21 June 2011

Wizard's First Rule, Chapter 1

The Sword of Truth series of books by Terry Goodkind has most of the hallmarks of the fantasy genre: magical swords, damsels in distress, fire-breathing dragons, and a chosen hero. On the strength of these staples and a distinctive narrative voice, the first book, Wizard's First Rule was highly successful. Each of the succeeding ten books built on that success by dishing up more of the same winning formula.

Distinctively, however, the books began to increasingly incorporate more and more Objectivism, the philosophy created by Ayn Rand. Goodkind is an unapologetic Objectivist, and with each successive volume in the series, they increasingly began to illustrate those values. By the end of the series, the great villain is the Imperial Order, a monstrous empire that advocates altruism and communism, while hero Richard fights for capitalism and the virtue of selfishness.

I already dished out some hurting to The Sword of Truth in this essay, but now I'm going to look in-depth at the books. First up on the line is that first effort, the only semi-crazy Wizard's First Rule.

If you have the book (hey wow what is this), you can follow along week by week, as I do one chapter and then the next. I will spoil the future for you, though, so be warned!


We begin with the protagonist, Richard Cypher. He's a simple woods guide, and he sees a vine.

It was an odd-looking vine. Dusky variegated leaves hunkered against a stem that wound in a stranglehold around the smooth trunk of a balsam fir. Sap drooled down the wounded bark, and dry limbs slumped, making it look as if the tree were trying to voice a moan into the cool, damp morning air. Pods stuck out from the vine here and there along its length, almost seeming to look warily about for witnesses.

Look at Terry Goodkind writing! He is writing all kinds of words there, with a bitchload of imagery and all kinds of literary devices! He is writing so hard for you! He's got the pathetic fallacy all up in your face!

Okay, so the first paragraph is overwritten. Trust me, you still better take the time to appreciate it. These first bits are the last time that Goodkind is going to trouble himself to put out this kind of effort. He's much more comfortable with cliche, which combines with crude emotional manipulation to churn out his reams of books. Don't look for a whole lot more "variegation" in the future. Goodkind has a formula, and he'll soon be using it exclusively.

It was the smell that first had caught his attention, a smell like the decomposition of something that had been wholly unsavory even in life. Richard combed his fingers through his thick hair as his mind lifted out of the fog of despair, coming into focus upon seeing the vine. He scanned for others, but saw none. Everything else looked normal. The maples of the upper Ven Forest were already tinged with crimson, proudly showing off their new mantle in the light breeze. With nights getting colder, it wouldn't be long before their cousins down in the Hartland Woods joined them. The oaks, being the last to surrender to the season, still stoically wore their dark green coats.

Don't worry too much about remembering these places in Westland. It won't be too long before Richard departs these areas forever.

The geography of these books is fairly fuzzy. Goodkind drew a map himself for the first and second book, but he refused to do so for the next nine in the series, and the map quickly became irrelevant. Generally speaking, he adopted the flat earth strategy, bounding his little countries with oceans and mountains and vagueness. What happens if you get on a boat and sail west out of Westland? It's a mystery!

Having spent most of his life in the woods, Richard knew all the plants-if not by name, by sight. From when Richard was very small, his friend Zedd had taken him along, hunting for special herbs. He had shown Richard which ones to look for, where they grew and why, and put names to everything they saw. Many times they just talked, the old man always treating him as an equal, asking as much as he answered. Zedd had sparked Richard's hunger to learn, to know.
This vine, though, he had seen only once before, and not in the woods. He had found a sprig of it at his father's house, in the blue clay jar Richard had made when he was a boy. His father had been a trader and had traveled often, looking for the chance exotic or rare item. People of means had often sought him out, interested in what he might have turned up. It seemed to be the looking, more than the finding, that he had liked, as he had always been happy to part with his latest discovery so he could be off after the next.

Richard has spent most of his life in the woods. He will often (very often) call himself a "simple woods guide." And yet he is extremely eloquent, philosophical, and knowledgeable (except for the MacGuffins of magic that move the plot). Most peasants of a medieval society who spent their lives in the woods would tend to have a little rougher social graces and be a little more limited than Richard, especially since he is not a big reader (we only ever see him read two books and many official documents).

Now, it's true that Richard's father is a trader and his brother is a courtier and his best friend is an elite warrior and his mentor is the only wizard (Richard is the underachiever of the group). All these elite people around a person tend to make them a little broader. But then that just undercuts his faux humility - but I guess it isn't as impressive to save the world if you're more than a simple woods guide.

From a young age, Richard had liked to spend time with Zedd while his father was away. Richard's brother, Michael, was a few years older, and having no interest in the woods, or in Zedd's rambling lectures, preferred to spend his time with people of means. About five years before, Richard had moved away to live on his own, but he often stopped by his father's home, unlike Michael, who was always busy and rarely had time to visit. Whenever his father went away, he would leave Richard a message in the blue jar telling him the latest news, some gossip, or of some sight he had seen.

We're on the first page, but we're already seeing big billboards about the plot. The wise old man Zedd can't just be a wise old man. Brother Michael doesn't visit his father, so he must be a bad guy.

Also notice that this jar is a blue jar. We've dropped the fancy language, so it's not cerulean or dusky. Didn't take long, did it?

Anyway, blah blah blah... Richard finds a sprig of vine in the jar, and for three weeks he looks for the vine. Eventually he finds it in the Ven Forest, near the boundary.

So, this doesn't make very much sense. His father was a trader, which means he must go from one populated area to another. Why was he going to the unpopulated haunted Ven Forest that bordered the deadly boundaries of the kingdom? What opportunities for trade existed in an area that had no people but a whole lot of danger?

That's when the vine bit him.
One of the pods struck out and hit the back of his left hand, causing him to jump back in pain and surprise. Inspecting the small wound, he found something like a thorn embedded in the meat of the gash. The matter was decided. The vine was trouble. He reached for his knife to dig out the thorn, but the knife wasn't there. At first surprised, he realized why and reprimanded himself for allowing his depression to cause him to forget something as basic as taking his knife with him into the woods. Using his fingernails, he tried to pull out the thorn. To his rising concern, the thorn, as if alive, wriggled itself in deeper. He dragged his thumbnail across the wound, trying to snag the thorn out. The more he dug, the deeper it went. A hot wave of nausea swept through him as he tore at the wound, making it bigger, so he stopped. The thorn had disappeared into the oozing blood.

Ah, yes. This plant is moving, but the big surprise here is that you forgot your knife, Richard. You live in a world where there is no magic - where even the rumors of magic are kept to whispers and set aside in their own paragraph. You have finally found your mystery vine, and it turns out to be some kind of monster. It moves and sinks a thorn in you, and then the thorn wriggles in deeper into your flesh.

You, Richard, react with "rising concern."

I live in a world without magic. So let me tell you right now that if a vine moved and attacked me, and then a thorn was wiggling magically to attack me further, I would be more than concerned. I would be bugging the fuck out.

Looking about, Richard spotted the purplish red autumn leaves of a small nannyberry tree, laden with its crop of dark blue berries. Beneath the tree, nestled in the crook of a root, he found what he sought: an aum plant. Relieved, he carefully snapped off the tender stem near its base, and gently squeezed the sticky, clear liquid onto the bite. He smiled as he mentally thanked old Zedd for teaching him how the aum plant made wounds heal faster. The soft fuzzy leaves always made Richard think of Zedd. The juice of the aum numbed the sting, but not his worry over being unable to remove the thorn. He could feel it wriggling still deeper into his flesh.
Richard squatted down and poked a hole in the ground with his finger, placed the aum in it, and fixed moss about the stem so it might regrow itself.

If, after I found a monster vine and possessed thorn, I happened to find some eucalyptus nearby, I would not care. I would not smile as I remembered my buddy who taught me about eucalyptus. My thoughts would instead be, "Omigod omigod that vine fucking moved and now I can't get this demon thorn out!" Richard is, it seems, mildly worried.

This is the start of what will be a pattern: incredible unrealistic reactions from characters.

So blah blah blah, Richard sees something big and red with wings fly overhead. Golly, what could it be? Still, this sighting of some nightmarish impossible monster doesn't bother him. He chills for a while.

Winded, Richard slumped down on a granite boulder at the side of the trail, absently snapping off dead twigs from a sapling beside him while he stared down at Trunt Lake below. Maybe he should go tell Michael what had happened, tell him about the vine and the red thing in the sky. He knew Michael would laugh at the last part. He had laughed at the same stories himself.
No, Michael would only be angry with him for being up near the boundary, and for going against his orders to stay out of the search for the murderer. He knew his brother cared about him or he wouldn't always be nagging him. Now that he was grown, he could laugh off his brother's constant instructions, though he still had to endure the looks of displeasure.
Richard snapped off another twig and in frustration threw it at a flat rock. He decided he shouldn't feel singled out. After all, Michael was always telling everyone what to do, even their father.
He pushed aside his harsh judgments of his brother; today was a big day for Michael. Today he was accepting the position of First Councilor. He would be in charge of everything now, not just the town of Hartland anymore, but all the towns and villages of Westland, even the country people. Responsible for everything and everyone. Michael deserved Richard's support, he needed it; Michael had lost a father, too.

Let me pause here to praise the egalitarian nature of Westland. This poor benighted land is not under a feudal system, which will make it singular in the world of Terry Goodkind. Almost everywhere else is ruled by royalty or other hereditary groups (although I believe a few tribal people are ruled by "elders.") The son of a country trader has risen to become what is essentially their President.

Despite this marvel and excellent example to the rest of the world, and even though it's the only system Richard has ever known, you will never see him question the rigid and vicious hierarchies of the other lands he goes to visit. It's very sad, particularly when he has such immediate personal knowledge of the system.

Anyway, Richard sees someone on the other side of the lake.

He hopped down off the rock, tossing the twigs aside, and took a few steps forward. The figure followed the path into the open, at the edge of the lake. It wasn't Chase; it was a woman, a woman in a dress. What woman would be walking around this far out in the Ven Forest, in a dress? Richard watched her making her way along the lakeshore, disappearing and reappearing with the path. She didn't seem to be in a hurry, but she wasn't strolling slowly either. Rather, she moved at the measured pace of an experienced traveler. That made sense; no one lived anywhere near Trunt Lake.
Other movement snatched his attention. Richard's eyes searched the shade and shadows. Behind her, there were others. Three, no, four men, in hooded forest cloaks, following her, but hanging back some distance. They moved with stealth, from tree to rock to tree. Looking. Waiting. Moving. Richard straightened, his eyes wide, his attention riveted.
They were stalking her.
He knew immediately: this was the third child of trouble.

Ah, our first glimpse of vicious D'Haran soldiers.

Let me tell you a secret, folks. Richard will, some day very soon, be in charge of these soldiers. So as we move into the book and you see them depicted as monstrous raping murderers, keep that in mind. Because they will be seen as absolutely vicious scum right up until the moment that Richard is in charge.

Til next time!

18 June 2011

Atlas Shrugged Sunday

I had high hopes for this project (first post, second post), but unfortunately it just isn't going to work out. Too much of what I want to mock about Ayn Rand's magnum opus is abstract. What made doing the Left Behind mockeries so much fun was that they were equal parts terrible writing and terrible ideas. Atlas Shrugged is too heavy on the terrible ideas, whereas the writing is merely mediocre-to-poor.

Instead, I am going to be doing the Sword of Truth books. I wrote a pretty decent essay on these Objectivist fantasy books a long time ago, and I think they'd do well as a subject of a detailed examination.

07 June 2011

A Working Lunch

"Hello," said my supervisor to a colleague, as we headed down the stairs. "Alexander and I are just off to a working lunch."

Wow, I thought. 'A working lunch.' That sounds really professional.

But I didn't feel very professional. Today, as I met with the professor who's supervising my dissertation, I felt distinctly like I was way in over my head.

The basic process of the dissertation wasn't so bad, even if I was a little rushed. It began at the start of the semester. In the first few weeks as a refugee from Christchurch, I had wrangled entrance to the school and been admitted just shy of the deadlines. I raced from office to office from one day to the next, getting approval for a series of year-long courses (already in session) and finances and visas and so on. Work began immediately.

It was still my first day as an official student when I met with the faculty member in charge of matching supervisors with students on dissertations. He told me, as kindly as possible, that everyone else already had at least a rough topic in mind and a supervisor arranged, and that I should get started as soon as possible. Sitting in his office, I pitched ideas at him - the first couple rehashed from my planned courses at Canterbury, and the rest just snatched out of the air.

Could I work on Melville, comparing the fictional and nonfictional elements of his work? No, the faculty member with that specialty was going on sabbatical. Could I look at Ezra Pound and his influence on the Lost Generation? No, no one had that as an area of particular interest who was available. Could I work on medieval fablieux? Not unless I already knew French.

"Nabokov's Pale Fire?" I asked. I had read it a couple of months ago.

The coordinator thought for a moment and nodded. There was someone who might be able to work with me.

A few days and an email exchange later, and I was set up to work on the "various games played in the index in Pale Fire." Pretty vague, but enough to work with.

And work I have! Over the past semester I have buried myself in dozens of books of primary and secondary material. It's one of Nabokov's most-studied books, and there has been a huge amount to look at. All the while, I have met with my supervisor and refined my ideas, and set up a blog to roughly track my progress.

But to be honest, I still didn't feel ready for the big leagues. So it was pretty daunting today, when I went for this "working lunch." I didn't have any sparkling insights or witty banter. I don't even know Russian, so I could only read the half of Nabokov's work he'd written in English. I have some slight breadth of knowledge about literary and critical history, but hardly felt qualified to chat about my plans and research with my supervisor. I mean, who am I kidding? "My research!?" Like I knew what the hell I was doing! I felt like a fraud.

I'm not a nervous person, but...

Well, it didn't matter. It was too late, and I was committed. Committed to this working lunch.

We made small talk as we walked to one of the faculty cafes. It felt awkward to me. Oh, God, is it awkward for him? Am I boring? I'm boring!

The food was buffet-style fake Mexican, and we grabbed a couple of plates full of it. Rice in a sloppy brown bean sauce, tortilla chips, corn salad, etc. Not bad, but not good. It didn't matter. I needed to have a completely positive attitude. This food is fine. Delicious, even! I am pleasant and casual! PLEASANT!

We began talking a little bit about my research, but almost immediately veered off into gossip about the school and the like. As we chatted about trivial things and his plans for the break (conference in England), I started to relax. I heaped a lump of guacamole on a chip and even genuinely grinned as I talked about Korea and where I had been. It's been a weird couple of years, and I was happy to tell a little about living in Asia and where I'd traveled. We talked about living in Dunedin. We talked about the university in general. He talked about his kids, and asked me about mine. I don't have any kids, but now we're talking! This is professional as shit! Yeah!

The conversation moved back to my research, all too soon. Casually, my supervisor described a theory he'd had about Pale Fire for some time, a theory that I had (a) never heard of before and that (b) was absolutely brilliant. He saw the book as a thing of fractal beauty, with the small images reflected in a larger scale at either end. The waxwing slain by a false sky from the poem's first line is reflected later by Hazel's death; the toy wheelbarrow one character remembers grubbing under the bed for as a child is reflected later by a real wheelbarrow in the final scene; and so on. The poem within the book is 999 lines, with a final couplet unfinished: my supervisor speculated that the whole of the later commentary that comprises the rest of the book is a fractal examination of that missing line, a close-up examination of a fragment with complexities that just increase the deeper you go.

Well, hell. That sounds way more competent with the book than anything I could say. And this book has been my focus for like three months! Pack me up and send me back to America, I can't even swing a lunch where I sound like I know what I'm talking about.

Searching my thoughts for a moment as I tried to think of an intelligent response, all I could think of was the fairly standard model of the poem. Nabokov had described a "Hegelian spiral" that ran through many of his chess problems (and by extension, his writing). It was sort of a strategy he used to lure in the reader. A broad and obvious theme is first, something easy to see. It's obviously flawed, though, and it leads the reader to a new understanding that is wholly contrary to the first. This new understanding is deeper and smarter, and puts the first theme to the lie. But there are still a few little things that don't make sense - a few pawns that get in the way of the solution. It isn't until the reader finally sees a third way of understanding and a new theme, joining the first two, that everything finally makes sense. Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis: a spiral going out, turning back, and finally curling in together.

This is how most everyone sees Nabokov's work, and especially how scholars view Pale Fire. It would be a safe to say, probably. Certainly not objectionable. But it was also the kind of thing I should have learned (that I did learn) my first week of research. It was not smart, and did not demonstrate I had been engaging with my work.

I needed to demonstrate that I had been working, and not wasting my time. I couldn't just respond with the elementary-school version of the book, could I?

The moment stretched out a bit too long.

Then, a flash of light deep in my brain. I realized something. I clutched.

"Well," I said. "I like the fractal idea. But I was thinking about the Hegelian spiral Nabokov mentions in Speak, Memory. Everyone finds that in Pale Fire, and they're right do so, I think." I solidified my hold on my half-conceived insight, and continued. "But the focus has been on identifying an author of the book as a whole. Meyer and Boyd both found the thesis in Kinbote and the antithesis in uncovering his unreliable narration to reveal the 'real' story, and then Meyer and Boyd had their own ideas about the synthesis of those two themes." So far, so good. I gathered steam. "But my thinking recently -" Very recently! "-is that the real spiral is found in the structure of the book. The thesis is the poem, the antithesis is the contradictory commentary, and the synthesis is the index, which allows us to make sense of the two preceding parts that had seemed to oppose each other."

When I write it out now, it actually doesn't seem like much of an insight. It doesn't seem very impressive at all, actually. But trust me, it's something new. And more importantly, it actually sounded like I knew what I was doing. It might inspire confidence, and let my supervisor know that I'm working hard and I'm on the level. I jammed a chip in my mouth.

My supervisor was impressed. His latte paused, mid-air. He raised his eyebrows and smiled.

"I never thought of it that way before. You... hey, you might have something there."

Haha! Yes!

You hear that, world?! I might have something! I might know what's going on! Ten points to Gryffindor! Triumph! Triumph!

Okay, so it's not really all that amazing. All I did was successfully navigate a casual lunch with a pleasant expert, which is about the lowest bar that anyone can clear. And I certainly shouldn't be congratulating myself on a relatively pedestrian insight into a book I'd been poring over for months.

But I needed this one. So: Triumph! Triumph!


Weekly Book Review: "The Rainmaker", "The Know-It-All", "Dirty Sexy Politics", and "Assholes Finish First"

Been plowing through a lot of academic stuff in the past couple of weeks, so pleasure reading has been light.

The Rainmaker, John Grisham

In this book, a young Southern lawyer goes up against a powerful, well-connected law firm that turns out to be secretly corrupt. He makes it through a combination of his own virtuous hard work and some lucky breaks.

The above paragraph describes every Grisham book I've ever read, and it works perfectly for The Rainmaker too. This book is perhaps the prototypical Grisham. It's simple, trite, and moderately well-written.

Not a lot of thought went into the writing. It's smooth and unpretentious, but it's about as deep as my ice-cube tray.

As an example, at one point the young male lawyer has been studying in a quiet corner of the hospital cafeteria for the bar exam. While he studies, he notices a beautiful young woman being wheeled in, her leg in a cast. He snatches looks at her that night, and when he sees her again the next night he dares to approach and talk to her a little. He finds out she's married, but he still can't stop thinking about her. The day after that, he talks to her again, and she asks about what kind of law he does. Will he defend murder victims? Yes, he will. Will he defend people who batter their wives? No, he won't.

When she asks if he does divorces, he answers that he does. We're given no further comment on that bit of the exchange. But this is simply wildly unrealistic. A young guy lusts after this beautiful young woman, and her inquiry about divorce is answered so flatly? His mind should have run wild! She wants a divorce. Wait, is she asking? Maybe she is hinting about it. Should I offer to do it for free? Is that too forward? Wouldn't there be a conflict if I did - ethically improper or something? I can get my buddy Deck to do it for free. Oh, God, maybe she didn't mean anything!

But Grisham didn't think too much about it, I guess. He didn't think too much about any of it.

The book is very straightforward. The virtuous but relatable Rudy Baylor struggles out of law school, scraping through by waiting tables, and represents Dot and Buddy Black on behalf of their son Donny Ray against the evil Great Benefit Insurance, who are represented by the powerful and almost-as-evil Trent & Brent firm. The good guys are all poor and Southern, and the bad guys are all rich and corrupt and with a distinctly Northern style.

Because of the nature of the legal system, it is funny the way the trial goes. Like most writers, Grisham wants to maximize the odds against his heroes. But the legal system makes it hard to do. The corrupt judge at the start of the trial could just dismiss the case with prejudice: boom, book is over. So Grisham has to dispose of the corrupt judge just before he can dismiss the case, and install a favorable judge. This happens with several other developments, as well, like when Rudy gets in legal trouble but happens to have a buddy with some corrupt police friends (it's okay for him to do it!)

It's an okay book, and maybe worth checking out if you've never read any Grisham.

The Know-It-All, A.J. Jacobs

A.J. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire, decided to read the whole of the 2002 Encyclopaedia Brittanica. It took him a year, and this is his book about the endeavor.

The book is terribly written. It takes a predictably gimmicky style, as it is arranged alphabetically, with brief anecdotes added in after various selected headings. These anecdotes are either things that Jacobs found particularly interesting, personal items from his life, or recountings of his attempts to meet other people who are famously smart (JEOPARDY winners, Mensa members, etc.)

Very few of these anecdotes are interesting. And worse, the ones that might be interesting are sullied by Jacobs' complete lack of context. Much of the book is spent with him moaning about how he's not as smart as he thought or he's much dumber than his brother-in-law Eric, and he inadvertently proves it with entries like this:

The storming of the Bastille was surprisingly lame. When the mob forced open the doors, the prison had been largely unused for years and was scheduled for demolition. It "held on that day only four counterfeiters, two madmen and a young aristocrat who had displeased his father." Seven people? That barely qualifies as a storm. More like a light drizzle. Couldn't they have stormed something a little more impressive?

It seems like Jacobs is confused about what the "storming" meant - the storming was the attack by the crowd, not the release of the prisoners. The rioting Parisians stormed the Bastille. There were hundreds of people in the riot, opposed by the French army.

Either Jacobs doesn't understand what's going on or else he is sadly unclear in his writing. These sorts of frustrating problems crop up often. I would say that they ruin the book, but there's not much to be ruined. There are perhaps a dozen pages of this text that are worth reading - maybe 2% of the whole. That's remarkably little wheat for so many tons of chaff.

In any case, I'm reading Plato and I have to say, I'm not impressed. His theory of forms seems absurd, even infuriating. Plato wrote about the existence of another world, apart from the physical world, a world filled with ideal forms. Somewhere, there's an ideal man, stone, shape, color, beauty, justice. Somewhere, there's the Platonic ideal of a bottle, of a chair.
Seems like a bunch of what they used to call hogwash. Problem is, reading the Britannica is a very un-Platonic experience. Over the last 21,000 pages, I've watched everything change and evolve--men, stones, beauty, everything. How can there be an ideal form of a chair? Which of the dozens of chair styles would you choose to represent this ideal? The 18th-century ottoman? The 19th-century cockfighting chair?

Definitely skip this one; it's a waste of time.

Dirty Sexy Politics, Meghan McCain

This may be the most painfully by-the-numbers political autobiography I have ever read, and that's really saying something. The only thing that exceeds the banality of this book is the jumbled structure: it's not arranged topically or chronologically or any other way. It's a bunch of boring anecdotes lurched together, like a Frankenstein made from insurance auditors.

She gives people wacky nicknames like the Blonde Amazon or the Groomsmen. And she uses edgy and unorthodox adjectives, like "tabloid-attention-getting." Ugh.

Overall, the book is supposed to be the story of Meghan's involvement in her father's (John McCain) race for the presidency in 2008. But it seems like it just is mostly dedicated to rehashing the same tired points seen in every preceding political autobiography, only in a poorly-written way.

  • When Meghan was giving an interview to a GQ reporter, she talked for hours about the campaign and policy, but what he ended up using in the article were her more candid comments about finding Obama sexy, loving the show A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, and how Mike Huckabee would be a bad Vice President! She was so trusting and naive, believing that the reporter wasn't just using her for some juicy material for his article!
  • The media was incredibly partisan, clearly showing favoritism to other people and slamming Meghan for the smallest things! They loved Michelle Obama but took pictures of Meghan in jeans with a beer bottle! So unfair!
  • Meghan was one of the few independent voices. Everyone else on the campaign (except her friends and family) were robots who just marched to the party line, and couldn't handle it when Meghan displayed her independence or thought for herself. There were a bunch of times when she completely spoke her mind, and these perfectly reasonable things were just shocking to the drones of the campaign!
  • She's not a perfect person! One time she pranked a reporter with a bowl of eggs outside of his door that he stepped in, and she almost got in trouble in New Hampshire when she tried to steal some Huckabee campaign signs!

Also, she talks a lot about her clothes.

McCain does deviate from the norm slightly when she calls for skewing left on social issues, but otherwise this is a boring grind of a text. Thankfully it's a short grind, taking maybe an hour to read. But there are better ways to invest an hour of your time. Make a nice meal. Learn to paint. Just don't read this book.

Assholes Finish First, Tucker Max

Since Tucker Max's first disaster of a book, he has started to call himself a "writer." On reading that, I almost choked with laughter.

Let me save you the time you might waste on this book. Here are the stories from the first third of the book, complete and in order. Bear in mind that you're not missing anything in this summary. The writing is abysmal (he loves the Caps Lock) and the sparse scraps of wit that were in the previous book are entirely gone. You are getting the full experience here. I realize that this will be hard to believe, reading this list, but it is absolutely true. I would have done the whole book, but I started feeling a little ill. The rest is just the same.

  • Tucker buys a bullhorn, goes to a campout for other grad students at Duke, and yells lame insults at them. Example: "[to a dude in a Star Wars T-shirt] Be honest, how many times have you jacked off to a picture of Princess Leia in her metal bikini?" Eventually, a cop takes away the bullhorn. The end.
  • Tucker gets drunk and wakes up next to a girl. He doesn't know her name, so he looks in her purse at her driver's license. But it's the wrong name, because it actually was the purse of his roommate's hookup. The end.
  • Tucker has sex, and when he wants to have sex again he rinses out the condom and uses it a second time. The end.
  • Tucker has sex with a girl with a colostomy bag and mocks her to the pathetic best of his ability. The end.
  • Tucker has sex with a woman with kids. That is it. The end.
  • Tucker has sex with an 18-year-old, and they argue briefly. The exchange ends with what he considers to be a zinger: "You aren't as smart as me. Just admit defeat and submit." The end.
  • Tucker gets angry when he is cut off by another driver while getting "road head," and he stamps on the brake. The girl going down on him gets hurt, scraping her face on the car. The end.
  • Tucker is having sex with a girl when he notices a big zit on her back. He pops it. The end.
  • Tucker calls a girl over for sex, and falls asleep before she gets here. He listens to her eight voicemail messages the next day, which escalate in anger until the last one, which resignedly tells him she still likes him. The end.
  • Tucker has sex with a hippie who is on her period. After sex, she picks up the tampon and wraps it in a leaf, bringing it with her so as not to litter. The end.
  • Tucker and some friends dress up like clowns and go drinking. Tucker is pushed out of a window by his friend Nils after Tucker tells him "he is too ugly to have even one skank, much less two." They go to other bars, hurl lame comments at nearby people, and skip out on their tabs. Tucker wakes up in the drunk tank, surrounded by his own vomit. When a nearby restaurant refuses to serve a filthy Tucker after his release, he breaks down weeping, then uses a brick to smash their circuit breaker box and turn off their power. He appends his mugshot and arrest report. The end.
  • Tucker and his friend go to a bar after exchanging limp witticisms. He is challenged to a drinking contest by a girl, but because he is "allergic to whiskey" he throws up after two shots. On the cab ride home, he stops the cab and runs out of it, vomiting some more. The end.
  • Tucker and his friend go to a Halloween party. On the way there, someone cuts them off so they spit on her windshield. At the party, there is little alcohol, so they go buy a lot more. At the party, they throw out more wilting witticisms, like telling a fat girl that "the buffet is the other way." One of the friends is so amazingly clever and rude as he pretends to talk to a plastic parrot. Here is the one of the "best examples": "He walked up to a group of girls, looked them all up and down, and started walking away. 'You're right, Mr. Peepers, there aren't any good-looking girls at this party.'" Tucker has sex with a woman who works at the NSA, and throws up in her bed the next morning. She catches him. The end.
  • A charity organization asks Tucker to be at a bachelor auction. He submits a proposed "Tucker Max Experience" date night. It is mostly about how slovenly and rude he is. They decide not to invite him. The end.
By the end of the book, I felt sad for Tucker, sadder for the people who have had the misfortune of encountering him, and a little soiled for having read about it all.

This may be the worse book I have ever read. Boring, terribly-written, crude, and with the moral worth of a fetid pile of dung. If you see it in a bookstore, do not just avoid it. I urge you to steal every copy you can find, to spare the unsuspecting. Don't burn them, since a half-burnt shred of paper may be lofted up into the air and off to some poor reader. Instead, take the books and seal them in a barrel with an equal amount of molten slag. Seal them deep inside of Yucca Mountain. Post a guard.

04 June 2011


Well, I have been slacking on my application of J.P. Mueller's system. I have missed almost two weeks, I think. But I think I have found a clever way to keep up with it and with exercise in general. It's called Fitocracy.

The basic concept is simple: an MMORPG for fitness. It takes everything that makes World of Warcraft so addictive and terrible and turns it to the good. You keep track of your exercising - weightlifting, jogging, swimming, whatever - and assigns each set or duration a number of points. Once you accumulate enough points, you level up. And along the way, you can complete quests or achievements (like doing 20 crunches to achieve "O hai abs").

The founders are a pair of gamers who both decided to change their habits and their lives. Here's a picture of one of them, Richard Talens (who played Everquest on the Sallon Zek server).

The great thing about this site is that it takes the addictive nature of an unhealthy habit and redirects that, so rather than leveling up your Halfling Warrior you're leveling up yourself. The hamster-wheel effect of a never-ending cycle of killing imaginary monsters and gaining imaginary equipment is replaced by making yourself happier and healthier. And the leveling curve means that if you are a hardcore fitness guy, you will level quickly up to a point that's challenging, but if you are a newbie then you will still be able to see satisfactory progress. I'm level 3, having advanced two levels after entering yesterday's and today's workouts.

It's on the honor system, of course. No way around that. But then, if you really need to lie about this, you need to take a long look at yourself and ask why.

The site is in closed beta, so it's not open to the public yet, but if you comment here with your email address I will send you an invite link so you can try it out. There are a few minor bugs, but overall it works great and supports way more kinds of exercise than I've ever even heard of.

Check it out.

02 June 2011

Philosophy and Cults of Personality: Pirsig and Less Wrong

I don't really know much about anything. I will be the first to say this, often and with great enthusiasm. Pretty much every day I learn another reason to be humble - another vast field of knowledge that defeats me. It's sobering.

Part of that ignorance means that I have never been able to do more than dabble in philosophy, as well as its fascinating sub-discipline of epistemology. That's the study of how we know things - and to what extent we can know them. Plato and Bertrand Russell are pretty much as far as I have ever gotten in the discipline, which puts me at about the first toe-wiggle of a baby step.

But I do like to read some, and I keep my ear to the ground when it comes to the Net. And so I did happen to notice a remarkable similarity between the charisma-driven students of two off-the-path philosophers: Robert Pirsig and Eliezer Yudkowsky. It's a similarity made all the more remarkable by how dissimilar they are in every other way.

You have probably heard of Robert Pirsig's enduringly popular novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. You may have even had the pleasure of reading the book. It's a pleasant and seductive story of a man who takes a cross-country motorcycle trip with his son and some friends. The narrator's journey across the country reconciles him with his son as well as leading him to a coherent understanding of the world that rejects the distinction between Apollonian "truth" and Dionysian "quality," returning to what he considers to be an ancient and more useful understanding of a combined notion of real Quality. It is wonderfully-written, clear and clever, and it uses a gentle series of approachable examples to usher in a radical reinterpretation of how we know things and how we see them. Pirsig's philosophy, later expanded on in his only other book (Lila), is called the Metaphysics of Quality.

I'm not going to go much into the actual philosophy here. I lack the skills and knowledge to do so intelligently. But when I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and first looked into the whole thing, I was struck with two things: that the broader philosophical community had passed Pirsig by, for whatever reason, and that a reverent group of students had nonetheless gathered to study the Metaphysics of Quality and discuss it.

I am quite serious when I say that Quality vanished into the pool of professional philosophy with barely a ripple. Published in 1974, it was read and dismissed, by and large. It's fairly nonspecific, for one thing: the very qualities that make it readable also make it difficult to take it seriously as a work of academic philosophy - essentially the same reason why books like Rick Warren's A Purpose-Driven Life and Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion didn't cause any big splashes in academia. All three books are interesting, approachable, and irrelevant.

Modern philosophical works have titles like "Appropriate Indecorum Rhetoric and Aesthetics in the Political Theory of Jacques Rancière" (a paper by Ethan Stoneman in Philosophy and Rhetoric). They sound like this:

Nevertheless, when political praxis does take place, it does not so much establish its own sensible order as it perpetually deterritorializes the partitions through which bodies are assigned value-laden identities corresponding to previously assigned roles, occupations, and functions. Dissensus is inherently recalcitrant, never yielding alternative police orders that might inaugurate newer, "better" identities or more equitable plans of distribution.

Now, don't get me wrong. It's not the readability that's actually the problem with Pirsig's work. It's the fact that he lacks the wherewithal to express his philosophy in the rigorous language used by philosophers to express exact meaning. It's a very precise jargon that is carefully constructed to minimize the very common problems of language when they discuss ideas. It is also unreadable by normal human beings, which is why it takes seven years to train someone to withstand it.

Maybe Pirsig's work does have value in that conversation. I have a hard time imagining the philosophic community turning up their nose on principle, so it seems more likely that he is instead too vague to be useful or unconsciously repeating a long-running debate. But one thing is sure: in the absence of professional engagement, a community sprang up that thrived on that very same readability and lack of rigor.

When I first check in on the matter, I saw a clumsy and old website at MOQ.org. Today, it's only slightly less clumsy and slightly less old. But thriving, always thriving, is the long-running discussion taking place over its mailing list. Hundreds of messages every month, all in a close environment of amateur lovers of Pirsig's philosophy. They speak in the abbreviations and common references of a dense community, developing their own jargon! Over the years, in fact, their language has become almost as specialized as a professional philosopher's.

From "Essentialism and the MOQ", by Heather Perella, MOQ.org:

> Would you be okay with
> "one experiences the intellectual", and to use
> Pirsig's pop-culture
> verbage of the time (the jazz club story), "one
> 'just digs' the
> preintellectual"? It's the word and meaning of
> "experience" is hanging
> me up on this one.

One does experience the intellectual. I output
superman, and I input no-superman. Then I go to this
movie and input superman, and output na, no-superman.
Preintellectual is the intellectual in 'quality talk'.
In 'dq talk' all is not defined so there is not even
preintellectual and intellectual. Static quality
defines preintellectual and intellectual and may
notice 'inputs' and 'outputs', but after all,
according to the MoQ, all of this 'sq talk' and 'dq
talk' is just plain-old quality and we're livin'
without-with hungups-no-hungups. A?


It's fascinating, and it stuck with me when I saw this remarkable small conclave of amateur philosophy, discussing an epistemology in a way that's quite off to the side of the mainstream.

A few weeks ago, they came to mind as I encountered another group at Less Wrong, a website devoted to "refining the art of human rationality," centered around Eliezer Yudkowsky, a researcher in artificial intelligence.

On the surface, the community at Less Wrong might seem to have literally nothing in common with the discussion group of Metaphysics of Quality. Yudkowsky writes a personal blog as well as a majority of the important pages of Less Wrong, and is very active with discussion. He and his students are all very technology-focused and savvy. And the philosophy is a whole world away from the Metaphysics of Quality.

Yudkowsky is a Bayesian philosopher who prides himself on his rationality - one might say he has wholeheartedly abandoned the Dionysian "quality" in his pursuit of Apollonian "truth." Again, I'm not going to go too deep into it; read one of his blogs to get the start of the Less Wrong philosophies. A big part of his writings are known as the "Sequences," a series of analyses and essays that underlie the community - they total about a million words (i.e. a couple of books' worth) and are required before you can participate in discussion.

Here is one sample, though, of his writing. Just like Pirsig, it's engaging:

There is an instinctive tendency to think that if a physicist says "light is made of waves", and the teacher says "What is light made of?", and the student says "Waves!", the student has made a true statement. That's only fair, right? We accept "waves" as a correct answer from the physicist; wouldn't it be unfair to reject it from the student? Surely, the answer "Waves!" is either true or false, right?

Which is one more bad habit to unlearn from school. Words do not have intrinsic definitions. If I hear the syllables "bea-ver" and think of a large rodent, that is a fact about my own state of mind, not a fact about the syllables "bea-ver". The sequence of syllables "made of waves" (or "because of heat conduction") is not a hypothesis, it is a pattern of vibrations traveling through the air, or ink on paper. It can associate to a hypothesis in someone's mind, but it is not, of itself, right or wrong. But in school, the teacher hands you a gold star for saying "made of waves", which must be the correct answer because the teacher heard a physicist emit the same sound-vibrations. Since verbal behavior (spoken or written) is what gets the gold star, students begin to think that verbal behavior has a truth-value. After all, either light is made of waves, or it isn't, right?

Again, we see that the Less Wrong community has been largely bypassed by the philosophical mainstream, although in this case it perhaps has less to do with a lack of rigor than with an all-consuming focus on other aspects of knowledge. Yudkowsky works on artificial intelligence and much thought is expended on the future possibilities of a technological singularity, smart machines, and the like. He is similarly distant from academia as Pirsig, but more because his contributions to game theory and the like run in parallel, in the tight little Less Wrong group.

I really and truly don't know enough to tackle either the Metaphysics of Quality or Bayesian analysis in any serious way, and maybe I never will. And in some way, that is profoundly sad. Either of these ways of thinking might be a way to improve my life - or the world! I could have seen the next step in human thought in these modern-day Spinozas, and not have been able to see it.

There's a tragedy in that. I think I'll keep reading.

01 June 2011

"i carry your heart with me", by E.E. Cummings

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)