Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bottom Line

So... looks like a) I'm going to buy one, and b) pretend it's not called an "iPad". The jury is out whether I name it "Paddy Power."

It looks like they did a lot of things right with this. I'm particularly impressed by what I'm hearing about the 3G version. But I have a plane to catch, so I'll talk about it later.

Monday, January 25, 2010


You know, on a rainy (!) January day spent coding, Pink Floyd's Division Bell is a great album to have on.

All I'm Going To Say About That

So, as a bit of an Apple fan and someone interested in new tech, I've been interested in the rumors of an Apple tablet -- apparently to be either confirmed or dashed (probably both) on Wednesday while I am out of town. Say what you will about Apple's secrecy, I kind of like their whole "Just wait and we'll tell you when we're ready" attitude. It's a fun little game as long as you don't take it too seriously, and all too rare in a day and age where you have to actively hide from movie trailers if you don't want the plot spoiled for you before the damn thing's even out.

But it is still fun to guess, and I've been enjoying a lot of the rumors, including the conjecture about what the thing will be called. The Economist has posted one Paddy Power's odds on various names, with my personal favorite coming in at 500:1. (As one commenter noted, "Paddy Power" would itself be a great name for the product)

I thought about various things to say about this potential device, having included devices very much like what is described in my fiction, and having been interested in tablet-type interfaces ever since Star Trek. I could reiterate my distaste for the Apple App store, for example. Or I could relate the awful time I had getting the broken glass fixed on my iPod Touch after it fell a mere two feet.

Instead I'm just going to point out that, in that picture, Steve Jobs looks like he belongs on a front porch in a rocking chair cradling a shotgun. I think that pretty much sums up everything I wanted to say anyway.

Round the World

As I've mentioned on other occasions, I like to keep track of the search terms that people use to find this site. There are two major categories of terms that bring people in from around the world: robots and Agatha Christie. For the robot posts, I get clumps of hits, nearly all of them from school districts. But the Christie hits never cease to amaze me. I knew in principle that her work was known the world over, but it's interesting to see near-daily reminders of the fact that readers in Thailand and Saudi Arabia are reading her stories, which I frequently discover in the context of Google searches containing her name that arrive at my blog. I suspect that most of these searches are looking for context for her stories: 1930s London is a long way away for a lot of modern readers even in the English-speaking world, and the Labors of Hercules stories have an added layer below that.

Sadly, I've never been able to coax any of these individuals to explain what brings them to my site in particular* but it does seem to come in waves. The Nemean Lion page is one of the most-loaded, but the Stymphalean Birds page has recently gotten much more attention. I looked to see whether the (excellent) Poirot series with David Suchet is doing the Labors, but as far as I can tell, while that is planned, they have not gotten to it yet -- and would be released in the US before much of the non-English-speaking world anyway. There is at least one anime series based on these books, but that's nothing new.

So for anyone who arrives here looking for those things, mind if I pick your brain? I'm dying to ask about your mystery reading habits :)

In the meantime, back to working on that post explaining why Robert Parker (sadly recently deceased) was an excellent fantasy novelist. (And why he'd scowl at me for so saying)

* Actually, I suspect that I am primarily seeing browser pre-caching.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

On Corporate Money

I've been thinking a lot lately about the recent Supreme Court ruling. After reading bits of the decision(s) I'm coming to the conclusion that, although the effects are likely to be nasty, it was the correct decision.

There were two arguments that I found persuasive. The argument that was made was simply that the US Government should never be in a position of determining "good speech" and "bad speech" and that political speech in particular should never, ever be regulated. If Rupert Murdoch wants Fox News to start espousing the joys of scrapping the Constitution and replacing civil rights with a pay-as-you-go system -- it should not matter whether he is doing so as a private person or doing so through his corporation. As to whether corporations can have First Amendment rights, it seems to me that they have to, otherwise it would be very easy for the government to shut down critical news sources. Giving watered-down FA rights would be worse than none at all: there would be the appearance of freedom without the ability to really use it.

Now, most people agree with this, I think, and object rather to a less-obvious logical leap: that the outlay of money is equivalent to speech. This is the bit that I've been thinking the most about, and I think that what the problem comes down to is the difference between saying "Money is not equivalent to speech" and "Money should not be equivalent to speech". I agree with the latter, but I don't think I can agree with the former: in our culture, for a variety of reasons, money has come to be considered a form of speech. Boycotts are the big thing: "I won't spend my money here" is turning a potential financial transaction into a political statement, whether you're objecting to the practices of an employer or trying to support the concept of local business or local agriculture. On the flip side, businesses and politicians frequently claim their revenues as a source of popularity, often legitimately: "If WalMart's so bad, why do they make billions of dollars?" or the breathy reports about "record-breaking" fundraising by a candidate, expressed in terms that clearly are intended to convey "$$$ == public mandate".

No, it seems plain to me that in modern America, the expenditure or donation of money is routinely treated as political speech, and the laws do need to reflect that. If and when that finally changes, the law should reflect that too.

The second argument is that this does not change the amount of influence that corporations have in the slightest, only the form that it takes. Where there is a will, there has traditionally been a way: Are you seriously telling me that News Corp has been hamstrung in supporting political candidates up until now? Has George Soros been frustrated in his desire to spend money in support of his favored candidates? Of course not. The current laws have merely distorted political speech by corporations, not suppressed it. Instead of direct endorsements, we've seen issue ads that dance around the issue of who is being promoted. We've seen executives fund-raising among their subordinates. Advertising during news coverage of certain political rallies (I'm still waiting for a story to break where it's alleged that advertisers pushed CNN or NBC to spend more time covering Palin rallies or something of the sort) or threats to pull advertising over "unfair" coverage of a favored politico. Make no mistake, any company that advertises during Glen Beck's show is making a political statement. Heck, sometimes direct support is the least effective option available, particularly if the corporation in question is hoping for the election of a week-willed feckless puppet.

Now, simply saying "nothing will change" is no reason to make large changes to the law -- however, in this case I think that removing the distortions from the political landscape could be a very good thing. Having already taught corporations to use the afore-mentioned tricks, I think they will continue to use them. But some at least will be more forthright and simply say "We support this candidate for this reason".

More than that, I wonder if the problem with money in politics is not that there is so much, but rather that there is so little. Political candidates don't just need to outspend each other to get attention, they have to outspend the latest round of advertising for the newest XBox or the theatrical release of Sudden Explosions 5: The Revenge. Politicians spend so much time raising money that its importance becomes elevated in their minds, they become convinced that they owe their donors more than they really do. Perhaps -- just perhaps -- the actual solution to the problem of money in politics is to have so much of it sloshing around that politicians feel that they can take it (and the donors) for granted.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Little Light Reading

Apparently the Agatha Christie estate has published a book containing the complete Miss Marple mysteries: short stories and novels alive. In one volume. And if you've got a thousand pounds burning a hole in your pocket, there you go. (If you're staring in disbelief at that price, you obviously have not looked at the picture of the book in question)

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Bar Has Been Raised

I may be a little nuts about coffee, but I am not (quite) this bad. I have to admit, though, that I did just acquire a Chemex brewer...

Labors of Hercules: A Few Questions

I was jotting down some notes for my post on the Cretan Bull, and it occurred to me that I don't entirely know a) whether people are all that interested in these posts, and b) whether I could be doing things differently to make them more interesting. I mean, I get most of what I need out of it from simply taking down my notes, and then a few insights in the process of writing everything out. And it is nice to have them in a central location like this.

But I'm never sure how much to spoil about the stories, whether or not I should go into greater depth looking up the original myth, etc. So, I'm adding a poll up top and will keep it open for a couple days. Do please take a minute to give a little feedback, it will help a lot in figuring out how to spend my time.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Labors of Hercules: The Stymphalean Birds

It's been a while since I posted the last one of these, but they haven't been far from my mind. These are the stories, after all, that I remember so fondly after all these years, and from which I have a lot to learn! Spoilers follow.

The Stymphalian Birds (Christie uses an alternate spelling, which appears to be deprecated) were a flock of nasties, possibly among the first cyborgs in fiction: man-eating birds with bronze beaks and claws, and metallic feathers that (in some versions) could be shot as weapons. (They appear in other tales as well, as described here) They nested in a backwater swamp, terrorizing a nearby village. Worse, they were pets of the god Ares. Hercules, charged for this labor to drive them away, enlisted the help of the goddess Athena, who provided him with a set of castanets. He used those to startle the birds into flight, whereupon he shot as many as he could in the confusion.

The Poirot version takes place off in an Eastern European backwater (the fictitious "Herzoslovakia" on the shores of Lake Stempka), a small hotel in a small village where well-off English people go for a vacation away from it all. Poirot himself does not appear until nearly the end of the story, the narrative instead focuses on the experience of Under-Secretary Harold Waring, vacationing "away from it all". His mind fixates upon a pair of elderly spinsters, with long thin noses and loose shawls, who reminded him of a pair of sinister birds -- harpies. (Ah hah! Midway through this series we know that these are the people to watch!) Staying at the hotel also are two English ladies, a younger woman (Mrs. Clayton) and her mother (Mrs. Rice), who Waring naturally gets to know as the only other English speakers. Better yet, they speak some German and French, and so he (who speaks nothing but English) finds them to be most useful companions, as well as pleasant.

The two ladies are very friendly, but somewhat nervous. Mrs. Clayton has married unwisely, and her husband Philip is insanely jealous -- not to mention violent. Waring sympathizes, such a pretty lady ought not be tied to such a brute! And he shares with them his unease with those two harpies (Polish ladies from good families says the concierge). Some time later, he receives a frantic visit: Philip Clayton has returned, and in a fight with his wife, he has been killed! It is a plain case of self-defense, that is plain to the chivalric Mr. Waring, but oh, the backwards Herzoslovakians will not understand that. They must be bribed, indeed, many of them must be bribed. Mr. Waring, gentleman that he is, graciously offers to pay.

The affair, it is settled... but wait, remember those old birds? They speak to Mrs. Rice, who comes back horrified -- they know all about the death, she says, and are blackmailing them!

Waring is outraged, and afraid. He goes for a walk, cursing out loud, and why not? Nobody here speaks English... except for that foreign gentleman he stumbles upon by the name of Hercule Poirot. Poirot listens carefully and agrees that the blackmailers must not be given into. He rings his modern castanets (the telegraph wires) and has the guilty parties arrested: [SPOILER] Mrs. Rice and Mrs. Clayton, who have preyed upon Mr. Waring (alone and gullible in a foreign land) and induced him to not only hand over sums of money but to do so with intent to bribe the police!

This one plays on blind spots more than anything else. The point of view character has some serious ones: he's utterly reliant on two people he'd never met before, by virtue of the language barrier. And, as Poirot points out, he has some rather nasty assumptions: that foreigners are suspicious, that foreign police are corrupt, and that English ladies are harmless flower-like creatures who ought to be protected from brutes both foreign and domestic. To a certain extent, the story turns on the reader either sharing or at least being sympathetic to those assumptions -- if the reader does not share the assumption that foreign policemen may be open to bribery, then the reader at least should be willing to believe that Agatha Christie herself believes it. On top of that, one of the blinds used took advantage of the reader's expectation that the Stymphalian Birds would come into play, and the identification of the two Polish ladies as bird-like. There was quite a lot of manipulation in this little story, wasn't there?

The structure of this story as well is interesting to me in two ways. First, the detective doesn't even appear until the last couple pages of the story. He is appealed to almost by accident, and immediately understands what has happened. Christie has had several stories and novels with this structure, usually relying upon a smart protagonist who ultimately comes up short and needs a little extra push. (I seem to recall that Cat Among the Pigeons followed this formula, though not to this extreme, and many of the Miss Marple mysteries follow this pattern)

Using a different viewpoint character gives a number of freedoms, not least among them the freedom to have the protagonist take a stupid but necessary step: in this case, Waring paying the bribe. If your detective is supposed to be intelligent, after all, it would not do to be taken in too easily. In this, the story mirrors the structure favored by Isaac Asimov in his Black Widowers stories, where a story is told recounting events that have already happened and the "detectives" (the Black Widowers, in theory, but in practice always their waiter, Henry) unravel it and demonstrate the solution.

The second way in which the story structure is interesting to me is that until after Poirot first appeared, it was not even obvious that there was a mystery to solve: everything was perfectly straight-forward. A tale of woe, perhaps, with ominous figures, but few hints that anything was not what it appeared to be.

I've seen a number of stories of the first type (detective brought in at the end) but I cannot off the top of my head name another where it is not obvious until the detective arrives that things are not as they seem. (Well, maybe those old Scooby Doo TV shows, but in most of those there was not only the inevitable illusion of supernaturality, but periodic protests that it couldn't be real (could it?)) It works so well here because the viewpoint character, Waring, is so entirely at the mercy of the ladies that he (and we) accept everything presented as much as fact as the translation of the dinner menu. Come to think of it, wasn't that the idea behind Monty Python's Hungarian Phrasebook sketch?

Next up, when I get the time: The Cretan Bull.