Tuesday, May 22, 2007

From High Above

From 40,000 feet the entire breadth of North America is cross-hatched in endless rectangles, precisely delineated. Not one inch of the continent is free of this demarcation, this immense subdivision of what was once a vast wilderness.

Where can adventure live in such a carefully enscribed landscape? Where in all this is there room for the unknown, for mystery, for that thrilling understanding that comes from facing what has never before been faced? And what does it mean that there is no longer any forest left for the knight to go adventuring in? What is a castle when all the world is fortified?

No wonder fantasy novels are so popular nowadays. A new world can be fashioned, a world that still offers dark corners unexplored, that still holds mysteries for brave hearts to test themselves against.

No wonder, too, that investigative dramas have always done so well. Observe the clues, make the diagnosis, and the problem is solved, 42 minutes later. Such stories repeat in our daily life the truth that emerges when one soars above this thoroughly-settled land. That all ferocity can eventually be tamed, that all terrors can ultimately be faced and fought down, and that all mysteries will inevitably give up their secrets and settle into the mundane.

Both stories -- the story of mystery's ongoing existence, and the story of rationality's ongoing campaign against mystery -- succor us and our deepest fears. If there is no more mystery, we fear, then there are no secrets within ourselves. There is no uniqueness to our soul, nothing that makes us different from the myriad others. But if mystery cannot be defeated by rationality, then there is no chance of us ever knowing ourselves truly.

And of course, if we cannot delve into our own wildernesses and tame them, subdivide them and put up tract housing on what's left, we are left never knowing that the secret uniqueness to our hearts is in fact unique. Maybe we aren't. Maybe our so-precious soul does not exist, and all that we are is a conglomeration of cells, seeking to reproduce themselves, and that our own sense of consciousness is simply a side-effect of that process, with no meaning in itself.

Reading Steven Erikson's newest novel, Reaper's Gale, brings forth such thoughts. This fantasy epic has become a political and philosophical journey, and Erikson is proving to be a frustrating and rewarding guide through some very difficult terrain. There are no easy answers in all this. There aren't even any difficult answers. Just one difficult question after another. Silchas Ruin asks, "What gives your life meaning, Udinaas?" and Udinaas can only laugh bitterly, and retort, "Ask me something interesting."

What fascinates me the most about that exchange is that, by all ordinary standards of judgement, Ruin should be the character we are most interested in, the one who inspires our identification (versus sympathy, we've talked about this before). We SHOULD want to be more like Ruin, with his tragic past, his super-powers, his certainty. And yet it is Udinaas, the slave, the cynical and weary one who refuses all grand purposes, who draws us to him. His disinterest in the meaninglessness of humanity's self-flagellation mirrors the disinterest of those roads in the meaninglessness of North America's vast surface.

At 40,000 feet, the only evidence that humanity exists is the regularity of our roads and the indifferent lines they cut across the indifferent landscape. Two vast disinterests set against one another. Is it a tragedy that the wilderness now exists only in our hearts (if it exists at all)? Or is it a blessing? Now that we can no longer be distracted by our desire to tame the land, are we more easily engaged in the project of taming ourselves? And is that project something to give our lives meaning? Or is it just building more roads across more landscapes, neither engaging with the other, while we fly on, far overhead?

Or do I need to find an interesting question?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Talking To Myself

I talk to myself a lot. Pretty much all the time, really. I carry on an endless conversation in my head. I talked to myself about writing this post. And of course, I talked to myself about how I talked to myself about writing this post. I even told myself to write "I talked to myself about how I talked to myself" -- and you can pretty much see where this is going.

I don't think I'm unique in that regard. I think most of us experience the same sort of thing -- we think by conducting conversations in our head. We rehearse what we're going to say. We imagine what we would have said. What we might say if we were asked.

Noqw this kind of ties into a lot of different things I've been coming across lately.

Now recently I read a post by Mr. Brust (who is very clever) where he says

It is nearly impossible to conceive of ideas for which you have no words.


A statement with which I agree, and one which points to the primacy of language in determining our view of the world. How we speak defines how we see, to a very large degree. Colin Falck's book Myth, Truth and Literature engages with a corollary of this notion; namely, if we cannot conceive of ideas for which we have no words, how do we come up with new ideas? Falck, in dismantling the baroque framework the post-strucuralists erected over the work of Sassure, notes that the inability to directly map symbols (such as words) to real-world objects actually means that all words enjoy a certain degree of freedom in their meaning. And the job of literature (previously myth) is to constantly push that freedom, and make words mean things they hadn't before.

Seen that way, literature is part of the basic process of developing language.

Mr. Brust goes on to address a comment I'd made about how we haven't gotten any better at storytelling in the past 3,000 years:

Yes, which triggers something I've given some thought to--the "full range of humnan emotions." I would submit that this range has expanded over the last 50,000 years. Were we always capable of feeling fear? Sure. Anger? I would think so. But what about epiphany? Sublime ecstacy? Wry amusement? Ironic bitterness?

I suspect that Homer was giving generalized expression to emotions that hadn't existed five thousand years before him; that Shakespeare was expressing emotional concepts that would have been foreign to Homer.

What new emotions will emerge over the next five thousand years? I haven't a clue. But I can see no reason to assume that, 50,000 years ago the "full range of human emotion" emerged in a sudden rush, and that since then nothing has changed in the emotional life of mankind.


I gotta say, that's pretty clever. Still not sure if we can see steady progress in terms of story-telling technology, but you CAN make a case that the rules of the game (being that art works within the emotional arena to some extent) keep changing, so maybe it's no surprise that the technology doesn't get better.

Of course, communication technology DOES get better. These days I'm getting deluged with emails from friends entreating me to pay attention to their Facebook presence.

Now, let's be perfectly clear: I like my friends. My friends are, by and large, some of the wisest, kindest, bravest and bestest people around. They're my friends mainly because I admire them.

But I'm not at all sure about this whole Facebook thing. Just like I wasn't at all sure about MySpace. Does anyone remember GeoCities?

Steph brought up the idea of how these sites, these technologies, are really more about enabling narcissism than they are about communication. Back to talking to yourself. But now, it's talking to yourself with the added fun of getting to count your number of friends growing day by day. I suspect that once the majority of the Facebook population sees their number of new friends level off, the crowd will be off to the next variant in this particular field. Because it's really about the self-gratification of knowing your own popularity.

But talking to yourself isn't bad in and of itself. Because of our limitations in apprehend that for which we have no words, we must use words, even inside our own heads, if we're to have any hope of making rational decisions. There's simply no other way for us to compare alternatives.

So talking to yourself is good.

Well. Like the Dilbert cartoon above suggests, it's not so easy to learn from oneself. I got a powerful lesson in this last week at Tong-sensei's class when Ono-sensei, who teaches under Hakateyama-sensei in Montreal (these names might actually matter to you if you know anything about the lineage of Katori Shinto Ryu: the rest of you, don't worry about it), took me through the four Omote Tachi kata. Ono-sensei is very fast, and Hakateyama's style is very agressive, and I was manhandled very effectively all the way through. It was startling to work with someone whose style and whose basic assumptions about each posture and move is so different from my own -- and I learned an enormous amount from our practice.

Because like talking to myself, swordfighting is an arena where it's easy to kid myself. It's easy to think I'm pushing myself, when really I'm just walking myself around in the same old circles. It's always a good idea to step out of where I'm comfortable and get smacked around by a guy who's faster than me, more experienced than me, and not operating on the same assumptions as me.

And of course, in response to Mr. Brust's point about it being nearly impossible to conceive of things you don't have words for, the idea that language is the denominator of how we think, I have to admit that in my own life, how I think hasn't always been the primary director of how I make decisions. So while talking to myself is a chance to practice thinking, I have to remind myself not get fooled into thinking that if I can just think correctly, then I will perforce act correctly.

I have work hard if I'm going to be my own mentor, and to be honest, I'm probably not going to do a very good job.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Dino-Pirates at GenCon!

Well, the response has been pretty overwhelming. In the first few days of GenCon event scheduling, I've posted three separate DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND sessions, and all three filled up in moments. This is not only thrilling but completely terrifying for me. I'll be DMing all sorts of people whose big brains I'm in awe of, and whose DMing skills are legendary.

What if I suck?

Geez. Now I actually have to DO something.

But seriously, this is great. Lots of people are keen to get on the DINO-PIRATE wagon. Hope I live up to their expectations.

How many sleeps now till August?

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

What Reportage?

CTV News just moments ago broadcast a "story" about the rampant piracy in Canada that's depriving poor wealthy studio owners of their spectacular box-office income. The online story is a bit more balanced (at least if you read all the way to the last three paragraphs), but what was broadcast was absolutely shameful.

Faced with the overwrought claims of Hollywood executives who of course want to maintain their stranglehold on the means of production and distribution of films, not to mention the intellectual property that should belong to the artists in question, our devoted anchorwoman asked an "authority" from the Hollywood Reporter the following penetrating question:

"Why is Canada such a hotbed for movie piracy?"

Nowhere does anyone attempt to determine IF Canada is a hotbed for movie piracy. Warner Bros. claims that 70% of pirated movies are made in Canada. Of course, nobody can actually check that report, so who the fuck knows? All the studios care about is getting Canada to bring its laws in line with those of the United States.

Which are WAY out of line of those of most other countries in the world. Canada meets its obligations to international law. When CTV reports Ellis Jacobs (CEO of Cineplex) saying that Canada's laws should be "updated" in order to be in line with other countries, he means the US. The United States has enacted (at the behest of the large media corporations) staggeringly invasive and restrictive IP laws.

Case in point: we just watched Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men (pretty good, thanks), and if you watch the end credits you see notices for the use of Picasso's painting Guernica and the Statue of Liberty.

Because, you know, somebody might buy Children of Men instead of Guernica. Picasso might really miss out. And for sure the Statue of Liberty is avoiding lost revenue there.

Nobody's thinking in all this. It's just greed, mindless short-term greed.

Is Canada a hotbed for movie pirates? Are people buying so many copies of Spiderman 3 on $3 DVDs that the movie's profits are threatened? Well, the picture did $151,000,000 in its first weekend, setting a new box-office record, so forgive me if I'm skeptical that this is a really pressing problem for the studios. This is about setting the rules to keep out independent operators, to make it as difficult as possible for competition to arise. Canadian competition in particular.

So maybe CTV could spend a minute asking these American executives and their local shills to JUSTIFY their outrageous claims. If some Chinese software development company said that 70% of their programs were pirated in Canada, we'd ask for a little proof as a way to start the conversation off. We'd express maybe a bit of polite skepticism until their claims were verified by someone not getting paid by them. If they said they were losing $6 BILLION DOLLARS A YEAR to this piracy we might suggest they need to back that up with some actual data. But these studios can make these INSANE claims and nobody even bats a fucking eye?

And let's just all leave aside for the moment Canada's second-rate status for these studios anyway -- if you're an American film distributor, you get Canada "for free" as part of any domestic distribution deal. But if you're a Canadian distributor, good luck. You can get deals in Canada, sure, but you have to negotiate a separate deal for the US. Of course our government would never interfere in such a one-sided arrangement.

This is what we get from CTV News? What a sad excuse for reportage.