June 30, 2004

And now . . . this

Here's a good story about cyber-blackmail in Maryland:

A Maryland man with a grudge against a Connecticut-based patent firm used unsecured wireless networks at homes and businesses in the Washington D.C. area to penetrate the company's computers and deliver untraceable threats and extortion demands, until an FBI surveillance team caught him in the act. . . . .

At one point, the company president tried to use a "Web bug" to trace his cyber tormenter, but Tereshchuk detected the ruse. Meanwhile, FBI agents traced some of the e-mails and intrusions to two homes and a dentist's office in Arlington, Virginia. The residents, and the dentist, made poor suspects, and the agents learned that all three were running unsecured 802.11b networks.

So far, so good. Our crook has taken some serious steps here to keep himself anonymous. He does wardriving to locate insecure wireless networks to mask his identity. He successfully defeats the company's countermeasures.

And then . . .

Though he went to some lengths to make himself untraceable technically, past altercations between Tereshchuk and the company made him the prime suspect from the start, according to court records. The clearest sign came when he issued the seventeen million dollar extortion demand, and instructed the company to "make the check payable to Myron Tereshchuk."

[Full Story]


June 27, 2004

A nice new Bible translation for the itching-ears gang

A few days ago my attention was drawn to an article on WorldNetDaily concerning "[a] brand-new translation of the Bible . . . [that] flatly contradicts traditional core Christian beliefs on sex and morality."

WorldNutDaily being what it is, I decided to search out some confirmation. Turns out this is quite real. Good as New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures is the work of a John Henson, a former Baptist minister, part of an organization calling itself the "ONE Community for Christian Exploration," whatever that is (their mission also appears to include deconstructing the historic creeds of the Church).

Words used in the preface and foreword (contributed by Rowan Williams, current Archbishop of Canterbury) include "radical," "outlandish," "inclusive," "demythologise," and the usual other buzzwords.

And some of this stuff is unintentionally hilarious. This is what Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan looks like in a legitimate translation of the Scriptures:

And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (Matt. 3:16-17)

The voice of God comes from heaven and expresses his divine approval at the act of obedience of his adult Son. This is a majestic passage.

Now, here's Henson's take:

As he was climbing up the bank again, the sun shone through a gap in the clouds. At the same time a pigeon flew down and perched on him. Jesus took this as a sign that God’s spirit was with him. A voice from overhead was heard saying, "That’s my boy! You’re doing fine!”

Gee, that sounds an awful lot like something my dad would have said the first time I jumped into the deep end.

Between this passage and Henson's tendency to use outrageous nicknames for various Bible characters - Madge, Rocky, Barry, John the Dipper, and so forth - Henson makes light of the translation process. I'm usually the first person to say the Scriptures ought to be colloquial. After all, the New Testament wasn't written in literary Greek, but the common greek of personal letters and shopping lists. But there's a difference between informality and flippancy, and Good as New is the latter. At least Henson had the decency not to call John the Baptist "Jack the Dipper."

Meanwhile, on the other end of the theological spectrum, Good as New has all the KJV-onlyists in a headspin. Here we have a literary effort by a very few theological liberal feel-gooders. If it sells a thousand copies, three of them will be to people who take this paraphrase serously; the remaining 997 will be to people like me who value comedy. Nonetheless, on the one hand, it's enough to throw the KJV nuts into Chicken Little mode, running about screaming that the sky is falling. On the other hand, there are those of us who don't believe the King James Version was handed to the disciples by Jesus himself on golden plates descending from heaven on a velvet pillow. According to the KJV nuts, we're supposed to accept this kind of crap. Because if you don't believe that the KJV is exclusively the Word of God in English, well, then anything published with "Bible" on the title page is of equal value, right? You gotta laugh.

Brief note for classical lovers

I recently added Brian's Culture Blog to my blogroll. Brian Micklethwait is a British blogger who writes more-or-less daily notes about things he's up to - mostly digital photography and old movies, but occasional notes on pop culture and classical music, amongst other things. It's the last that I am particuarly interested in, because I can identify with his listening habits:

As I have often confessed here, I think, I am not as disciplined a listener to classical music as classical music listeners are, I imagine, often imagined to be. I just love the stuff so much, and love to have it on, in the background for when I am concentrating on something else, or in the foreground when I either attend to it or it forces itself upon my attention.

[Full Text]

It's because of an older post of his, however, that I recently started tuning in BBC 3 on a sort-of-weekly basis. In particular, there are two programs that caught my attention.

CD Review is exactly what its name suggests: a three-hour program devoted to sampling new classical CD releases. Of particular interest to me is the regular "Building a Library" feature, in which various recordings of the same composition are evaluated. Someone unfamiliar with classical music might be surprised that so much variation exists in the interpretation of a given piece. I include myself in this, as my listening habits tend to be "horizontal" - I prefer a wide range of different compositions, as opposed to a more "vertical" study of multiple recordings of the same piece. (Nonetheless, there are two classical pieces with which I have a more vertical relationship: Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.) So it is neat to hear a single passage of, say, Mozart studied that closely.

The second of these programs is The Cowan Collection, a more general-interest classical program in which selections by the host and listeners are played. The feature I most appreciate is the opportunity to hear the complete recommended recording recommended on CD Review's "Building a Library."

As a result, I am enjoying Mozart's Bassoon Concerto in B flat, which I heard for the first time on CD Review a few weeks ago. This isn't the recommended disc; rather, it's Philips' recording of Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martins in the Field, nonetheless a good rendition by a competent conductor of Mozart.

CD Review airs on BBC 3 at 9 am on Saturday, local time; The Cowan Collection at 9 am Sunday. Fortunately both programs can be heard live or later in the week thanks to the magic of the Internet. Sound quality is pretty good, too. Check it out if you have the patience to sit through seven hours of programming.

On an unrelated note, my recent disappointment with Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods has prompted me to look into an artist who took the old myths more seriously. I have started listening to Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, a cycle of four operas - Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Die Götterdämmerung - about a ring of power desired by mortals and gods alike. (Gee, sounds an awful lot like a certain other highly regarded, lengthy cycle of stories inspired by mythology.) The local public library has the complete set of the classic recording by Karl Böhm and the Beyreuther Festspiele. Wonderful stuff. But long.

June 23, 2004

And now . . . this

Everyone's favourite webhead - well, the only one, really - is about to go Hindu:

SPIDERMAN will put on a sarong and fight the bad guys through the rickshaw-clogged streets of Bombay in an Indian version of the US comic classic, according to reports.

Peter Parker, the American who becomes a superhero thanks to a spider bite, will be replaced by Pavitr Prabhakar who gets his crime-fighting powers from a Hindu holy man.

The article adds - oh, no:

He said that if the comic is successful, the company will consider turning it into a movie. Hollywood scored a massive success in 2002 with its film Spiderman featuring Tobey Maguire slinging across the skyscrapers of New York.

[Full Story]

Please no. Fans of bad movies will no doubt recall that Bollywood attempted to do the same thing some years ago, with Superman. The result was, shall we say, less than mindblowing.

June 22, 2004

Ye gods!

American Gods (William Morrow-HarperCollins, 2001) is my first experience with fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, excepting Good Omens, a collaboration with Terry Pratchett. I thought I detected more Pratchett than Gaiman in that novel, but the overall theme of myth-come-to-life is the same in both novels.

Shadow is an ex-con who has spent three years in prison for aggravated assault. The story begins with his release - three days early, because his wife has just been killed in a car accident, along with his best friend, for whom Shadow was going to work. Having nowhere else to go and no other purpose, he accepts work doing odd jobs and facing unspecified risks for a shady, one-eyed old man calling himself Mr. Wednesday who knows more about him than he should.

From here Wednesday and Shadow embark on a road trip through midwestern America - a small town in Wisconsin where nothing bad happens except for the occasional missing child; Chicago, where we meet Wednesday's friend Mr. Czernobog who used to work at the abbatoir slaughtering cattle with a hammer, and the three Russian sisters all named Zorya; Cairo, Illinois, where Shadow works for a time for Messrs. Ibis and Jacquel, two morticians of Egyptian descent.

As it happens, I live across the river from the province of Quebec. The province is home to some 3,000 "wayside shrines." These structures mark spiritually significant spots: they mark an event or someone's territory, or just went up because someone felt like reminding the world that he was a French Catholic and proud of it. They serve as a reminder of the Québecois' cultural identity. But in Gaiman's America, it is not the wayside cross or shrine that occupies places of power, it is the "roadside attraction." "People feel themselves being pulled to places here, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendendent," Wednesday tells Shadow. But instead they "buy a hot dog and walk around feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that" (p. 92). Much of the action in American Gods takes place around such spectacles: for example, the House on the Rock, the Geographical Centre of the U.S., and Rock City.

Why is this significant? Because American Gods is a commentary about the loss of spirituality in America. The transcendence of religion is dying out and being replaced with materialism, convenience, and technology. Wayside crosses play second fiddle to gigantic balls of string. For it gradually dawns on Shadow that Wednesday and his friends are gods, and Wednesday himself is, of course, Odin, the Norse All-Father. The old gods came to America at the same time as their followers, but as fewer and fewer people believe in them, they find themselves growing older and having to turn to shadier means to support themselves. Meanwhile, their place in the hearts of Americans is being taken by new gods: Messrs. Stone, Town, and Road, and a fat kid who sounds like he spends an unhealthy amount of time on the Internet. Obviously a war between the old and the new is brewing, and part of Shadow's job is to travel around with Wednesday and recruit old gods to take on the young upstarts.

With all these gods lining up to do battle, American Gods has the makings of an epic. Admittedly, the story's premise is intriguing. I believe the principal characters are a bit more well rounded than many of Gaiman's critics give him credit for - after all, they are gods, right? Aren't they supposed to move in mysterious ways?

But unfortunately the structure of the novel is its biggest weakness. Gaiman spends far too long setting up the conflict, so the first three-quarters of the book feels like introduction. Apparently Gaiman had some difficulty deciding whether this was supposed to be an epic or a road trip. Frequent interludes tell little vignettes about how the old gods came to America. Some of these are quite interesting. Others are just gross, such as Bilquis, Queen of Sheba, who turns tricks in L.A. and, um, absorbs a customer. Then, when the final battle does come, it's a bit of a mess, and possibly a little too conveniently resolved - though, to Gaiman's credit, all the clues to the surprises of the ending were there if you were reading carefully enough.

At least Gaiman didn't lose my attention. I don't know whether American Gods is Hugo- or Nebula-worthy, but at least I will probably re-read Good Omens and give one of Gaiman's own novels another chance.

Rating: 3/5. ***

June 19, 2004

And now . . . this

What do you do when liberal sacred cows start butting heads out in the pasture? From the Associated Press:

Scientists on Friday postponed plans to relocate a killer whale off Canada's west coast so Indians could spend time with the animal they regard as the reincarnation of their late chief.

"Luna" the whale separated from his pod, or family, and arrived in Notch Sound off British Columbia in 2001 at about the same time the chief of the Mowachaht-Muchalaht tribe died.

[Full Story]

"Save the whales . . . celebrate diversity . . . free animals from captivity . . . respect native traditions . . ." [head explodes]

June 18, 2004

Major annoyance . . . solved!

This is handy, and I discovered it by accident.

I don't know how many times I've wished you could cycle through the tabs in a Mozilla window in the same way as you can through open windows using Alt-Tab. Turns out you can. Cycle left-to right by typing Ctrl-PgDn, or right-to-left with Ctrl-PgUp.

Unlike several other handy Mozilla functions, there isn't a menu option for this. After all, why would you waste time clicking through menu options when you can just click on the tab? So the user interface doesn't document this much-appreciated hotkey. It does, however, appear in the Mozilla FAQ.

June 17, 2004

Ten years ago today

Yes indeedy. Today is the 10-year anniversary of the lamest car chase in legal history [2.6M MOV file].

June 17, 1994. I was in school at the time, living in residence. As I was in the latter half of my second year, I was probably slogging my way through something at my desk. Henry IV part I, maybe.

Bored and thirsty, I got up and made my way into the common room on my floor to grab a beer on the fridge. Four or five of my floormates were watching the TV in some sort of state of rapture. As I turned from the fridge to go back to my room, I realized that it wasn't the usual Jays game on the tube, but CNN. On screen: a white Bronco being chased down an empty freeway by about a dozen black-and-whites.

"What's this?" I asked.

"OJ's in the Bronco," they answered, or words to that effect.

"Why isn't he trying to get away?" I asked. This was the first car chase I'd seen where the fugitive appeared to be obeying the traffic laws. Turns out he had a gun to his head.

Thus began the second greatest media circus of the century, the first being the Scopes Monkey Trial.

June 15, 2004

The Harry Potter saga continues solidly in The Prisoner of Azkaban

Tonight I once again sold my soul to Satan and went to an early screening of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, adapted from the third novel of J. K. Rowling's blockbuster series of juvenile fantasy.

Harry's third year at Hogwarts School of Wizarding and Wizardry is about to begin. The movie begins with a humorous teaser in which Harry's Uncle Vernon tries (unsuccessfully) to catch him learning spells under the bedcovers. (Potter purists will note that technically, Harry shouldn't be doing this.) After Harry loses his temper during dinner and causes his abusive Aunt Marge to inflate and float into the night, he decides that leaving is preferable to apologizing, packs his things and leaves home.

On the street, Harry is picked up on a wizard bus that takes him to London and the Leaky Cauldron. En route he learns that notorious murderer Sirius Black has escaped from the wizard prison of Azkaban. To "protect" the students in case Black should come around, Hogwarts is now guarded by Dementors, the ghoulish and amoral guards of Azkaban. Dementors feed on human happiness, and unfortunately for Harry, they seem to take a liking to him. Subsequent exposition, heard while Harry eavesdrops under his invisibility cloak, reveals that Black is his own godfather and his father's best friend, and that he betrayed Harry's parents to the evil Lord Voldemort. Harry resolves to have his revenge.

After Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Chris Columbus gave up the director's chair to Alfonso Cuaron. It shows. Stylistically this movie often differs dramatically from its predecessors Visually the film is darker and more gothic, as much of the action takes place outdoors, at night, or in the rain. We get to see more of the Hogwarts castle and the surrounding environs. Some of these establishing shots are stunning. Unfortunately some of the new visuals also offend established continuity, but not too badly.

The acting is pretty solid. The three principal actors are maturing, and so are their characters. (Note to Ms. Rowling: Get those books written so we can finish these films before all the stars turn 30.) Daniel Radcliffe as Harry is taller and broader-shouldered. The rubber-faced Rupert Grint plays a more restrained Ron Weasley this time around. For some reason Emma Watson's Hermione Granger is played as more of a tomboy than a by-the-book student, but she's not egregiously out of character.

The redoubtable Robbie Coltrane returns as the slow-witted groundskeeper Hagrid, now promoted to teach Care of Magical Creatures. Michael Gambon replaces the late Richard Harris as Headmaster Dumbledore; while the physical resemblance is there, Harris' kindly-grandfather interpretation of Dumbledore is gone. Alan Rickman again masters the sinister Professor Snape. However, Dame Maggie Smith is terribly underused as Professor McGonagall, having all of two or three lines in the entire film. David Thewlis is introduced as Professor Remus Lupin, the Defense Against Dark Arts Professor du jour. The almost unrecognizeable Emma Thompson chews scenery beautifully as the flaky Professor Trelawney, quack teacher of Divination. (Sidenote: I have a number of acquaintances who are concerned about the "occult" elements of Harry Potter. I have frequently pointed out that the one place where Rowling's fantasy magic intersects with "real" magic is the art of divination, and Rowling's portrayal of this art is uniformly negative. Trelawney is a fraud. She gets exactly one genuine message from "beyond" and she doesn't even realize it.) Gary Oldman excels at portraying characters who are on the border of insanity, and so he is a natural for Sirius Black.

The Prisoner of Azkaban's two predecessors were literal, mostly faithful, adaptations of the source material. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but this time minimalism carries the day, and much of the novel's superfluous material disappears. Gone, for the most part, are classes and the Quidditch season, apart from one match that is crucial to the plot. Hagrid holds one Care of Magical Creatures class to introduce Buckbeak the Hippogriff; we don't get to see the students learning about Flobberworms or Salamanders. This undoubtedly rubs the Potter purists the wrong way, but it does make for a tighter plot.

Many of the novel's crucial clues are revealed through exposition or dialogue. Here they are often shown visually. We are shown that Professor Lupus' greatest fear is a full moon. (Why?) Harry acquires a magic map authored by Messrs. Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs, but their true identities are not revealed, nor is the reason Lupus knows the spell to reveal the map's secrets. But the answers are right there in plain sight, if you are paying attention. It's nice to watch a movie that doesn't insult your intelligence by assuming you have to be told everything up front.

Final note: Take the time to sit through the end credits. Not that there are any surprises or secrets revealed, but they are well crafted and have a touch of humour.

Also, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire began filming in March, under the direction of Mike Newell (Mona Lisa Smile, Four Weddings and a Funeral). Irish character actor Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart, Troy) steps through the revolving door into the Defense Against the Dark Arts chair as "Mad-Eye" Moody. The fourth Harry Potter film is scheduled for a 2005 release. Here's hoping it comes out in the summer rather than at Christmas.

Good reading redux

A few weeks back I got on the bandwagon and posted a list of the top 101 books of all time, noting the ones I'd read.

In the same spirit, Joe Carter at The Evangelical Outpost is compiling a list of the 100 best short stories to read in 100 days. At the time of writing the llist stands at a shade under 90. (Go post suggestions.) I don't necessarily want to jump the gun on his list, however I just can't wait any more to chime in, so here's the list, with the stories I have read highlighted:

Isaac Asimov, Nightfall
Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster
Ambrose Bierce, The Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge
Ambrose Bierce, Chickamauga
Ray Bradbury, And the Moon be Still as Bright
Ray Bradbury, Kaleidoscope
Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes
Ray Bradbury, The World the Children Made
Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory
John Cheever, The Swimmer
John Cheever, Goodbye My Brother
Arthur C. Clarke, The Sentinal
Arthur C. Clark, The 9 Billion Names of God
Stephen Crane, The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer
Joseph Conrad, The Lagoon
Joseph Conrad, The Most Dangerous Game
A. Conan Doyle, Murders in the Rue Morgue
A. Conan Doyle, The Speckled Band
William Faulkner, Barn Burning
William Faulkner, A Rose for Emily
G. Flaubert, A Simple Heart
E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops
N. Gogol, The Nose
N. Gogol, The Overcoat
Graham Greene, The Destructors
Edward Everett Hale, The Man Without a Country
Thomas Hardy, The Distracted Preacher
Thomas Hardy, A Mere Interlude
Thomas Hardy, The Withered Arm
Bret Harte, How Santa Claus Came to Simpson's Bar
Bret Harte, The Outcasts of Poker Flat
Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Barry Hannah, Testimony of Pilot
N. Hawthorne, The Minister's Black Veil
N. Hawthorne, The Birth-mark
N. Hawthorne, Young Goodman Brown
N. Hawthorne, Rappaccini's Daughter
Franz Kafka, A Hunger Artist
Jack London, To Build A Fire
O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi
O. Henry, [The Piementa] Pancakes
Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried
Tim O'Brien, Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong
Ernest Hemingway, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place
Ernest Hemingway, Hills Like White Elephants
Ernest Hemingway, The Killers
Ernest Hemingway, The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber
W. W. Jacobs, The Monkey's Paw
Shirley Jackson, The Lottery
Stephen King, Dolan's Cadillac
Stephen King, Quitters Inc.
Ruyard Kipling, The Sing-song of Old Man Kangaro
Ruyard Kipling, Wee Willie Winkie
D.H. Lawrence, The Rocking-Horse Winner
Henry Lawson, The Bush Undertaker
Henry Lawson, The Drover's Wife
Henry Lawson, The Union Buries Its Dead
H. P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
W. Somerset Maugham, Rain
Tom McAfee, This Is My Living Room
Anne MacCaffrey, The Ship Who Sang
Herman Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener
Steven Millhauser, Eisenheim the Illusionist
Flannery O’Conner, A Good A Man Is Hard To Find
Flannery O’Conner, Parker’s Back
Flannery O’Conner, Revelation
Flannery O’Conner, Good Country People
Edgar Allen Poe, The Cask of Amontillado
Edgar Allen Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher
Edgar Allen Poe, The Purloined Letter
Edgar Allen Poe, The Tell Tale Heart
Porter, The Jilting of Granny Weatherall
Philip Roth, The Conversion of the Jews
Philip Roth, Defender of the Faith
Saki [Hector Hugh Munro], Sredni Vashtar
Saki, The Open Window
Saki, The Interlopers
Sartre, The Wall
James Thurber, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Mark Twain, The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
Kurt Vonnegut, Harrison Bergeron
E.B. White, Here is New York
Connie Willis, The Last of the Winnebagoes
Connie Willis, Blued Moon

(For the record, my contribution to the list were the stories by Stephen King [whom I regard as a master of the short story genre], H. P. Lovecraft, and Philip Roth, as well as The Purloined Letter by Poe.)

Surprisingly, I am even more pathetic with the short stories than I was with the longer works: 23/85, so far. I'll update the list when it's completed.

June 13, 2004

Random street scene

1:30 in the afternoon, in the heart of Ottawa, at the intersection where Bank Street passes underneath the Queensway. Traffic slow in all directions. Horns honking. People staring and pointing. In the middle of the intersection: A very lost-looking goat.

June 12, 2004

Ah, that's a little better

After being sorely disappointed in Larry Niven's The Ringworld Throne, I decided to drown my sorrows in some of his earlier work. I'm sure I'm not alone in "cutting my teeth" on Niven's work by reading Ringworld, and later discovering that not only was it placed in the Known Space universe, but it actually assumed prior knowledge of the Kzinti, indestructible General Products hulls, and the like. It certainly surprised me. So I decided to explore some of the non-Ringworld stories of Known Space in the anthology Three Books of Known Space (Del Rey, 1996).

This volume is an omnibus collection of three previous books, World of Ptavvs, A Gift from Earth, and the short story collection Tales of Known Space. Niven has rearranged all the stories in chronological order according to his future history.

World of Ptavvs is a decent novel (Niven's first) about an alien Slaver attempting to escape from Earth after being trapped there for 2 billion years in a stasis field. Human experiments with stasis technology allow him to escape - but not only in his own body. When telepath Larry Greenberg attempts to communicate with whatever is in the stasis field, he comes away with a copy of the Slaver's consciousness in his own brain. A chase across the solar system ensues.

Niven's sophomore novel, A Gift From Earth, is somewhat better. The planet We Made It has a single habitable feature: the plateau at the top of the 40-mile-high Mount Lookitthat. The colony is governed by a hereditary aristocracy comprising the descendants of the crew which piloted the two colony ships. The colonists, who arrived at We Made It in hibernation, are their serfs. "Justice" is draconian, and colonists on the wrong side of the law wind up in the crew's organ bank. Naturally, there is resentment, and A Gift From Earth recounts a rebellion by a faction of colonists after a robot spaceship arrives from Earth with a technological gift that could strengthen the crew's hold on power. The rebellion is led, reluctantly, by Matt Keller, who has begun to manifest some sort of psychic ability. The story is decent hard science, but would actually be improved if Niven hadn't resorted to giving the protagonist mysterious powers, which always strike me as a bit of a cheat.

But the real treasure of this volume are the short stories. Niven's future timeline begins with the colonization of the solar system; the first stories are about the exploration of the extremities of the solar system.(The first story, "The Coldest Place," relies on an [admitted] major scientific gaffe by Niven: at the time he thought one side of Mercury always faced the sun, though it was already known this was not the case.) The three best stories are "Eye of an Octopus," "How the Heroes Die," and "At the Bottom of a Hole," about the colonization of Mars and the discovery of the Martians. On the other hand, "The Warriors," about first contact with the Kzinti, lacks plot and seems pointless. "There is a Tide" will be a pleasant surprise for Ringworld fans: it's an earlier story starring Louis Wu as a treasure hunter who gambles with an alien Trinoc for possession of a Slaver stasis field and its contents.

Three Books of Known Space also includes a Known Space timeline, a helpful complete Niven bibliography, and numerous annotations. A lot of the content is starting to show its age, but nonetheless this book is essential reading for anyone who wants to appreciate Larry Niven's fictional universe.

June 10, 2004

Church-state separation: A threefer of the regnant folly

A quick anthology of stories from the past few days, demonstrating the absurd, sometimes revisionist, lengths that some people will go to secularize Western society:

Folly #1: Those horrible, dangerous crosses

Recently the ACLU (Anti-Christian Lawsuit Union) announced that it intended to file suit against Los Angeles County because its official seal has a tiny cross on it.

The cross represents the influence of missions on the history of California. It appears adjacent to depictionss of the Hollywood Bowl and two stars, representing culture and the entertainment industry. (The official explanation of all symbols may be found here).

Of course, the ACLU says nothing about the Roman goddess Pomona who appears front and centre, representing agriculture, even though the connection between Roman polytheism and growing oranges is infinitely more tenuous than the connection between a cross and the religious history of California. No, it's the little tiny unobtrusive cross off to the side that is problematic. This is historical revisionism, pure and simple. The contribution of the Church to California's settlement is about to go down the memory hole.

Faced with the choice between spending tons of money to fight a civil suit, and spending tons of money to change the seal, the county caved. Then the plot thickened when the Thomas More Law Center filed suit against the county to have them retain the cross, because its removal "sends a government-sponsored message of hostility towards Christians in violation of the United States Constitution." Go figure.

Folly #2: Americans United for Separation of Church and Mind

The latest antics of Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State:

Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State is asking the IRS to revoke the tax-exempt status of a Catholic diocese because the Bishop instructed his diocese on who may receive Communion.

"Any Catholic politicians who advocate for abortion, for illicit stem cell research or for any form of euthanasia ipso facto place themselves outside full communion with the Church and so jeopardize their salvation," Bishop Michael Sheridan told the people of Colorado Springs. . . .

"Bishop Sheridan's letter is code language that says, 'Re-elect Bush and vote Republican,'" charged the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "Everyone knows Bush and Kerry differ on the issue of abortion. Sheridan is using a form of religious blackmail to steer votes toward the GOP. The IRS should look into this immediately."

[Full Story]

In Barry Lynn's fantasy world, "separation of church and state" doesn't mean what it does in the real world: no established church such as exists in England, where changes to the doctrine and practice of the Church of England are legislated by Parliament, and the Queen is the head of state as well as the head of the church.

Rather, Lynn envisions a "separation of church and state" where, absurdly, the morality taught by the church has no bearing on how one lives his life outside the church and, conversely, one's behaviour outside the church has no real consequences inside the church.

Ironically, the United Churches of Christ, in which Lynn is an ordained minister, states on its Web site that

[s]ince its very beginnings, the church of Jesus Christ has wrestled over issues of inclusion and exclusion. Who can be received as a member? What are the qualifications, barriers, or tests required? Who is permitted to assume a leadership role?

[Full Text]

Elsewhere on the same site:

Church leaders of two mainline Protestant denominations yesterday (May 20) sent a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush expressing concern for the people of Gaza and the future of a nonviolent resolution to the conflict in the Middle East.

[Full Text]

So it's OK for the UCC to define its membership and to dictate policy to the government, but not for the Roman church. Go figure.

Folly #3: Revisionist Shakespeare

"Jennifer," a high-school English teacher, recounts an anecdote in which she got called to the principal's office for teaching that Shakespeare was influenced by the Bible:

I taught "Merchant of Venice" to seniors one year; in it there's a line where one character is insulting another, by saying something along the lines of "He damns the ears of all who hear him, by calling him 'fool.'" One of the kids asked me what that meant, so I explained that one of the lesser-known verses of the Book of Matthew has Jesus saying that anyone who calls another a fool will be damned. (I recited chapter and verse, though I can't remember it now.) . . .

"So anyway," I said to the class, "back in Shakespeare's day, when people were far more familiar with the Bible than they are now, instead of insulting someone by saying 'You are a fool,' you'd say 'You are a--well, I can't SAY what you are because then I'd go to hell.' That's what he's doing in the play."

Next day I get called into the principal's office; some parents were FURIOUS that I had told their kids that Jesus said anyone who says 'fool,' will go to Hell.

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So it's come to this. It is now "insulting kids' religions" for a literature teacher to discuss the influence of the Bible on Shakespeare. Some of those kids don't believe the Bible, therefore it is verboten to tell them the brute fact that Shakespeare did. God help us.

Those horrible, dangerous ultrasounds

Veith reports on the World Magazine blog that the FDA is scrutinizing baby imaging centres - those places where expectant mothers can go to get ultrasound pictures of their baby still in the womb - and that the government in New York State is considering legislation that would ban ultrasounds taken for "entertainment." He sums these arguments up nicely:

As if a mother's desire to see her baby in her womb is mere entertainment. And as if there are no benefits to seeing the fetus as a human being. And as if abortion on demand were not the biggest risk that an unborn child can face.

Apparently, "a mother's right to choose" does not necessarily extend to the right to choose to get an ultrasound picture taken.

June 05, 2004

"Goodbye, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America" - Ronald Wilson Reagan, 1911-2004

Not being an American, I don't have nearly the same attachment to President Reagan as my American friends. But I remember watching the 1980 election results on television and seeing Reagan destroy Jimmy Carter and John Anderson at the ballot box. I think this was the first time I paid attention to the political world, except perhaps for my parents telling me that "Trudeau is in again" or some such.

The assassination attempt on Reagan's life in 1981 was the first major news event I can remember pre-empting all programming on all networks.

While as a preteen most of the politics of Reagan's first term went over my head, I remember sitting down and watching the speeches at the 1984 Republican National Convention. I was so impressed with Reagan's oratorial abilities (at age 13!) that I made a point of tuning into his speeches any chance I had.

I remember the friendship between Reagan and then prime minister Brian Mulroney, and the rendition of "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" they sang together on St. Patrick's Day, 1985.

I remember his touching citation of the poem "High Flight" following the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger. The postponed State of the Union address that year was the first I ever listened to.

I don't remember his speech in Berlin where Reagan entreated, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." But I remember the day two years later when the wall came down.

By the time I got out of my teenage years and started following politics for real, whether international or domestic, Reagan was long gone and his successor, George H. W. Bush, was nearly on his way out. However, since those days there has not been a leader or statesman of the likes of Ronald Wilson Reagan.

He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.
- Hamlet, I.2.189-90

God speed, Mr. President.

June 04, 2004

A tip of the tinfoil hat to the conspiracy crowd

Yesterday marks the beginning of the 50th anniversary session of the Bilderberg group, that annual "secret" gathering of the wealthy, powerful, and influential. The group is so called because the inaugural meeting was held in 1954 at the Bilderberg Hotel in Oosterbeek, Holland. Since then they have met more or less annually in various posh European hotels (and occasionally in North America). For the group's golden anniversary, this year they are meeting at the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees in Stresa, Italy.

Invitees to this year's session include, in no particular order: Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, David Rockefeller (booga booga!), Canadian deputy finance minister Kevin Lynch, Bill Gates' wife Melinda, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna, and everyone's favourite shady character, Henry Kissinger. These meetings are by invitation only, are held in secret, follow no fixed agenda, and produce no minutes or printed reports, leading to a good bit of speculation from all points of the political spectrum as to what they're all about.

On the one hand, the rich and powerful have the same freedom of association as everyone else, and if they choose to gather in secret and discuss matters of interest to their particular walk of life, that's their business. (We wouldn't want cameras poking in our faces at family meetings, would we?)

On the other hand are the conspiracy theorists who see any gathering of the world's élite as a harbinger of doom and another sign that the New World OrderTM is imminent. The good people of Bilderberg.org, for example, speculate that the plan this year is "to bring about a financial collapse of debt/credit and play this off as a failure of capitalism" (q.v.). (When I get around to it, this site will be added to my "What the...?" page of kooks and cranks. Their paranoid speculations have earned them two black helicopters, like so: ?! ?!

I take a more middle ground. I reject the conspiracy theory worldview because it conflicts with the Biblical worldview and plain reason (see my previous post, "Daniel in the Conspirators' Den" for a fuller exposition of this). But I don't think that the movers and shakers get together in secret once a year to swap recipes, either.

Case in point: One of last year's guests was Stephen Harper, then the leader of the Opposition in the Parliament of Canada. At this time an election campaign is underway and there is a good (though not certain) possibility that Harper will be our next prime minister. Our last PM, Jean Chrétien, was a guest a few years back. This raises some interesting questions.

  • In what capacity were they invited? As private citizens, or as public officials? (It seems self-evident that even if their invitation was unofficial, it was only issued by virtue of their high rank in Parliament.)
  • Who paid their way? Them, or the taxpayers?
  • What was discussed? Even though these meetings are secret, it seems to me that if they attended in any official capacity or on the public dime, then there ought to be some openness here.
  • Is there potential for a conflict of interest? I am not saying this has happened. But if something discussed at the Bilderberg Hotel results in a policy decision, then has an end-run been done around the legal process by which policy is made? And has someone gained an advantage that they wouldn't otherwise have had?

None of this is to say that attending the Bilderberg meetings means there is some sort of nefarious activity afoot. No, it means that politicians, CEOs, news anchormen, and Secretaries of State are human like the rest of us and subject to sin and compromise. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, that great chronicler of Stalinist atrocity, put it best in The Gulag Archipelago:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

This is perhaps one of the reasons Paul admonished Timothy thus:

I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:1-4)

June 03, 2004

No . . .

In an interview with the Daily Mirror, Sir Paul McCartney admits what everybody already knew: the influence of drugs on the music of the Beatles was pervasive:

By the time they split up in 1970,they had released some of the most innovative, groundbreaking albums ever, including Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the early days one of their biggest influences was Elvis Presley, but as the King's career faltered in the 60s drugs became another inspiration. . . .

"Just about everyone was doing drugs in one form or another and we were no different, but the writing was too important for us to mess it up by getting off our heads all the time. It was just easier to write when we were straight and seemly.

"It was only on Pepper that we started to use stuff in the studio. On the earlier albums we'd have been using those drugs socially, so in that sense the drugs informed what we did.

"A song like Got To Get You Into My Life, that's directly about pot, although everyone missed it at the time. Day Tripper, that's one about acid. . . .

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OK, Paul, but what about the song everyone's bound to ask about?

Lucy In The Sky, that's pretty obvious.

John Lennon, of course, maintained all his life that "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was inspired by a drawing Julian Lennon had done as a child, and that those infamous intials "LSD" were a coincidence. Oddly enough, the redoubtable Snopes.com quotes McCartney agreeing with Lennon in a 1978 interview with Barry Miles, against himself in the present:

This one is amazing. As I was saying before, when you write a song and you mean it one way, and then someone comes up and says something about it that you didn't think of -- you can't deny it. Like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," people came up and said, very cunningly, "Right, I get it. L-S-D," and it was when all the papers were talking about LSD, but we never thought about it.

What happened was that John's son Julian did a drawing at school and brought it home, and he has a schoolmate called Lucy, and John said what's that, and he said, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" -- so we had a nice title.

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Of course, some of us just want to know what drug inspired "She loves you, yeah yeah yeah."

June 02, 2004

Scare flares over fire retardant in polar bears

Shocking news from the world of science:

Chemicals widely used as flame retardants in homes have been discovered in Arctic polar bears and birds, and could pose a health hazard, Norwegian scientists say.

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Good Lord . . . these fireproof bears will take over the world and nothing can stop them!

June 01, 2004

London's Bonfire of the Vanities

Terrible news from England:

A fire in a London warehouse has destroyed many of the works of contemporary art owned by advertising magnate Charles Saatchi and exhibited in the controversial 1999 show Sensation at the Brooklyn Museum. The value—that is to say, the monetary value—of the works destroyed was reportedly as much as $90,000,000. . . .

Among the works lost was Chris Ofili’s “Virgin with Elephant Dung Attached,” which so outraged Mayor Giuliani when it hung at the Brooklyn Museum, and Tracey Emin’s famous (or infamous) work, “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995,” a tent into whose interior the artist had sewn the names of everyone with whom, since birth, she had ever shared a bed.

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Oh, no!

My heart is bleeding. No, really. Can't you see how concerned I am?

There is no remembrance of former things ; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after. . . . I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. (Eccl. 1:11,14)