Archive for March, 2010

Good, Evil, and Trustworthiness

Posted in Useful Aphorisms on March, 2010 by melendwyr

A train of thought that I’ve been following for a while:

Kind, humane people are likely to do kind, humane things. But when trying to get their opinions or evaluations, they’re likely to lie or deceive to spare the feelings of others; they’ll avoid being hurtful, even if it means they have to stretch the truth to do it. So the nicer they are, the less the nice things they say can be trusted.

Cruel and hateful people, however, are likely to say cruel and hateful things even if they’re not true. But when they’re true, they’re probably going to savor the infliction of pain. So the mean things they say aren’t trustworthy. Their kind and humane statements are far more believable – begrudging, possibly dragged out under duress, and at the very least are compelled by circumstances.

So the behaviors that are most like the characteristic personality traits of the people we’re concerned about are the ones we should have the least confidence in, all things being equal.

Working on Stuff

Posted in Uncategorized on March, 2010 by melendwyr

I’ve been working on some essays for the site. Some of them require research and re-research that’s more difficult now that I don’t have easy access to a university-level library system, so… but I’ll see what can be done.

In Memoriam

Posted in Things You Should Read with tags , , , on March, 2010 by melendwyr

– “Perpetuum Mobile” by Simon Jeffes (19 February 1949 – 11 December 1997) and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra

Menwy noticed the rider carried at his saddle bow a golden harp, the fairest he had ever seen. He got to his feet and strode up to the horseman to admire the instrument more closely.
“Alas, friend, ” said Menwy, “I have no strings to match yours. Mine are of the common kind, but yours are spun of gold and silver. If it plays as nobly as it looks, you should be proud of it.”
“In my country,” said the rider, “this would be deemed the meanest of instruments. But since it seems to please you, so you shall have it. For the sake of a fair bargain, though, give me yours in exchange.”
“Now what a marvelous place the world is!” Menwy answered lightly. “Here’s a fellow who rides out of nowhere, and asks nothing better than to do me a favor. And would I be so ungrateful as to turn it down? Come, friend, before there’s any talk of trading this and that, let’s hear a tune from that handsome harp of yours.”
At this, the rider stiffened and raised a hand as if the bard had threatened him; but, recovering himself, he replied:
“Prove the instrument for yourself, harper. Take it in your hands, listen to its voice.”
Menwy shook his head. “No need, friend. For I can tell you now, even though yours sang like a nightingale, I’d rather keep my own. I know its ways, and it knows mine.”
The rider’s eyes flickered for an instant. Then he replied:
“Harper, your fame has spread even as far as my realm. Scorn my gift as you will. But come with me and I swear you shall serve a king more powerful than any in Prydain. His bard you shall be, and you shall have a seat of honor by his throne.”
“How could that be?” asked Menwy, smiling. “Already I serve a ruler greater than yours, for I serve my music.”
Now Menwy was a poet and used to seeing around the edge of things. Al this while, he had been watching the gray-cloaked horseman; and now as he looked closer, the rider and the golden harp seemed to change before his eyes. The frame of the instrument, which had appeared so fair, he saw to be wrought of dry bones, and the strings were serpents poised to strike.
Though Menwy was as brave as any man, the sight of the rider’s true face behind its mask of flesh froze the harper’s blood. Nevertheless, he did not turn away, nor did his glance waver as he replied:
“I see you for what you are, Lord of Death. And I fear you, as all men do. For all that, you are a weak and pitiful king. You can destroy, but never build. You are less than the humblest creature, the frailest blade of grass. For these live, and every moment of their lives is a triumph over you. Your kingdom is dust; only the silent ending of things, never the beginning.”
At that, Menwy took his harp and began to play a joyful melody. Hearing it, the horseman’s face tightened in rage; he drew his sword from its sheath and with all his might he struck at the bard.
But the blow missed its mark and instead struck the harp, shattering it to bits. Menwy, however, flung aside the pieces, threw back his head, and laughed in defiance, calling out:
“You fail, Death-Lord! You destroy the instrument, but not its music. With all your power you have gained only a broken shell.”
In that moment, when the harp had been silence, arose the songs of birds, the chiming of brooks, the humming of wind through grass in leaves; and all these voices took up the strands of melody, more beautiful than before.
And the Lord of Death fled in terror of life.

– Lloyd Alexander, “The Founding: And Other Tales of Prydain”, January 30 1924 – May 17 2007

In Honor of Our Glorious New Health System

Posted in Politics and Society on March, 2010 by melendwyr

The Outsiders

Posted in Things You Should Read with tags , on March, 2010 by melendwyr

It’s not clear just how exceptional William James Sidis actually was. For statistical reasons alone, the frequently-made claim that he had an IQ of 250 is nonsense, and the obvious interests that his family had in promoting recognition of his genius make the assertion even more dubious (if an invalid claim can be said to be rendered more invalid).

But he was extraordinary, there’s no question about that. The question is to what degree intellectually exceptional people match the stereotype of isolated, emotionally-stunted weirdos.

This essay should be read with care, and sifted with great delicacy. But it’s an interesting series of ideas worth considering.

Why Wouldn’t They Use the Roads?

Posted in Politics and Society on March, 2010 by melendwyr

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a big-L Libertarian. I don’t even really count as a little-l libertarian, although I’m fairly sympathetic to their views. So when discussions of topics related to those ideas come up, I tend to pay attention.

There is a recurring talking point related to libertarianism which I’ve seen repeatedly widely in many different contexts, and which has always confused me. It comes up when someone is attacking libertarians / fiscal conservatives / Objectivists / etc. “If they object to the government’s taking money and spending it to benefit society”, the argument runs, “why do they still use the roads, hmm? They don’t seem to have any problems with taking advantage of our system of highways.”

Now, the mere fact that the sort of people who make this argument are stupid and ignorant enough to conflate all those categories might be enough to account for any absurd features of any arguments they put forward. I’ll grant that. But let’s look closer at this particular argument, anyway.

Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of precisely why someone from those vaguely-defined categories might object to the state taking resources and using them for things. Why in the world would someone who opposed that refuse to use roads? They’ve already paid for their construction and maintenance – not by choice, but by compulsion – so why should they deny themselves the utility of the transportation network?

I mean, what do the arguers believe fiscal conservatives would be proving to anyone? Even as a purely symbolic act, how would not driving on roads score ‘points’? And with whom?

Fragile Things

Posted in Reviews with tags on March, 2010 by melendwyr

Despite the category tag, this post isn’t going to be a review of Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things. I DO recommend that you read it, though – it’s a wonderful collection of thoughtful and creative short fiction, and the poetry is the cherry atop the cake.

But, after many years of reading and re-reading Gaiman’s works, I think I’ve finally figured out what I don’t like about it. His writing is evocative, touching, technically brilliant, and highly memorable. So what’s wrong?

It’s all humans, all the time. Which is to say, Gaiman’s writing always has a universe which operates according to the principles of the human mind. All of the characters are anthropomorphic in their personalities (if not necessarily their forms), and their problems are human ones, despite their mind-numbing power. Even conditions such as being condemned to Hell are ultimately the choices of the humans involved – it’s the need for punishment that keeps the damned where they are, and if released they just create Hells around themselves wherever they end up.

Even Life and Death are a matter of personal choice, it’s hinted. Death of the Endless drops clues only very subtly, but there are some indication that in the Gaimanverse everyone chooses where they end up within the universe, so that not only are things like the Afterlife a matter of personal belief, but the Predeath is as well.

The problem is that this makes Gaiman’s entire fantasy multiverse nothing but a prison of inward-facing mirrors. There’s nothing fresh and unexpected that can be learned from, no break from the monotony of humanocentric existence, nothing beyond the familiar pattern of the self.

I cannot think of anything more depressing than an entire cosmos that worked on the principles of human prerational thought.