I’ve been working through Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle for the past several weeks. With three volumes in total and more than a thousand pages per volume, this is certainly a monumental undertaking. In addition, to even understand what’s going on in the books, I have to make repeated forays to Wikipedia to brush up on my knowledge of 17th and 18th century history. This means that it will be a while before I can post a complete review of the books.
In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from the second book in the cycle, The Confusion, which mocks the Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation. I suppose that the episode must be fictional, but it makes for a fine example of the writing in the Baroque Cycle, with its attention to historical detail and intricate observations of the scientific, religious, economic, political and social dynamics of the time.
Continue reading Transubstantiation in “The Confusion”
I went with my wife and a couple of work colleagues to a beach west of Honiara in the Solomon Islands on Christmas. Pictured above is us together with the two children of one of my colleagues. As a fairly unremarkable beach outing, only the children actually played in the water and the adults merely dipped their toes. Of particular note is that the two children have been bugging me to get some games for them but since their father’s laptop only has a Centrino processor and integrated video my choices were limited. So I decided to give them my old copy of Starcraft, which I bought many years ago in Gabon, Africa. This seemed to appeal to them after I taught them some basics. The elder one was somewhat dumbfounded though when I remarked that when the game originally came out, he was only 1 year old. I spent some time in the afternoon helping them beat a Starcraft level.
Continue reading A Christmas at the Beach
So, I’ve been messing around with Dwarf Fortress for a while now. Its full name is actually Slaves to Armok: God of Blood, Chapter 2: Dwarf Fortress but I figure the game, with the kind of graphics it has, or lack thereof, doesn’t need any more strikes against it. The game has been available as an alpha-state, free download since August last year, but the ASCII graphics intimidated me too much to try it. However, I’ve been hearing plenty of good things about it, and since Bay 12 Games recently added a Z-level to it and other players have made it easier on the eyes with modded tilesets, I finally plucked up my courage to give it a whirl.
Continue reading A Game: Dwarf Fortress
What is the nature of the guilt that your teachers call his Original Sin? What are the evils man acquired when he fell from a state they consider perfection? Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge – he acquired a mind and became a rational being. It was the knowledge of good and evil – he became a moral being. He was sentenced to earn his bread by his labor – he became a productive being. He was sentenced to experience desire – he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment. The evils for which they damn him are reason, morality, creativeness, joy – all the cardinal values of his existence. It is not his vices that their myth of man’s fall is designed to explain and condemn, it is not his errors that they hold as his guilt, but the essence of his nature as man. Whatever he was – that robot in the Garden of Eden, who existed without mind, without values, without labor, without love – he was not man.
– Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged
[This is Part 2 of a planned 3 part series on Ayn Rand and her philosophy and its influence on my life. You can read Part 1 here. This part covers some of Ayn Rand’s early life and details more of her philosophy and how it directly influenced my personal development.]
In many ways, Ayn Rand’s life showed a determination and even an obsession as strong as any of her fictional characters. Born in 1905 to a middle-class family in St. Petersburg, Russia, she witnessed firsthand the horrors of communism when her family’s pharmacy was seized by the Soviets in the revolution of 1917. At the University of Petrograd (the city’s new name given by the Soviets in place of St. Petersburg), she studied history, including American history, and became an admirer of American ideals. In 1925, she finally received permission to travel to America, on the pretext of visiting relatives, but by then she had already decided never to return to Russia.
Continue reading Ayn Rand and Me (Part 2)
A thought-provoking article entitled “The New New Philosophy” published recently in the New York Times Magazine covers a recent trend among philosophers to embrace empirical experiments. As the article notes, philosophers have traditionally tended to be rather snooty towards during actual empirical work, preferring to think of themselves as pure workers of the mind who need nothing but pencil and paper and a comfortable armchair.
Of course, philosophy has tried to be more scientific before, notably postmodernism’s ridiculous efforts to dress up their nonsense in scientism, in order to steal back some of the glory and respect that philosophy has lost since natural philosophy became science. But in my opinion at least, this new acceptance of empiricism is much more likely to yield interesting results. As I alluded to in my review of Irrational Man, philosophers have tended to assume than mere reflection is sufficient to reveal the secrets of the human psyche, while ignoring how discoveries in neurology have allowed us to examine in ever more intimate detail how the brain really works.
The article offers the opinion that while empirical work may raise interesting new questions for philosophers, it would not be able to settle them. I think that this is somewhat over-simplified. At the very least, objective knowledge of the processes that drive emotions, intentions and thought itself would seem render invalid many lines of philosophical inquiry. For example, Ayn Rand believed that reason should precede emotions such that we should use reason to determine how we should feel and then adjust our feelings accordingly, while neurologists now believe that feeling itself is a part of the reasoning process. Similarly many philosophers believe that existential angst is indicative of a great gap in human existence that must be filled either by religion or some other ideal. Perhaps it is only indicative of those philosophers’ lack of access to anti-depression medication.
This was written as a response to Tan Kien Boon’s recent post praising the movie of the same name starring Will Smith and would properly show up as a comment on his blog via trackback if only he wasn’t using Blogger. Granted I haven’t watched the movie, but I have read the book it was supposedly based on and considering the spoilers to the movie version that I’ve read, actually watching it isn’t particularly high on my list of priorities. I’m sure that the movie is a decent enough action flick like so many others starring Will Smith like Bad Boys 2, Independence Day and Men In Black 2; entertaining, action-packed and exciting but schlocky, shallow and sappy.
The problem however is that it chooses to call itself “I Am Legend” and then proceeds to completely throw away all that is great in its source material. The real I Am Legend is a horror novella by Richard Matheson first published in 1954. It’s an influential and highly regarded book and the fact that it’s still in print today is a testament to its popularity. I highly recommend that people read the novella themselves but for those who aren’t going to read it anyway, here’s what makes the story so great and why its really called I Am Legend.
Continue reading The Real “I Am Legend”
The publishers of the Merriam-Webster dictionary has just named the word of the year, and it’s “w00t”, spelled with two zeros instead of the letter ‘O’. While it’s fascinating to note how a word from the gamer lexicon has entered the mainstream, I personally find the usage of such terms annoying. One reason why I find the QuartertoThree forums so appealing is that almost everyone there uses complete sentences, proper grammar and punctuation and correct spelling. I find many garish forums such as SomethingAwful and even lowyat.net to be nearly unreadable and the Malaysianisms of the latter forum doesn’t help at all.
I’d like to note though that the article’s stated reason for the spelling of “w00t” using zeroes is incorrect. Early online gamers that could only type messages to communicate with one another used numbers to replace text only because they thought it would be cool and as a way to subtly code their communications. Nowadays, thanks to predictive text technology and better keyboards on mobile phones, I think that there’s no real excuse to actually spell “w00t” with zeroes other than continuing the tradition from online gamers.