Saturday, July 31, 2010

Dark World: Trial and Terror

(The story begins here.)
(The last recap is here.)

“The attacker was already in the room when Clio entered,” Darren began. “How that happened, I’m not certain—though I do have a suspicion that I’m sure has occurred to the doctor as well.” His friend’s expression remained noncommittal, and he continued, “The goal was not murder but theft, and when Clio interrupted the thief, he first tried to escape.” Darren opened the shutters. “He quickly saw that the shutters were too slow to let him to escape, so he turned to attack. Even then, I suspect his primary goal was to frighten her off or fend her off until he could escape. It wasn’t until he managed to strike her hard enough to stun her that he lost his temper: she could no longer fight, but she still kept him from what he wished to steal, and she probably tried to hamper his escape. She was prone on the floor, and he seized her from behind and began to choke her, lifting her to a standing position in the process. That’s when she made a final effort and freed herself, removing him from the area in the process.”

“But how?” Officer Hancock demanded. “You already said she couldn’t fight.”

“Not in the usual way, no. But I know her, and I’ve seen her fight. Even Rosa doesn’t know about her fighting style, because Rosa would rather not look.”

Miss FitzHugh rose somewhat shakily to her feet. Dr. Fleming steadied her, but she soon gently removed his hand and stepped over to the policeman. “Desperation can give unusual strength and stamina,” she said. “When he pulled me to my feet, I jabbed my elbow back as hard as I could, then reached back over my shoulder and grabbed him. I bent and pulled and flipped him out the window. Then I hit the switch to close the shutters, and I guess I collapsed.”

“Ridiculous!” Officer Hancock nearly shouted. “A mere slip of a girl, and wounded at that!”

A fiendish gleam shone in Dr. Fleming’s eyes. “I think this calls for experimental verification, Miss FitzHugh.”

She drew herself erect and beckoned to the policeman. “Would you like to try your luck, Officer? You can’t be afraid of a mere slip of a girl, especially a wounded one.”

“I wouldn’t want to harm you…”

“Nonsense,” Dr. Fleming replied. “I am a doctor, and I’ll make sure no harm comes to her.”

Officer Hancock did not seem quite reassured, but he took up his position behind the young woman regardless.

“Let’s not use the window this time,” the doctor suggested. “Into the hall should be sufficient.”

“If she threw him out the window, he would have been killed,” Officer Hancock objected. “The body should still be there.”

“Not if he had an accomplice,” Darren said. “Besides, it’s not that hard to survive such a drop with only minor injuries. She said he was agile, and I could do it, so I think he could too.”

“I’d like to experiment on that,” the officered muttered.

“You’re anticipating her move,” Darren said. “Her attacker didn’t know what she would do.”

“Well, I can’t—” Officer Hancock began.

Dr. Fleming pointed toward the window. “Lassiter!”

The policeman turned his head and emitted a noise that combined a grunt and a wail as he sailed into the hall.

Next: Comparing Notes

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Dark World: Missing, Presumed Fled

(The story begins here.)
(The last recap is here.)

Darren was somehow surprised that the head cop wasn’t Irish. It was a waste of a perfectly good stereotype. But if he wasn’t Irish, he was peevish, which was worse. Only Miss FitzHugh’s struggle for consciousness distracted him from a perfectly clear-cut case of false arrest.

“So, Mr. Christopher, you say you’re a friend of the family,” Officer Hancock said for no discernible reason.

“Yes, and Rosa says so too. So will Clio, once she comes around.”

“Ah, yes—‘Cleo.’ Short for ‘Cleopatra,’ I assume.”

“Actually, it’s short for ‘Clio,’ the Muse of History.”

“A pity she’s not a muse of silence,” Dr. Fleming muttered. “We could use some of that around here.”

“We have summoned the family physician; he can have a look at her, though we should probably hospitalize her in any case.”

“A waste of time. She’s only been struck hard on the head and throttled. From what I’ve seen of her, that shouldn’t be more than an inconvenience. Of course, some people could withstand the blow easily enough, but she has more brains than that.” Dr. Fleming gave Officer Hancock a significant glance. “Anyway, despite the ambient prattling, she does seem to be recognizing faces, though mine won’t be very familiar, and yours will no doubt be an unpleasant surprise.”

“Quite true,” Miss FitzHugh moaned. “Who are you two?”

Officer Hancock jumped in. “I am Officer Hancock. You were attacked in this room; do you recognize any of these people as your attacker?”

“No. He was short and stocky, but very agile. He…” Her voice trailed off as a new thought seized her attention. She glanced at Darren, who read the question in her eyes and glanced at Rosa. Understanding dawned, and Miss FitzHugh nearly burst into laughter: no one would be likely to search the spinster-in-training for the papers.

“There was another man here,” Officer Hancock resumed, “a Mr. Lassiter. Could he have attacked you?”

“Lassiter was outside with us, Officer,” Dr. Fleming said as his patient gave way to confusion. “Rosa can corroborate that. So can you, once you find Lassiter: he’s not exactly short and stocky.”

“We’ll find him.” It was as much a threat as a promise. “The very fact that he ran away tells me he’s guilty of something.”

Darren walked over to the window and worked some kind of control. The steel shutters began to open, and Miss FitzHugh gasped at the sight. “It brings back memories, doesn’t it?” Darren asked. He stuck his head out for a look. “No one around—except for the police, that is. Where did Lassiter get off to?”

Officer Hancock had a look out the window as well. Then Darren closed the shutters—a much faster operation than opening them. He smiled at his old friend. “Now you remember what happened—how you did it.”

Miss FitzHugh smiled back and nodded.

Next: Trial and Terror

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dark World: A Slight Detour

(The story begins here.)
(The last recap is here.)

The gun was not simply floating in midair. It was held by a hand attached to a wrist, arm, and so forth in a conventional manner. Out of this assemblage, it was the face that Darren found familiar.

“Rosa, put that gun away before you hurt someone.”

The face almost smiled. “That is why I—” The eyes widened. “Darren?”

“Yes, Darren: the Darren who saved your life seven times—eight, counting the snakes, though Clio would have saved you herself in another second or two. This is Doctor Victor Fleming, a friend who is tending to Clio at the moment. Where have you been all this time?”

“Miss FitzHugh told me to let her deal with the visitors by herself, so I stayed back. When I heard her screams, I went for a gun and—oh, I did call the police briefly.”

“We would have had plenty of time to murder the young lady and leave by the time you got here,” Dr. Fleming observed.

“Rosa isn’t the impulsive type,” Darren replied, “except when it comes to pointing guns. I’ve lost track of how many times she’s been told not to touch them.”

Rosa scowled and handed Darren the weapon. The expression suited her: one hears of rooms furnished in Spartan style, and Rosa apparently had the same decorator. She was designed for efficiency, not aesthetics or comfort, and her drab costume likely made her look older than she was.

“To return to what happened here,” Dr. Fleming continued, “presumably your friend walked in and found the room occupied: she screamed almost immediately after the door closed. A struggle ensued, and she was struck in the head—that’s why her last scream broke off so suddenly. Such a blow would have incapacitated a normal woman—a lot of men, for that matter—but she was evidently still standing and trying to resist, however feebly. Her attacker decided to strangle her from behind—”

“Why not start with strangling?” Darren asked.

“Her screams were too strong for that, initially. No, these marks were made at the end of the struggle.”

“True, and that first scream was angry, not frightened: he didn’t catch her from behind.”

“Correct. What happened next, I can’t imagine.”

“I can,” Darren said pensively, “but I’m not sure it’s possible. The shutters open much more slowly than they close, so any exit through the window would have required more time than…” He paused. “Unless it was done in separate stages; I hadn’t thought of that. Was she incapacitated by the blow?”

“She probably didn’t do much fighting afterward, though I suppose she might have already injured him as well. Was she much of a fighter?”

“Not in the usual sense—she was no boxer. But she could do well enough in other ways, given the chance.”

Just then a racket from below announced the arrival of the police, and a groan from nearby announced the returning consciousness of the victim.

Next: Missing, Presumed Fled

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dark World: Again with the Locked Room!

(The story begins here.)
(The last recap is here.)

Dr. Fleming was at Darren’s side immediately. “I may be able to force this thing; I brought tools that could open a bank vault.”

“There’s an easier way, I think,” Darren replied, beginning to work the dial. “He usually picked a word that meant ‘door’ or ‘enter.’ As she said, though, the trick is knowing which language to use. There were five letters; I counted the clicks when she selected a letter. Thank God she didn't talk as she dialed; I prayed—”

Another scream came, along with a guttural cry of “Mati!”

“Is there another way in?” Dr. Fleming asked.

“Rear window with steel shutters—closed—that open only from inside.”

“Lassiter! Go around back; it should be easy to find.”

Lassiter left at a run, and Dr. Fleming muttered, “Explosives, Darren…”

Sounds of a struggle lead to another scream, cut short this time, and a cry of “Mi mati yu!” An inarticulate noise followed, just as Darren began working furiously at the dial again.

Pintu! Door! It must be!”

The next moment he and Dr. Fleming flung the door open, to find their hostess crumpled on the floor near the window. Dr. Fleming was beside her the next instant, and he soon announced that she bore several bruises and a troubling head wound.

Darren, meanwhile, swiftly inspected the area. He paused and glanced at Dr. Fleming. “Attempted murder in a locked, effectively windowless room. I suppose you’ll say this is the work of robots.”

Dr. Fleming thought very briefly and replied, “No, I don’t see anything here that looks like a homicidal automaton.”

“Excellent. Then this is a job for demonology.”

Dr. Fleming scowled. “You don’t really mean that, do you?”

“I don’t sense demonic activity here, no. But I would like to know where the assailant went. The shutters only work from inside, so he couldn’t have left that way and closed them. And given his expressed intention to kill Clio, why didn’t he do so? She clearly wasn’t dead when we entered, but it wouldn’t have taken more than a moment to finish the job.”

“Besides, she has the notes on her,” Dr. Fleming observed, producing the papers. “Her would-be killer accomplished little. In fact, she will probably regain consciousness soon. She doesn’t seem the delicate type.”

“Clio? No, she’s quite sturdy. In fact, I have a theory about what happened here. What do you think was the sequence of events?”

“I would like to know that too,” said a rough yet vaguely feminine voice that seemed to emanate from a pistol in the doorway.

Next: A Slight Detour

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Dark World: The Name of the Game

(The story begins here.)
(The last recap is here.)

“I think I’ll bow to national custom and ask this in English,” Darren announced. “What sort of polyglot stew were you using just now? Is it one of your father’s games?”

The woman’s face darkened. “No. No game. Nothing about Father is a game now.”

“What’s wrong? Is he…?”

“I don’t know. He disappeared day before yesterday—perhaps even further back. He went on what was supposed to be a brief expedition late last week, and he never came back.”

“Then why the silly language game?”

“It’s not a game. It’s a clue—about the only one I have. Father encountered a strange pidgin and began documenting it as best he could. He dubbed it ‘Neo Patwa,’ which just means ‘New Language’ in the pidgin itself.”

“A pidgin? That’s why I’m here too—but what I’ve encountered is more coherent in its sources: it’s like Provençal with some French, English, German, and Spanish thrown in. That mongrel of yours… Let’s see: ‘canti’ and ‘satya’ are Hindustani, ‘lai’ is Chinese, ‘mintan’and ‘pintu’ are Indonesian, ‘ya’ German, and ‘open’ and ‘yu’ English. At least in my case, the language derives from sources in the same area and family.”

“But this new pidgin isn’t impossible, just unusual. Father thought it might have originated in the Indian Ocean somewhere—at least until he began finding what appeared to be African roots as well. He left a copy of a crude lexicon and some grammar notes. He was going out to find out more when he vanished.”

“Where was he?”

“Somewhere a little to the south. It’s a pity you weren’t here: he didn’t want me along, but he might have taken you. There are some foreign workers—at least two distinct groups, he thought, possibly three—involved in projects south of here. He didn’t know what the projects were or who was behind them, and he didn’t care. He just wanted to find out about the languages.”

“Do you have his notes?”

“Yes—they’re upstairs in his study.” Her gaze went from casual to piercing. “Are you just curious?”

“Of course not. We’ll find him.”

She smiled victoriously and turned toward a grand staircase heading upward.

“I’d better go with you,” Darren added. “You realize you’re in danger, don’t you?”

“I know that I am being watched; I am sure you feel it too. You always were sensitive that way.”

“Well, then—”

“No. I can take care of myself, and Father’s sanctum shall remain undisturbed.”

She did not object to the group’s following her up the stairs, however, and only insisted that they stop before what looked like the door to a vault.

“The password has been changed, Darren. Otherwise it’s the same as you remember: a combination lock with letters instead of numbers—Father hates numbers.”

“Numbers would be more secure,” Dr. Fleming muttered. “Words have patterns that may be guessed.”

“If you can guess the language, perhaps. Now turn around like gentlemen while I open the door.”

They did so, and Darren made a brief, silent prayer that was immediately answered. Then the door opened, and he caught a glimpse of the study beyond and the massive steel shutters at the far end of the room. With a cheerful wave, the woman entered and shut the door.

Darren had scarcely reached the door when he heard her scream.

Next: Again with the Locked Room!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Dark World: Friend or Foe?

Owing to an ISP crash, I'm posting almost a day late and back-dating. Sorry. As usual, mousing over a foreign word or phrase will provide a gloss.

(The story begins here.)
(The last recap is here.)

Darren relieved Lassiter at the wheel and brought the company to the grounds of a small mansion outside Boston. The house was not enormous—it was a three-story building (effectively two where it was built partly into a hill) with probably no more than thirty rooms. Still it sat solid as a castle, and the grounds sloped gently down to the common earth around it, including the road where Darren parked.

“We don’t drive inside?” Dr. Fleming inquired from the back as he changed to a seated position and grabbed his pack.

“There’s the little matter of the front gate,” Darren replied. “I’m sure the car could push through it, but we would likely make a better impression by opening it. Besides, we aren’t here as guests—at least not yet—so I see no reason to turn up at the front door like an expedition. I’ll go first; you and Lassiter can follow.”

“That may be a good idea if our bad luck continues and they start shooting,” Lassiter muttered.

Darren smiled. “Nothing to worry about; the professor hasn’t used a blowgun on anyone in ages, and I’m sure his daughter Clio no longer carries her bow and quiver around.”

The other two glanced at him as if to determine how serious he was, but he turned serenely and walked to the gate. It was locked, but he reached through and did something to release it. Then he sauntered through, followed by the others, and Dr. Fletcher pushed it back in place with a click.

The driveway led almost directly to the front door, though it bent slightly with the curvature of the ground. Darren walked up the steps to the door and knocked with a confidence he hoped was believable.

The door opened, revealing a young woman almost Darren’s height, with a strong, plain face completely eclipsed by beautiful, lively eyes. “Darren! Canti!” Her smile flared and faded. “Satya, yu canti lai, ya?

Darren was clearly nonplussed, and Dr. Fleming fumed. “Excellent—gibberish again. I’m beginning to believe in curses.”

Darren scowled and guessed. “Satya.”

The woman smiled—almost laughed—and beckoned as she opened the door wide and said, “Pintu open. Mintan lai.

Darren bowed slightly and entered, followed by his friends.

Next: The Name of the Game

Friday, July 23, 2010

Dark World: Good Morning, Beantown

(The story begins here.)
(The last recap is here.)

They drove in silence for a few minutes before Lassiter succumbed to curiosity. “What is the linguistic angle?”

Darren roused himself from deep thought or shallow sleep. “The languages we keep running into. We’ve encountered at least two, perhaps three, though I’m not sure whether the dark woman and the priest are really speaking different languages or just dialects of the same language. Whatever Newman used was certainly different.”

“But he wasn’t from another world—he’s one of us, not someone who appears and disappears.”

“True, but he evidently thought it was the other world opening up, and he expected his language to be understood there.”

Lassiter considered this briefly. “Okay, so what do the languages tell us?”

“They tell me, at least, that we keep running into things like ‘yo es,’ which is like saying ‘I is.’ And these aren’t ignorant peasants, so I think it must be a proper part of the language. That suggests a pidgin or creole. That would also help explain the Germanic words in an otherwise Romance vocabulary. The man we’re going to visit is an authority on such languages; I met him while learning Beach-la-Mar, among other things, and I tagged along with him after that.”

“If you’re such great friends, why were you so far from Boston? New York isn’t Massachusetts.”

“There was a bit of a disagreement not so long ago—nothing to do with Dr. FitzHugh himself, but still… It seemed better to go away for a while, and I felt a call that brought me to a mob that was trying to kill Victor. I have since come to appreciate the temptation, but—”

“So we’re headed into another private war,” Dr. Fleming muttered.

“Nothing so dramatic,” Darren replied. “All going well, I can arrange an interview with the doctor, and we can gain some useful information and perhaps even some help.”

“I think I’ll provide some help of my own,” Dr. Fleming said, pulling over. “Lassiter, take the wheel. Darren, sit next to him and be prepared to take over. I’ll stretch out in the back after I make some preparations.”

Darren glanced back as the doctor opened the trunk of the car and began stuffing things into a pack. He received no explanation, however, and soon the doctor rejoined them and stretched out—or as near it as his length allowed—in the back. He was asleep almost immediately, and Darren tried not to worry too much as Lassiter proceeded into the gathering darkness.

Yet to his great surprise, hour followed hour uneventfully, and as the sun rose, he could see Boston before him.

Next: Friend or Foe?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Return to Dark World

It's been a while, and since I do write ahead, I'd forgotten where I left the story here on the blog. And I've been thinking about posting synopses at the beginning or end of each major story arc. So:

The story thus far...

Henry Lassiter has sought help for his lycanthropy, turning to Dr. Victor Fleming, a typical 1930s jack-of-all-sciences-master-of-all. The interview gets too intense, and Darren Christopher, a globetrotting missionary kid, does an exorcism that appears to diminish the problem somewhat.

Lassiter contracted his condition while surveying in Europe, where he found himself unexpectedly exposed to another world or reality, complete with fierce creatures called "li lupes de asel." A group allied with the Nazis tried to harness his lycanthropy for its own ends and got massacred.

On returning to the US, Lassiter claims to have been hunted. Dr. Fleming takes him to a colleague named Dvorak, but they have an odd experience with a strange, bulletproof woman and even more wolves. Soon after, Darren encounters a priest who explains a little of what is going on: an impingement of a dark world with our own.

The visit to Dvorak is inconclusive: he is nearly killed by an unknown mastermind, and Dr. Fleming decides to try another colleague, Dr. Adam Newman of the Better Angel Foundation.

Dr. Newman isn't any help either; Lassiter thinks he's connected with the German group that kidnapped him earlier. Darren apparently triggers yet another connection between worlds, though this time of a more positive nature, perhaps, and he and his friends escape.

Dr. Fleming is out of ideas, and Darren suggests visiting an old friend in Boston to check on the peculiar languages they keep running into.

Next: Good Morning, Beantown

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Free speech and the flag

I recently watched a discussion of free speech vs flag etiquette. It's nice to see that the barbarians and pseudo-intellectuals can be civil so long as they're confirming each other's views.

The point at issue was whether it's okay to deface the US flag in the course of expressing one's views--the specific (and fictional) case involved burning "Why I love America" into the flag. The idea was that it's possible to do that in America without unpleasant consequences; we stand behind free speech perhaps more than any other country than I can think of, and that's generally a good thing.

But I still don't think that the particular instance of free speech was good or justifiable.

The problem is that such acts are fundamentally selfish--and worse, they confuse vandalism with Art. I doubt I'd get much support if I vandalized an artwork by burning a personal message onto it: there, the selfishness and vandalism would be too obvious.

What's wrong with messing up the flag, then?

Fundamentally, it isn't my unique property. It can be argued that if you own something, you can trash it. That's debatable, but I doubt anyone would claim it's okay to trash something you do not own uniquely.

Now, certain things are iconic: they are in the public domain, the common property of all, the unique property of none. They're like national parks: in a sense we all own them, but we own them collectively. I have no unique claim on Yellowstone. Because I lack such a claim, I have no right to vandalize the place. In fact, I would be committing a crime against the other "owners" of the park.

The same is true of the flag. I have a stake in it, but while I may own an instance of the flag, I don't own the flag proper: the archetype of which my physical flag is an ectype. So long as it is merely another object, my ownership is perhaps sufficient excuse for anything I do to it. But if my action is meaningful only with reference to the object's extended, iconic meaning, it's like vandalizing public property.

Again, there are limits on free speech--famously, the rule against yelling "Fire!" in a crowded building. Vandalism is similar: to destroy something you don't uniquely own--in particular, something I too have a stake in--mostly tells me that you're a selfish jerk.

Yet such selfishness is common these days. Any decent person will be troubled at least by the obvious desecration of a holy symbol, as putting a crucifix in urine. Yet when selfish jerks vandalize the Ichthys by putting legs on it and invoking "Darwin," the response of some believers, at least, is to answer desecration with desecration: they take it upon themselves to modify the symbol too, though in an attempt to defend it. Their reaction isn't as offensive, but it does demonstrate ignorance of the symbol's nature: it isn't the sort of thing that should be changed like this. (Variation is another matter: the plain Ichthys without letters, the one with the Greek acronym, and the one with the inscription "Jesus" are all faithful to the original concept.)

We are a generation of iconoclasts, too busy demonstrating our cleverness by destroying symbols and icons to realize how we cheapen the world for everyone. Anyone can tear something down and call the wreckage "Art" or "Free Speech"; it's much harder to create a new icon. It's too much work, in fact, and that's why we would rather call vandalism Art than strive for the real thing.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Flood Tide: a Free Book review

Flood Tide by Sara Ware Bassett (audiobook here) is the story of an elderly, eccentric tinkerer (Willie Spence) who tinkers with more than just gadgets. He's fix-it man to a small New England town almost a century ago, and he keeps getting "ketched by an idee" for some new contraption. But he also tries to fix some romances along the way, and they work out pretty well.

There are some things that are never spelled out--where does Willie's income come in? He's far from rich, but he has enough to get by on--he and live-in housekeeper Celestina Morton. Contributions from people he's helped out? Perhaps.

Willie's Panglossian faith in the basic goodness of people seems contradicted by the behavior of a former friend turned rapid viper, but Willie remains relatively serene. You'd think a tinkerer would realize the value of an adjustment, such as whacking the jerk with a wrench upside the head. "Straighten up, y' kooky ol' coot!" But that would detract from the generic inspirational preachment at the end.

Theologically, this is a bit on the brainless fluff side: though there are specifically Christian references, there are also references to "the gods"; there is also the contradictory optimism about human nature in the midst of People Behaving Badly. Still, if you don't take the theological implications seriously (while guarding against the humanistic worldview involved), there are some good messages here, especially where romantic relationships are concerned. Though this is ideologically motivated, the ideology doesn't really drive the story.

The characters are the primary elements here, and in their case, there is no ambiguity. They're the sort you want to follow around and watch, which is the joy of the story.

As the story opens, Willie has just had an idee for keeping propellers from getting caught in the eel grass when Celestina's nephew Robert Morton, who happens to have a naval engineering background, shows up for a visit. He takes an interest in the project and in a local girl, when some rich friends turn up and complicate matters.

An auspicious opening! Let's check the vital components list:

Obnoxious, shallow rich girl? Check!
Wise (grand)motherly mentor figure? Check!
Dark family secret revealed to flabbergastification of all and sundry? Check!
Quirky will and (in)convenient demise? Check!
Strange goin's-on, conspiracy-wise? Check!

Looks like we're good to go!

For all its twists, Flood Tide is a fairly laid-back story: no nightmare potential, no real real chance of elevating your blood pressure, just an entertaining and sometimes inspiring read.

Flood Tide:


Friday, July 16, 2010

Illogical, Doctor...

A recent thread on a certain list gave me a Star Trek flashback--specifically to the countless times Spock would make some remark about logic (or its lack) that actually appealed to common sense. For as a rule, Spock's "logic" wasn't logician's logic but simply "what seems sensible to me based on assumptions I'm not about to publicize."


Anyway, this sort of logic is alive and well, especially in politics. In this case the topic was initially Polish radio, but it wandered:

Interesa demando....mi ankaŭ scivolis pri la logiko, sed verŝajne logiko ne ĉiam dominas. Vidu: en Usono ni ankoraŭ ne akceptis la metran sistemon, kaj multaj homoj dubas pri la fakto de evolucio.

Interesting question....I also was curious about the logic, but probably logic doesn't always win out. Look, in the US we still didn't accept [should be "ne akceptAs"--don't accept] the metric system, and many people doubt the fact of evolution.

This is sensibility as perceived by the speaker, not logic as such. As Devil's Advocate I could observe that

1a. The sole advantages of the metric system are that it's decimal and interlocked. Earlier measurement systems arose separately as needed, and they did so before we decided to focus on one numerical base. Even the metric system allows for non-metric time, for that matter: a metric minute doesn't have 100 seconds.

1b. The metric system is based largely on abstractions (e.g., the size of the earth) that are outside common experience, whereas the quantities found in earlier systems were everyday matters, such as the length of the average stride or the distance from elbow to fingertip. It's good to standardize measures, but perhaps at a gut level, resistance to metric comes from the impression that it's unnatural in its bases.

2a. "Evolution" is such an ambiguous word I wish it would be abolished. Stellar and planetary evolution are similar, but they have practically nothing in common with biological evolution. Different terms should be used.

2b. Even granting that we're talking about biological evolution--I suppose we are; it's the one most likely to excite this kind of short-sighted snobbery--there is the difference between evolution as science and evolution as history. To say that something is scientifically possible is not to say that it has in fact occurred in a given case. Is evolution scientifically possible? I don't know; it's outside my field. I do see potential problems, but the question is far more complex (given the number of scientific fields that must be not just consulted but mastered at expert level) than most people realize, whether they be for or against the idea. A paleontologist likely knows too little about genetics, ecology, physiology, and several other topics than he needs to know before pontificating. That's why I'm skeptical. The degree of knowledge required to construct a unified field theory of physics would be trivial by comparison: at least the numerous topics involved would be more closely related.

2c. Even granting that biological evolution can occur, the question remains whether it did occur in our case. And the strongest rational claim that could be made (again assuming that biological evolution is possible) would be that evolution appeared to fit the available data. And that gets into metaphysical and theological issues. Do we trust appearances? Do we rule out divine intervention? (Intelligent Design, as previously noted, is not actually opposed to evolution and does not require miracles.) Nor are we faced with an absolute either/or: What if everything was created specially but evolution has operated since then?

The moral of the story is that humility is a good thing. It's good to admit that we don't know it all, and it's valuable to realize that people we disagree with are not therefore idiots. They may show themselves idiots in other ways, but offending our sense of "logic"--of what is sensible according to our metaphysical prejudices--is not enough.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Blindfolded: a Free Book review

I did not think I'd like Earle Ashley Walcott's Blindfolded when it showed up on LibriVox. The description sounds a bit like an early version of Little Miss Marker. But it was one of Roger Melin's contributions, so I tried it anyway.

To begin with, I'll add to Melin's description. The kid doesn't tag along in typical adorable waif style. That's a relief, anyway. And our hero, Giles Dudley, is soon treated to a box seat at a murder. As a special added extra, he gets a good look at the murderer's face. He turns to the police and gets nowhere: they aren't about to go after the guy he saw.

So he vows vengeance, only to find himself swept up in someone else's scheme under another identity--one he can neither maintain perfectly nor dispose of without danger. Who is behind the scheme? What is it about? Why does the owner of the face he saw at the murder apparently want him to act as his confidential agent in stock manipulations? Who can he trust? We're all in the dark with him.

The plot twists sound as though they should be frustrating, especially when he picks up a romantic interest he cannot pursue and various people realize he isn't who he's supposed to be. But this is a well-plotted and paced story, and the maze does eventually resolve.

I like the story. It's not specifically Christian, though it is generally moral and ethical (moreso than some modern Christian fiction). There's an unexpected scene near the end that is very effective and scary--a kind of reverse deathbed conversion--that points in a Christian direction. And against the prejudices of its day, there's a pointed exposition of the fact that Asians do not all look alike--it's part of an overarching theme very important to the story, but that point aside, it's quite well done and a good counterpoint to a prejudice that still lingers to this day in some quarters.

I should mention that there is a fair amount of violence. It isn't particularly graphic or gory, but it is plentiful. There's a lot of action in general and suspense, too.

The scenes of stock market operations in the late 1800s are informative--you can trace the development of modern practices without much trouble. Also, the depiction of China Town in that era, though brief, is fairly well done.

All in all, it's worth a look, and Melin's audio version makes the text proper even more accessible for busy people.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Why'd it have to be snakes?

Trivia note: I've finally decided to learn Python for text-handling purposes. It was that or Perl, which is more of a slob's language (and thus better suited to me, probably), but I'm still going to try Python, courtesy in part of Text Processing in Python, available here.

The point is to automate some linguistic tasks, including translation and reverse-engineering lexicons. I usually just put together a quick, single-use program for a given purpose, but I'm thinking about producing some long, flexible, multiple-use programs, so I might as well get serious.

It's the indentation that gets me. Granted, it's more obvious than spotting a } lurking somewhere in the code, but it means that the Python Zen soundbite "Flat is better than nested" merely justifies a necessity: Python probably can't handle much nesting without the indentation getting out of hand. That may be a bad thing: Life nests a lot, which means God doesn't use Python. I sometimes think he's more the Perl type too. This would be a very different world without nesting, and in any case, no matter what the Pythons claim, the world is not flat.

But I guess that's why you job everything out to modules.

Anyway, I'll see what it's like in practice. I may try writing a concordance program (it would output where a given word occurred in a group of text files and incidentally list their complete vocabulary); that should be a good opener. Or perhaps a parser--I'll need one of those anyway.

I'll report back on how it's going. Just remember that any incoherent complaints about snakes won't be delirium tremens.

Melin the Machine

This is a different kind of post. I'm about to review a couple books that I doubt I would ever have read in the conventional way but which I consider well worth reading. The only reason I bothered with them was that they showed up on LibriVox and were read by Roger Melin.

It's difficult to do justice to Melin as a reader. Simply put, he is consistently professional. LibriVox readers are volunteers (= amateurs), and many of them sound like it. But there are some who are reliably professional, and Melin is one of them. When I see a new title from him, I'm more likely to check it out, simply because I know I won't have to put up with reader problems. I may not like the story; that's always possible. But in using LibriVox, there have been cases where I liked a story but could not recommend the audiobook; Melin's work is never in that class.

His genre is hard to define. He tends toward adventure stories, often with a romantic angle, but the recent Flood Tide, which I'll review soon, doesn't fit that classification.

Another quirk of Melin's seems like a negative but actually works: he's not a voice actor. Some readers are very good at doing different voices, dialects, and such. (Other fail painfully.) Melin doesn't appear to bother with that, but his reading is not expressionless. In fact, I've had the odd effect of remembering something he's read as though he had acted it: perhaps my own imagination fills in the gap. However one might explain it, it works quite well. (This is especially tricky where voicing the opposite sex is concerned: generally women voice men better than men voice women, though the failures are especially painful. Melin's technique is immune to the problem.)

Melin has, apparently, a list of more than 150 titles he hopes to read out, and he's so productive he may succeed. This is why I call him "the Machine": he churns out an impressive body of work with mechanical regularity and accuracy, but with very non-mechanical quality. He's worth listening to, and while I don't always agree with his taste in texts, he has put me onto some books and writers I might never have discovered otherwise.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Glengarry School Days: a free book review

Glengarry School Days was written by Ralph Connor in 1902. It's available both as an e-book and an audiobook.

The story is difficult to explain. There is no one main character, though there are only a few major characters, and the baton passes from one to another a few times. Yet I never felt lost in the story.

Simply put, however, it's about some kids at a rural school in Ontario in the mid-nineteenth century and how they interact and mature. The schoolmasters also figure prominently for good or ill.

It is a Christian story in the best possible sense: unlike much modern Christian fiction I've encountered, it is neither preachy nor worldly. It will inspire you to be better, to follow God more closely. It models the change that a few truly righteous people can make. We need more books like this, and I doubt we have the guts or skill to write them.

I will also recommend the audiobook in particular. I usually recommend a text, and I may find the reader(s) of the audio version tolerable. But Bruce Pirie is the perfect reader for this classic text, and the even better news is that he is now preparing another Ralph Conner story, The Man from Glengarry.

Even if this isn't your preferred genre--it surely isn't mine--this is worth reading, or better yet listening to.

Glengarry School Days:

I've been a Bad Boy...

I haven't given up on the blog; it's just that I tend to have other things to do. However, I have an amazing backlog of books to review, and I need to get back to Dark World. Believe it or not, I actually have that written out a few chapters ahead of where I ended it, and it's plotted out to the end of that specific arc and a bit beyond. I think hereafter, I'll write up the complete arc before posting here.

Anyway, I'll do a few reviews here before heading back to the story. I'll also be doing a parody series soon that will probably get me in trouble with somebody.

On with the show!
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