Archive for April, 2010

Attic, part 24

Friday, April 30th, 2010

At last the weary travellers, now five in number, came to the end of the long tunnel. They had finally traversed the great wall.

Jenny gasped at what she saw. For stretched out before them under the emerald sky, as far as the eye could see, was a city of gold.

“Somewhere here,” she told her companions, “I will find her”.

Charlie turned to her in wonder. “You mean the one who sleeps?” he asked.

The others looked him. “What do you know?” Jenny asked.

He shook his head. “I get it now. You’re here to fulfill the prophecy. All I know is it’s been a long time since she came, since … since they took her. There, in the castle.” They looked to where he was pointing and saw that there was a single tall golden spire, graceful and gleaming, that rose above the skyline.

“Won’t be easy,” he continued. “At least not according to the prophecy. They say that all the world will change when Amelia awakes.”

Jenny and Josh looked at each other. She repeated the words to herself. “When Amelia awakes.”

End of Volume One

The book will go on haitus, and will return soon.

Gift giving

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Three years ago a new friend had a reaction to something, in a completely unguarded moment, that started a chain reaction in my mind which led me to switch to a vegan diet. Today in Vienna I saw this same friend and told him, for the first time, how profoundly that moment had affected me. He seemed both surprised and deeply gratified, as though I had given him a wonderful gift. And I suppose I had, although I was simply describing something he had given to me.

It is at moments like this that I suspect that the effect people have upon each other is never primarily intellectual, as much as we would like to believe it is. We pick up emotions from each other, passions and deeply held convictions. And if those passions and convictions resonate within us — if they cause an emotional ring of truth to stir within our own heart — only then do we fill out the story on an intellectual level.

I see now that I do something similar in my teaching. I don’t merely show my students the intellectual beauty of the subject I am teaching. Rather, I always let the class see how I myself am moved by it. I let my own sheer wonder and enthusiasm come through, without trying to cover it with a veneer of professional disinterest.

The best gift that one can give as a teacher is genuine enthusiasm. I sincerely believe that students are moved to put in the necessary work not because their teacher has told them that a subject is interesting and exciting, but because their teacher is, himself, interested and excited by it.

Attic, part 23

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Jenny was getting impatient. Sid and his friend Charlie had been talking for what seemed like hours. They were catching up on old times from long ago, and she gradually realized that “long ago” in this case might mean really, really long ago, as in centuries. Sid had conjured up cigars for the occasion, and he and his fellow demon were puffing away like fiends. Which was only fair, she had to admit — after all, they were fiends.

After several hours it finally occurred to her that waiting them out might not be the best strategy. The two demons might very well continue swapping stories for years, quite literally. She turned to Mr Symarian. “Is there anything you can do?”

Mr. Symarian stepped up to the giant guardian demon and cleared his throat. “Charles,” he said, rather formally. “I should like to remind you that we are engaged in a serious quest, and your, ah, reunion, although quite lovely in its own right, is interfering with our mission.”

Sid looked cross at the interruption, while the giant demon, who had been in the middle of relating a rollicking and rather off-color tale concerning a night in Brooklyn with two she-demons, stared down at their teacher with a peculiar look. Jenny was afraid the big demon was going to become violent.

Instead, he started to cry. “You don’t know what it’s like, hanging out in this stupid wall for ages. This is the first fun I’ve had in forever.” he said through big sobs. Mr. Symarian looked very uncomfortable. He offered a handkerchief, which the giant demon tearfully accepted, dabbing his eyes daintily and then blowing his nose with a loud honk.

The demon offered to return the handkerchief. “Please keep it,” the teacher said hastily.

“Thanks,” Charlie said, sniffling. Jenny wondered what was going to happen now. Then she had an inspiration.

“Why don’t you come with us?”

Conservation of misery

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

I was having dinner with some friends last night here in Berlin and the conversation touched on the whole dynamic of consumer societies and the effects of advertising. I floated a theory (it is easy to float theories when they have very little weight) to the effect that there might be a conservation law of consumer satisfaction. Or more accurately, of consumer misery.

In order to sell things in a consumer economy, you need to create dissatisfaction. For example, you hire impossibly slender fourteen year old fashion models to sell clothing to grown women, thereby accentuating your customers’ insecurities about their own bodies.

This strategy only works up to a point. For it seems to me that if you get people too depressed about themselves, then they will lose heart in general, after which they’ll start to lose all self confidence and appetite for life, and your consumer economy will start to sag.

So a consumer economy needs to keep people at just the right level of being unhappy. In other words, there is a conservation law at work, according to which there is some optimal constant for the sum of desire and misery.

Attic, part 22

Monday, April 26th, 2010

By the soft bluish light of the fire demons’ glow, they finally reached the other end of the winding tunnel. Against the cave walls, they could now see daylight from around the next bend. Unfortunately, directly in their path and blocking their way, was a rather fearsome looking statue of a giant demon.

“Oh, great,” Jenny said. “There’s no way we’re going to get around this thing.”

Sid shrugged. “It could be worse.”

Josh chimed in. “The way is completely blocked. How could it be worse?”

Just then the statue came to life. Standing before them now, rather than a mere statue of stone, was a living, breathing demon. At the sight of the four travellers he gave out a roar of anger.

“Like I was saying…,” Sid said.

Josh glared at him. “If you say `I told you so’, I swear I’m going to kill you before that big ugly demon does.”

The demon glared at them and bared his giant teeth. “You have disturbed my slumber. Perhaps you will be my next meal.” He took one fearsome step toward them, and the four travellers cowered back in fear.

Then his eyes alighted on Sid, and his monstrous face broke out into an enormous grin. “Sid?”

For a moment Sid looked nonplussed. Then he too broke out into a grin. “Charlie, is that you? You’re kinda, well, big.”

The big demon let out a laugh, and the deep rumbling sound echoed through the tunnel. “Yeah, needed to be big for this gig. You’re one to talk. You’re kinda, um, orange, if you don’t mind my sayin’.”

“Dammit Charlie, you gotta rub it in? You know I don’t get to pick the color. Comes with the job.”

Mr. Symarian, who had been quietly watching this exchange, at last spoke up. “I take it you two know each other?”


Sunday, April 25th, 2010

There is a saying that in Europe, a hundred miles is a long distance, whereas in America, a hundred years is a long time.

Arriving today in Berlin I am reminded that things are a little more complicated than that. Yes, it is true that parts of this city date back to before the sixteenth century (and some buildings date back to the thirteenth). This is a city with a long and storied history, possessed of the kind of unbroken cultural narrative from antiquity to the present that is simply absent from the American experience.

Yet the primary impression you get when you walk around Berlin is that the city is young. It is filled with people in their early twenties. They are on the streets, in the metro, hanging out in the parks and the restaurants. This is so much a city of youth, of bounding energy, of brash young hearts that swell with the belief in their own infinite possibility.

You can sense it in the faces, in the easy laughter, in the joyous sense of play between lovers and friends. It is that feeling of immortality known only to the very young or the very mad.

Attic, part 21

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

There was a change in the pattern of dreams, a dischordant note that did not fit with the dark and endless music. A feeling of rising to the surface, of unwanted light, memories threatening to intrude unbidden upon the cold stillness.

Amelia’s eyes opened. Aroused from her timeless slumber, she found herself lying in a bedchamber. Her eyes, unaccustomed to the light, made no attempt to discern the still hazy details of the dimly lit room. Instead, they were drawn to the floating patterns that danced in the air above her.

The fire demons, small and delicate, had come bearing news. Weaving their fine tracery of light upon the air, they told of a change, an intrusion upon the darkness.

Amelia’s face slowly assumed first a look of surprise, then a cold mask of fury. With change came the threat of memory reawakening, and with memory would come pain.

This could not be permitted.


Friday, April 23rd, 2010

There is a code in the movie biz that says that if you have the makings of a great film, with a brilliant script based on a truly daring concept, and your movie has any sort of significant budget, then highly paid people wearing suits will show up on your set and proceed to destroy your film. They won’t know they are destroying it. Rather, they will be “helping”.

They will tell you to shave down the offensive bits, to dumb down those parts that assume the audience is intelligent, to replace your highly resonant character-driven narrative by a mechanical wind-up plot that they think will sell better.

Somehow, miraculously, none of these things were done to “Kick Ass”, which I just saw this evening. In defiance of every rule of big budget filmmaking, this one somehow got out alive, with all of its beauty, humor, violence and glorious insanity left entirely intact.

The real hero here is the film’s creator, Matthew Vaughn, who refused studio financing when every studio he approached insisted on changing the film to make it more “normal”. He went the far more difficult route of raising money independently.

The result is one of the best films I’ve seen in years — perhaps ever. Go see it as soon as it comes to your part of the world.

By the way, in a film filled with great performances, eleven year old ChloĆ« Grace Moretz is simply astonishing, in a role which breaks rules that haven’t even been written yet. If your heart does not sing with sheer rapturous delight every moment she is on screen, then there is something seriously wrong with you.

Attic, part 20

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

The passageway was dark, and smelled vaguely of damp earth. As they made their way through the tunnel they gradually became conscious of a strange bluish glow that seemed to be lighting their way.

Jenny wondered where the light could be coming from. The door they had come through was far behind them by now. On a whim she looked up, and gasped at the sight.

“Look,” she said, pointing up. “Fireflies. They are so beautiful!” She gazed up in wonder. The small glowing creatures were flying in intricate paths overhead, weaving in and out as though tracing some sort of delicate pattern in the air. She was sure they must be intelligent. She was vaguely conscious of Josh and Mr. Symarian at her side, also looking up.

“Fascinating,” said their teacher. “Actual fire demons. I’ve read of them, but only as legend. I certainly never thought I would have the opportunity to study these magnificent creatures at such close range.”

“Do you think they are friendly,” Josh asked.

“Yep, no doubt about it,” Sid chimed in. “These here are definitely friendly little guys.”

Surprised at his confident tone, Jenny turned to look at the little demon where he was perched on Mr. Symarian’s shoulder. “How can you know for sure?”

“Easy,” Sid explained with a shrug, “If they weren’t friendly, they would have eaten us by now.”

On faith

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

In response to my DNA post the other day, Cadabra commented with the following question:

“Ken, in some fantastic situation, if you had to provide an illustration of existence of god and divine creation, what would it be?”

This seemed like a very good question, deserving of thought. At first I took it as a challenge, and started trying to come up with a plausible answer. But then I found that the more I thought about it, the more elusive it became.

The basic difficulty, in a nutshell, is this: Science and religion are not actually two opposing views of the same issue. In fact they deal with wildly different issues. At its core, science asks how things work and how they came about. It’s all about cause and effect.

Religion asks how we can live a life that does not feel spiritually empty. And the answer it comes up with is faith. The very focus on faith automatically precludes discussions of cause and effect. If you could find a scientific solution to these spiritual questions, faith would not be required.

If our science were to actually find some all-powerful guy up in the heavens who created us, that wouldn’t be God. That would just be some large space alien with a long white flowing beard. The moment you start to refer to the nuts and bolts of evidence and logical causality, you’ve shifted out of the realm of faith.

So to address Cadabra’s question, I believe that “an illustration of existence of god and divine creation” would be, by definition, impossible.

Scientific discussion aims to move things from the realm of the unknown to the realm of the known. Faith is not concerned with the unknown, but rather with the unknowable. And you cannot illustrate the existence of something that is unknowable.