Sunday, 28 September 2008

Review - The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose: on one level an accomplished murder mystery with a Sherlock Holmes-esque protagonist solving the crime, on another level an allegory of the search for meaning. In the latter sense it would be depressing since the search for any kind of meaning is continually foiled by the pervasive doubt that every event is inescapably random. Order vs. chaos. Faith vs. reason. Religion vs. science. Ultimately “the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.”

The author, Umberto Eco, is a medieval scholar and philosopher who has a gift for bringing those careers to bear in his writing. Both in this novel and The Island of the Day Before, Eco succeeds in crafting characters and events that read as perfect representations of people at the time (14th and 17th Century respectively). The characters never behave anachronistically; they act, react, and interact in manners befitting of their time. Necessarily this is an interpretation of how people behaved in the Middle Ages nevertheless it feels real. Eco also blesses the story with a full and entertaining explanation of context. When William and the narrator arrive at the abbey the Roman Catholic Church is in disorder: Pope John XXII and the Emperor are at odds, sects deemed heretical are popping up all over Christendom, and inquisitors roam Europe denouncing blasphemers and witches. The issues are explained through the course of the narrative – dumbed-down to some extent I’m sure, but never condescending. That context, combined with the introduction and several non-fictional ‘characters’, makes it hard to tell where history ends and fiction begins.

As a master of semiotics, Eco has made the book work in such a way whereby the reader infuses whatever they desire into the narrative. The subtext is present but open and there is surely a lot that can be gleaned from the novel’s pages. Like the novel's title, the whole thing is purposefully generic such that any meaning can be imposed. This is only fitting because on yet another level the novel is a postmodern piece about the interpretation of novels. The Name of the Rose can be, depending on the reader, an entertaining murder mystery, an account of 14th Century abbey life, a character piece about a young monk struggling to reconcile God with everyday existence, a description of the failings of the Roman Catholic Church, or, as I mostly read it, a thesis on the conflict between philosophy and religion. Throughout the novel reason is shown to have such beneficial effects and yet William of Baskerville consistently comes up against the superstitions, prejudices, and unfounded conclusions of the abbey’s monks. By the end it is clear that the conflict between philosophy and religious doctrine is the driving force of the narrative. This is not to say that logic is the hero throughout: the idea of whether reason is even useful hinges upon the novel’s major allegory of whether the universe is divinely ordered or purely chaotic.

The Name of the Rose is a beautiful book: a gifted allegory, a ripping yarn, and a fine example of what a novel can be. It represents a rare achievement; an intellectual satisfaction that is still a gripping page-turner. The spirit of its moral is disarmingly true; that the search for meaning, in its inherent futility, needs to be laughed at. It reminds us that often comedy is truer than serious tragedy, that we need to take life light-heartedly, that we need to laugh, and that philosophy needs to be done in the manner of Diogenes and, the master, Socrates – with a smile, a wink, and a relevance to the everyday.

Monday, 22 September 2008

"In the midst of the Great Bipolar Disorder."

Laissez-faire is French for ‘allow to do’. Laissez-faire capitalism is therefore allowing near-complete economic freedom and having a free market, one which is left largely untouched by government forces or the state. Apparently the American government understands this as ‘allow to do except in cases where the entire economy is about to implode’.

The US government is giving what has been called “The Mother of All Bailouts”: up to one trillion dollars will be spent on protecting banks, mortgage institutions, and the investment banking enterprise. This comes after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the near-bankruptcies of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and a general downturn in the US economy. It’s hard to say why this financial crisis has come about: some are saying that this is an inevitable result of unbridled capitalism and some say that spending an estimated $550 billion on war hasn’t helped either.

Whatever the cause may be, the effects are all too clear. The free market has always been a staple of the libertarian right-wingers in America and American government. The separation of economy and state has been enforced with more vigour than the separation of church and state has been recently. Now, with their precious financial institutions failing and with laissez-faire capitalism crumbling before their eyes, the US has realised that they have to intervene and, by offering such a great amount of aid, is effectively moving towards nationalisation and a breed of socialism; a move that would be admirable if it were done for the right reasons and not simply because the Bush administration is hypocritical.

Gordon Brown on the other hand is not being a financial apologist. He is placing the blame for the economic crisis squarely on the “high flying financiers” whose callous disregard for fairness, worker rights, and plain common sense has led them down a path into ruin. He has vowed to clean up the UK’s financial institutions by getting rid of these ill-educated and irresponsible bankers who have captained their ships straight into icebergs.

America has always been afraid of nationalisation, gripped by the irrational fear that they’ll turn into Cuba or Soviet Russia. They have one of the worst health systems in the West precisely because they are afraid of nationalising it. It’s therefore hard to say what the effects of this quasi-nationalisation of financial institutions will do to the country. Perhaps it will lead to more government intervention in economic practices; maybe it’ll lead them down a road to a fairer economy; maybe some Americans will even read John Rawls’ ‘A Theory of Justice’.

When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural. We can only hope that the economic crisis of 2008 rids the economy of the frivolous risk-taking financial leaders whom we have nurtured with our ‘allow to do’ laissez-faire approach and whose sloppy management has plunged their companies into debt. As the noose of poverty tightens around the USA, politicians and citizens alike will feel the true cost of war and may think twice next time before charging into a sovereign nation.

For more information.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Review - Merlin

As a long-time fantasy fan I’ve perhaps become a bit picky with what counts as good fantasy fiction. I have only a few rules:-

Dragons cannot talk except telepathically.
No boy heroes.
No evil kings.
No historical anachronisms.
Characters don’t need modern-day personalities to be compelling (see anything by Umberto Eco for proof).
Do not overuse the terms ‘destiny’, ‘fate’, or ‘magic’.
Respect any source material used.

The BBC’s new attempt to replace Doctor Who entitled Merlin broke all of those rules last night.

Obviously this is a show that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It is Saturday evening television for ‘young adults’, plain and simple. It shouldn’t be watched by someone who will balk when the characters use spectacles or eat sandwiches. It’s not for someone who expected a loose adaptation of T. H. White’s The Once and the Future King. It is most definitely not meant to be compared with R. Scott Bakker or Robin Hobb’s fantasy fiction.

Merlin was plainly televisual fluff designed to entertain the masses, provide some semblance of underlying series-arc narrative, and amuse the kids for 45 minutes.

This show was not designed for me and that is about the only review I can give it.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

"The Sad Tale of Mancunian Books."

Manchester is not renowned as a literary city. There are not the huge libraries/museums of other British cities or the café intelligentsia culture of Paris for example. The city can boast about the John Rylands Library: home to the Rylands papyrus, the oldest New Testament document still intact. John Rylands is in fact very well run spreading over two main buildings (Deansgate and the University Campus building) and operating a number of smaller libraries around The University of Manchester.

But that’s about it for books in Manchester. The Central Library is woefully understocked with regards to fiction and high-street bookstore chains corner the market forcing the consumer to pay high prices for any kind of desirable fiction. Waterstones monopolise the city centre and Borders are to be found in retail parks around the area. It seems that dedicated independent book retailers don’t survive in the city of Manchester.

After discovering Heaven a few weeks ago and exploring the other independent book retailers of Aberdeen I decided to go on a quest, a quest to discover the hidden treasure troves of literature that I felt Manchester must conceal.

What I found was grim: every second-hand bookshop was closed or had disappeared off the streets. Coming to each address picked off the internet, I expected to find a shop front with a Star of David painted on it and the Gestapo watching from a nearby corner. It seemed that second-hand bookshops in Manchester had either suffered the effects of a terrible book-plague or been run out of town, driven away by the coffee-selling conglomerates of the larger book chains.

In an effort to save others the time and effort I’ve expended over the past few weeks, here is my definitive list of surviving second-hand bookshops in the Manchester area (as of September 2008 (Edited December 2009)).

Church Street stall

1 Church Street
Manchester
0161 834 5964
Open: Monday-Saturday 12pm-4pm

This is little more than a market stall that sells books. It is reliably cheap and has a good selection of general fiction and some non-fiction.



The Little Bookshop & Thanatos Books
6 Mount Street

Closed. The sign outside says that this shop is now only available online at http://www.littlebookshop.net/ which as of 2009 is an empty domain name.


Frank’s Booksellers

St Margaret’s Chambers, 5 Newton Street

0161 237 3747

Closed to the public. May still deal privately.


RIBA Bookshop

113-115 Portland Street

Manchester

0161 236 7691

Only sells architecture, art, and design books.


Paramount Book Exchange
25-27 Shudehill
Manchester
0161 834 9509

Open on Fridays and Saturdays. Fantastic selection of books, plays, and old comic books. Nice cosy atmosphere: belts out opera music loud enough to hear in the street. Excellent.


The Shudehill Book Centre
34 Shudehill
Manchester
0161 839 0376

OK for popular fiction. Mostly a pornographic shop with an atmosphere to match.


Portland Bookshop

1 Oxford Road

Manchester
0161 272 6060

An impressive selection of cheap textbooks and some high-end fiction at lower prices than Waterstones. Friendly staff too.


E. J. Morton

6 Warburton Street

Didsbury

Manchester

0161 445 7629

Situated on a nice cobbled street, this is a good independent bookshop. It’s not principally a second-hand shop although it does have some cheap books. Large children’s section.


Sharston Books
Unit 15 Wearlee Works

Longley Lane
Sharston

Manchester
0161 945 8604

Open: Monday-Sunday 10am-5pm

Brilliant: a haven for book-lovers in Manchester. A huge selection of both fiction and non-fiction, reasonable prices, free road atlas with every purchase, an impressive up-to-date website, and, best of all, it makes book shopping the adventure it should be.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Review - Braid

"I thought of a maze of mazes, of a sinuous, ever growing maze which would take in both past and future and would somehow involve the stars." - Jorge Luis Borges

A video game loving writer could write a thousand posts about how certain video games can be considered art but none would put the argument forward as succinctly and as beautifully as Braid. Braid is a puzzle platformer game available via the Xbox Live Arcade and on PC which uses unique mechanics of time manipulation to make some of the best physical puzzle gaming since Portal.

And it is brilliant. It’s postmodern, respectful of the gaming subculture, intelligent, frustrating, satisfying, moving, deep, and significant. I’ve been a big fan of David Hellman’s art style for a long time and that along was enough to sell me the game (despite the apparently excessive £12/$15 price tag).

A while ago Nintendo released New Super Mario Bros which turned out to be a traditional side-scrolling platformer. Braid is a true New ‘Super Mario Bros’: a Mario game for the 21st Century. It acts as homage to Mario games from as early as Donkey Kong as well as offering a modern reinterpretation of them. This is a game that asks about the motivation of the Princess, specifically whether she needs to be rescued or not. It explores the peculiar mental states that lead Mario-like characters to be the ‘knight in shining armour’. It calls the player to ask questions concerning morality of a simple 2D-platformer. It offers a feminist perspective on a traditionally male-centred medium. It smashes the tropes of the video game industry: games no longer need to have a finite amount of lives to punish the player for bad play; they don’t need to have points; Braid does have traditional ‘bosses’ however which is slightly disappointing. In general Braid offers a postmodern deconstruction of these out-dated ideas that still linger around video game development. It proves that players will be happy with the intellectual thrill that comes from solving a challenging but logically reasonable puzzle – much like the thrill of solving the puzzles in Ico or Shadow of the Colossus which non-coincidentally are two of my favourite games.

Yahtzee’s review of the game is of course correct: the story and the gameplay are kept very distant (apart from during a mind-blowing final level) and the game does suffer for that. However the story and the gameplay are so good as individual factors that one scarcely notices the disjunction while playing the game: the gameplay is so much fun and the story, while insanely convoluted and pretentious, is unique and interesting – two characteristics often left out of games nowadays. I thought Yahtzee was being facetious when he quipped as to whether the Princess was the atom bomb but the game can in fact be read as offering a social commentary on the Manhattan Project and the nature of the world post-creation of the atomic bomb. Jonathon Blow (the writer) does a good job of keeping all the text deliberately ambiguous. Admittedly this does come off as slightly pretentious.

Braid is strange but beautiful – much like Hellman’s now-abandoned webcomic. It’s not going to change the video game industry: lamentably Team Ico will be never be quite as popular as Bungie. But it does try to change people’s perception and, for those who appreciate such things, that is a good thing in itself. Braid is a peculiar kind of genius and has all the makings of a future classic. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it will be remembered longer than Spore or Mercenaries 2.

Truly games-as-art.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

"Beautiful contradiction."

Adding to my collection of humanity's contradictions, here's a delightful selection of hypocrisy from the American Republican Party.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

"And I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords."

Tomorrow in the CERN laboratories deep beneath France and Switzerland, the Large Hadron Collider will be shooting a particle beam all the way around its 27 kilometre circumference. This is a preliminary circulation before the first high-energy particle collisions take place at the end of October.

A great deal of people in the media and in the public have raised concerns about the implications of such high-energy particle acceleration: the main concerns revolve around the theoretical possibility that the LHC’s particle collision will tear a large chunk out of our galaxy which, needless to say, would obliterate the Earth. This has resulted in some utterly frivolous lawsuits from Hawaii - the plaintiff can only win the case if their existence is ended. Rather than being afraid of the LHC, humanity should be proud: we as a species are about to conduct the largest-scale scientific experiment in human history. We are trying to emulate the very beginnings of the universe. We are, almost in a literal sense, playing God. It’s a moment to be proud of human ingenuity and to celebrate the enterprise of science. This is a moment of triumph, not of fear.

What will the Large Hadron Collider do? The collider is a giant experiment in the field of quantum physics. At the start of the universe subatomic particles, the smallest we can detect, were formed along with some of the forces that govern the operation of the universe. This universe creation theory is known as the Standard Model and features a set of elementary particles and forces that form the building blocks for the rest of the atomic universe. The Standard Model consists of these elementary particles: six quarks, six leptons, five bosons, and the legendary Higgs boson. It also has three of the four forces: electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force (the unincluded fourth being gravity).

This Standard Model theory was conceived in the twentieth century and as such is still disputed among the scientific community. It has numerous technical problems, one of which is that the Higgs boson is a theoretical and as-yet-undetected subatomic particle that was invented with the aim of giving particles mass. That is where the LHC comes in. The Large Hadron Collider is a particle accelerator meaning that it has the ability to shoot subatomic particles at immense speeds into other subatomic particles. This proton-proton collision should give some manner of explosive effect wherein the Higgs boson should theoretically be visible. If the Higgs boson is seen it will lend credence to the Standard Model and possibly win a Nobel Prize for Peter Higgs, the Scottish physicist behind the theorised particle. If not, it will provide evidence for other theories and give an insight into the troublesome nature of matter.

It has been almost two decades since the LHC was proposed and just over ten years since its construction began. It’s an immense structure on the French-Swiss border near Geneva hidden beneath pristine countryside. As well as creating the LHC to look like futuristic science-fiction, CERN’s research has already yielded positive results. You are able to read this text because of the invention of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee, a CERN scientist. His idea (his ‘www proposal’) was to combine hypertext with the CERN laboratories’ internet node and the domain name system. The first website was built at CERN and put online in 1991. From there sprang the modern World Wide Web which you are now using.

What are the concerns that scientists (including Professor Brian Cox of the University of Manchester) have derided? The public seem to have the idea, promoted by the sensationalist media, that the experiment is likely to go wrong. One theoretical concern is related to the creation of a micro black hole from which no matter in the vicinity of the Sol system would survive. Professor Otto Rössler believes that a micro black hole would quickly become self-sustaining and grow exponentially. His argument has been dismissed as he does not take into account the effect of Hawking radiation: rather the consensus is that in the unlikely event of black hole creation, the black hole would quickly dissipate on its own. A further concern is with the creation of strange matter; a form of matter that would transform all surrounding matter into strange matter thus consuming the entire material galaxy and beyond rather quickly. This will either turn the universe into a gelatinous blob of strange matter with none of the properties we presently associate with physics or will transform us all into parallel ‘strange versions’ of ourselves.

The good thing is that in the extremely unlikely event of either of these or in the event that our sector of space implodes tomorrow, the entirety of spacetime will be destroyed. With no time there will be no past and therefore the concept of existence has no meaning. You or I will never have existed because there would be no past time for us to have existed in. There would be nothing, absolute nothingness. That’s not so bad of an end, is it? No pain, simply instant negation. No, I think the worst thing that could happen is a ‘Half-Life’ scenario where an experiment beneath the Earth goes wrong creating portals all around the world through which alien beings come to spread, hunt, kill, and ultimately enslave our species, establishing our solar system as one more colony for their vast galactic empire. I’m sure if that happens Tom Cruise and his Scientologist armies will rise up to defend the planet against the forces of Xenu ultimately leading to Scientology becoming protectors of the Earth.

Now that would be the worst possible result of high-energy particle collisions.

Addendum: Discovered the words 'time travel' in connection with the LHC and got excited. Realistically though it's probably not going to become a time machine.