 'Christian' to mean a good person /r/atheism has many a post proving that atheists do not like this usage any more then Lewis does. So far However I can say to agree with the argument.

We then get to the main thrust of this book. I can only say that after the preface I was dismayed to see Mr Lewis immediately ignore his own advice and attempt to water down the meaning of "Natural Law". A Natural Law is a law that cannot be broken, simply because it is how the universe works. There is no grounds for saying that a natural law, as applied to rocks is how they do behave but when applied to Humans means how they ought to behave. Even the claim that this definition is standard in philosophy is demonstrably false. I only have to go back as far as Sir Thomas Hobbs to get a counter example. Sir Hobbs describes the State of Nature, or how Humans behave when there is no social constrainst up on them, and it really does boil down to kill them before they kill you.

I also suspect that there is an implicit argument from design hiding here. Really the only time you can get an ought from an is, is when you envoke design. If X is a watch then X ought to tell the correct time. So if there is a way Humans ought to behave then it follows that they where designed to behave in some way. To me the fac that they don't suggest that either there was no such way, or that the designer really wasn't particularly good at his job. Refering to God as He is yet another thing that Lewis slips in with no justification. However I suspect that his sencibilites, having a strong hint of white colonialism about them, made this an intierly unconcious act.

Lewis then goes to argue the point that there is Some idea of Moral right and wrong which goes beyond our instincts and is universal to all humans across all tiems and places. And yet history seems to furnish an inexhaustible supply of counter examples. Lewis does attempt to address this on two fronts. Firstly by arguing that we often confuse custom with moral imperative and that the majority of such examples are really about custom and not morality. He supplied clothing as an example. I find this Ironic considering how strongly some religions feel about what the moral way to dress is. Indeed in Lewis' own faith, the taboo against nudity was pretty well the first sign that humans had learned about good and evil.

Lewis' second approach is to argue that other examples are not confusion about the moral things to do but confusion about the facts of the world leading to actions that in retrospect appear evil, but seemed right at the time. By this example our witch burning ancestors where not acting immorally, but where simple confused about the facts, and believed in witches. As opposed to the Nazi's who where truly evil. This to me is rather extreme special pleading. One could just as easily argue that the Nazi's (who where predominantly Christian) where also merely confused about the facts. Indeed they justified genocide in exactly the same way as previous generations justified the burning of witching. Namely by arguing that the targeted group was responsible for every problem that the society of the day was facing, Indeed that the targets where so evil that they desrved to be destroyed.

This argument, that the enemy is so degenerate that they do not deserve to be treated as a human. Was exactly the same one that Christians used to justify the practice of slavery throughout the colonial period. And is also the exactly same argument used in the Old Testement when Moses ordered genocide in God's name. I find it interesting to Compare Moses and Hitler. They both had the same goal, namely to establish a homeland for the chosen people, and they both ordered similer sorts of atrocities. Including the clensing of the Chosen people by killing anyone who disagreed with them, followed by the extermination of other "non Chosen" people.

Along the way we have the claim that Selfishness has never been admired. That no successfully society has ever been built that uses self interest as an ideal. Well no society other than the modern free world. Indeed the idea that individuals have the right to the pursuit of happiness is what make our society different from every form of Theocracy and Dictatorship that can be found in the pages of history and in the world today. Here again I find Lewis to be wrong. He argues that fact that we can rank societies on a moral scales shows that there must be some external we are ranking them against. But in really all we are doing is comparing the apparent morality of others to our own ideal of what a moral society should be. And indeed My ranking on this issue would be very different to that of a Fundamentalist, irrespective of what ideology he happens to follow.

At one point Lewis builds a destinciton between the Matirialist and the Relgious point of view, leading to the standard position that Science can only answer question about How things work but not questions about why things are. Lewis' account of the materialist position is to me an illustration about why you should never try to argue form the current state of scientific knowledge. He spends a rather long paragraph summarising a model of solar system evolution which no modern day physicist would subscribe too. A modern account of our solar system would be different in every detail, and yet the religous verison continues to be a longwinded way of saying "God did it".

The thing is that Sicnece can have a stab at explaining why all humans seem to agree about a lot of moral questions. And that is our evolutionary heritage as a social animal, predisposed to co-operating in small groups. And to this we add social learning. And indeed among humans social learning seems to account for the bulk of our moral values. And if we look back at history we see that almost every single time two vastly different cultures have met, both have expressed dismay about the moral standards of the other.

In in all Lewis failed to convince me that his exter external moral law is an objective reallity. And having failed there the remainder of the argument falls appart even if the chain of logic was at all reasonable, which it isn't, as it does seem to make some pretty impressive leaps.