Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The decline of Western civilization continues apace

From The Guardian:

The situation in universities is exacerbated by present policy, which actively encourages vice-chancellors who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing to eliminate science departments in favour of trendy, cheap courses. These VCs bleat about how important their freedom is to do whatever they wish with taxpayers' money, and steer funds earmarked for the sciences into softer areas that students prefer.

Just as cheap fast food has resulted in unprecedented levels of obesity, so this McDonald's approach to cheap, trendy, seductively soft courses designed for mass consumption in tertiary education has resulted in a plethora of students trained for non-existent jobs.
This is not just a problem in England, and it is not just a problem of science courses versus asshat bullcrap like media studies. Even within the sciences core training is being eroded in favor of trendy 'conceptual' courses. It's all very good for students to have exposure to 'multi-disciplinary' courses in biodiversity, bioinformatics, and evo-devo, but not if those courses replace rigorous training in natural history, comparative anatomy, and embryology. For one thing, if you've never had any natural history--ichthyology, mammalogy, etc.--what are you supposed to do your biodiversity studies on? Ditto for evo-devo and good old-fashioned anatomy. I fear that we are producing a generation of biologists that will be able to talk eruditely and at length about a bunch of up-to-the-minute paradigms*--many of which will expire in just a few years--but won't be able to tell you anything about the lymphatic system or, you know, identify frickin' critters, because they lack the foundation of basic knowledge that their training was supposed to impart.

* This seems to be the current word of choice when you want to sound smart but don't actually know what the hell you're talking about. David Wake shared with me a great quote from some physicist (I need to find out who): "When concepts fail, a word will arise."

This wasting disease is even wearing down Berkeley. On one hand the natural history courses are zealously defended here. People know that natural history is in serious retreat across the rest of the country. They also know that is absolutely foundational if we want to know anything about the natural world. But on the other hand, comparative anatomy has not been taught here for about a decade. It could not be sustained because of dwindling enrollment. Enrollment dwindled because the guidelines for biology majors were revised so that an anatomy course was no longer required.

Who do you think revised those major requirements? It is time to ask ourselves if that committee should have been given the power to compromise the education of generations of students to come. And we should keep an eye on the inanities being perpetrated by similar committee right now.


Hat tip to Mike for the article.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Children of Hurin morons

I would like a review of The Children of Hurin to do two things: explain a little about the book for the uninitiated, and give Tolkien readers some idea of what to expect from the new book compared to his other published works.

Instead, most of the reviews of the book that I've found, both positive and negative, are almost completely uninformative, and most are also quite misleading. To deal with some specific points:

1. The characters are all goodies or baddies.

"The characters are straightforwardly conventional. The wise are wise; the brave, brave; the noble, noble; and the wicked, wicked." And again: "Tolkien's weakness for making his heroes so very, very good and his villains so very, very bad is particularly grating."

Although they throw around some quotes that suggest otherwise, I can't imagine that these people actually read the book. The moral slate of TCOH is all shades of gray. Turin is supposedly the "good guy" but his actions cause much suffering and sorrow and a whole heap of deaths on both sides. Many characters act with good intentions but unwittingly do evil. Even the elves are morally complicated in this book; occasionally they are undone by their pride and one of them is downright evil. Surely the point of the book is that intention, action, and effect can all have different moral valences. The assertion that the book is morally simplistic or that all the characters are black and white is not merely wrong, it's the precise opposite of the truth. It is not true of Tolkien generally*, and it is particularly untrue of this book.

* Did some people not notice that the protagonist of the first published Middle-Earth novel, for children, occasionally acted cowardly, lied, and stole? See also the great zinger about Phillip Pullman here.

2. It's all stultifying prose.

At least two reviews quote this specific passage: “His daughter Gloredhel wedded Haldir, son of Halmir, lord of the men of Brethil; and at the same feast, his son Galdor the tall wedded Hareth, the daughter of Halmir.”

What they don't tell you is that that clearly faux-mythic scene-setting, to which you've already had an introduction in, er, the Introduction, lasts for precisely two pages and does not return. If that's too much for you, go read something else. If it's not enough, you can always use the reference material in the back of the book to shore up your understanding. Finally, see the point again above, about it being two pages.

3. It's repetitive.

"Phrases such as 'the dark lord upon a dark throne' or 'their dark doom’s shadow' recur with wearisome insistence."

Sorry, dumbass. Each of those phrases appears exactly once. (I had the ill fortune to read this review before I read the book, so I was especially alert.) The word "doom" does appear about a zillion times, but this is in the sense of "fate", and it's a book about a curse. What do you expect?

4. It has anything to do with hobbits.

No hobbits in this book. They don't awaken for another Age. So whether you're writing a positive review or a negative one, don't use "hobbit" as a pun for "habit" in your title. It is not only breathtakingly obvious and unoriginal, it also broadcasts your ignorance and crassness to anyone who is familiar with the history of Middle-Earth. You don't have to use the word "hobbit" to clue people in to the fact that this is another book by J.R.R. Tolkien; the part at the top of the review where it says, "The Children of Hurin, by J.R.R. Tolkien" is sufficient for that task.

Even the positive reviews suck, as reviews. Take this one, which at least concludes on a high note: "What is certain is that The Children of Hurin is a worthy addition to one of the most cherished mythologies in English literature." Well, that's great news, but the review itself gives us no reason to believe that it's true; it's all about how Christopher Tolkien labored for 30 years to assemble J.R.R.'s various unfinished but overlapping drafts into a complete manuscript. It says nothing whatsoever about the content of the book. Is this "a worthy addition to one of the most cherished mythologies in English literature" just because of the byline? I'd like to know at least a little about the book before I grant it that lofty status.

The only rational conclusion that one can draw from surveying this veritable sea of excrement is that editors are morons, book reviewers are morons, and consumers of book reviews are probably morons, or else they'd demand better.

Fortunately for you, there's an alternative.

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Dr Vector reviews The Children of Hurin

As promised.

The Backstory

The TV show The X-Files had two kinds of episodes: "monster of the week" episodes, in which Mulder and Scully chased lake monsters, shapeshifters, and inbreeders, and "mytharc" episodes, which advanced the overarching plot concerning the big government conspiracy and the alien invasion. The X-Files movie was a two-hour mytharc episode.

Some fans, including some of my friends, loved the mytharc episodes so much that they were hardly interested in the monster of the week (henceforth MoW) episodes. Some people liked both kinds of episodes; the MoW episodes supplied more creepy thrills, and the mytharc episodes kept the whole thing grounded and made it feel like you were watching a grand interconnected story. And some people, like me, loved the MoW episodes so much that they could hardly stand the mytharc episodes, which advanced the megaplot only incrementally and portended much more than they delivered.

I bring all this up because it seems like a good lens for thinking about Tolkien, and it's relevant to my titular purpose. Many people like the fact that Middle-Earth is a sub-creation with a relatively complete history up to the end of the Third Age, with languages and poetry and all that jazz. Some people love all that backstory more than the "frontstory" of LOTR (how many, I wouldn't like to guess, but some). A lot of people, like me, like the frontstory and the backstory; the former provides the cheap thrills (if Tolkien can be said to offer such) and the latter provides the texture of reality--even if our eyes occasionally glaze over during the poetry recitations and we may not immediately recall who is Earendil and who is Elendil.

And evidently there are orc-like hordes of Tolkien "fans" who like all the bits with swords and battles and don't give a rat's ass about the Noldor and the Sindar, Morgoth, Beren and Luthien, Numenor, or any of that crap. I deduce this fact from the massive and continued commercial success of Terry Brooks and his successors.

Also, the mythology concentration increases in the main Middle-Earth books over time (their publication order is the same order in which most readers encounter them: The Hobbit, LOTR, The Silmarillion). The Hobbit is a children's story and it is fairly de-mythologized, although readers who revisit it after LOTR and The Silmarillion will find more than they did before. LOTR is...hard to describe both succinctly and accurately*, but it includes a heroic tale and some pretty good doses of mythology, enough to make some people roll their eyes. If The Hobbit is Kool-Aid and LOTR is a really good beer, The Silmarillion is the liquor of your choice, served warm and straight. It's pretty much pure mythology. It can be rewarding, but it's not necessarily fun.

* A lot of Tolkien fans have either forgotten or never acknowledged that the 3-books-in-1 are not monolithic. The opening chapters of Fellowship are very close to The Hobbit in tone, and from there the formality of the prose increases in a fairly linear fashion, so that by the end of Return you could be reading one of the jauntier sections of the Bible.

The Meat

I am willing to bet that for most readers, by far the most important question about The Children of Hurin is "What brand of Tolkien am I getting here?" Is this a Hobbit-ish lark, an LOTR-esque heroic tale, or more homework from The Silmarillion?

So let's get to it: TCOH is not a lark, nor is it homework. It's a heroic tale, and a page-turner. But it is a bit formal--like the later sections of The Return of the King--and it is a bit brisk--like The Silmarillion. In LOTR the reader follows the day-to-day movements of the characters and has a ringside seat for the battles. Contrary to some reports, most of TCOH takes place at this intimate level. But it is interspersed with summarizing passages that cover long stretches of time: "In this way, before the summer had passed, the following of Turin had swelled to a great force, and the power of Angband was thrown back."

A lot of the book consists of simple dialogues between pairs of characters. Rilstone made the point that if you could keep the battles offstage LOTR could be done as a costume drama. The same is true of TCOH. If you're dying to read about the pattern of blood-splatter as the hero's sword takes off the head of each individual orc, get thee hence. But if you like Tolkien's prose, his ideas, his world, then I'm happy to report that TCOH is the good stuff.

And you may be surprised to remember, or discover for the first time, how much enjoyment you can get from good dialogue between characters who really have something to discuss. Many of the dialogues end when one character says something so perfect that there is no point in continuing the scene. There are even a couple of jokes. Both turn on something that one character has just said to another, and neither are what you'd call knee-slappers, but I chuckled out loud at both of them.

One thing you won't find in TCOH are long descriptive passages about the vegetation. The landscape is sketched in swiftly and deftly, so that you can always picture what is going on, but there is none of the "you are there" versimilitude/boring crap that occasionally irks even dedicated LOTR readers (including me).

Then there's the question of backstory. TCOH is part of the backstory of LOTR, but it has a big pile of backstory of its own, coming as it does at the end of the multi-century Siege of Angband by the combined power of the Eldar and the Edain. I've been through The Silmarillion, and more importantly I have The Atlas of Middle-Earth handy. The latter book has a separate map for every battle or migration in the whole history of Middle-Earth along with a prose summary of each, which makes it about a million times more accessible than The Silmarillion. (I've said this before, but damn, it bears repeating. If you're curious about the Elder Days of Middle-Earth but put off by the boring-parts-of-the-Bible prose of The Silmarillion, pick up the Atlas. It's like Cliff Notes plus pictures.)

So I already knew about the Dagor Bragolach and the Nirnaeth Arnoediad (battles), and about Nargothrond, Menegroth, and Gondolin (hidden Elven kingdoms), although I couldn't have located them on a map. The general outline of the backstory (of TCOH) was familiar to me, but not the details. But it made little difference. TCOH has an excellent introduction by Christopher Tolkien that sets the geographical and historical stage, a nice map at the end of the book that folds out so that you can refer to it while you read, and a glossary of people, places, things, and events. I kept the map out most of the time and I referred to the glossary about half a dozen times. That's it.

The Verdict

So what is the total effect of the book? The story is compelling and without any big expositional lumps or descriptive logorrhea the plot moves swiftly along. The novel starts on page 33 and ends on page 259; there is the introduction before and appendices, genealogies, the glossary, and the map after. You'll probably refer to the map a lot and to the other supporting material once in a while, but is there a Tolkien book for which that is not the case? In my view it just comes with the territory. In the end, for me, this read like a "just the good bits" version of some larger, more complete, but quite possibly more boring tale. With the diss. happily out of the way I devoured it in two days; if I'd been well-rested and had a whole day off, I probably would have read it in one sitting.

Dr. Vector's Prescription

If you love The Silmarillion, read this. You may appreciate the 'close-up' window into life in the First Age.

If you love both the frontstory and the backstory in LOTR, read this. It's right up your alley.

If you love the frontstory in LOTR and tolerate the backstory, read this. It's leaner and meaner than LOTR and it won't bore you, and after you've read it some of the backstory to LOTR will actually make sense.

If you love all the battles and sword-swinging bits in LOTR and can't stand any of the "A Elbereth Gilthoniel" crap, don't bother. Robert Jordan and his ilk are defecating new fantasy series at a mind-boggling rate, and this short, brisk, semi-formal but quite moving book would be entirely wasted on your poop head.


Oh, hell, you morons ought to read it, too. Maybe you'll get a taste for some real literature and Terry Goodkind can go back to writing cereal-box copy.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Finishing the dissertation

You're going to find that there is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.

I can't recall the taste of food. Nor the sound of water. Or the touch of grass. There's nothing…no veil between me and the wheel of fire.

Do, or do not. There is no try.

That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.


Great, kid. Don't get cocky!

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Monday, May 14, 2007

It's away!

Just sent my last chapter off to my committee.

Will it, and the rest of my dissertation, find the thermal exhaust port and bring my graduate career to a glorious end, or will they just impact on the surface, leaving me to come around for another pass in August?

The May filing deadline is this Friday. I know, I know, the hour is late. The tardiness, the 11th-hour-ness, the sheer OMG-WTF-were-you-thinking-it's-so-late-ness of it all is...grotesque. Baroque. Extreme (dude!).


May the Force be with me.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

I'm dying...dying from all the sweetness!!

How, how did I not know about this sooner? In the 80s Topps released a series of cards and stickers that featured dinosaurs eating people and getting blown away in graphic detail. It's like someone dredged my unconscious and put the haul onto some poorly-painted collectibles (is there any other kind?). Why, right on this very blog I have expressed my heartfelt desire to see a giant theropod get blasted with a bazooka. If only we could get the serious dinosaur artists to draw some of this stuff . . . somebody could get rich.

Oh yes, my friends, that is a freakin' Parasaurolophus eating a freakin' baby. I was thirteen at the time. What. The. Hell!?*

* by which I mean, "How did these come into existence at all?", "Who thought it was a good idea to sell them to little kids?", and most importantly, "How come I never got any?"

Okay, this is not one of those cards. This is from I Can Has Cheezburger? I've just been dying to use it, and it does hail from the same realm as the dinosaur cards. A realm I call "Retarded Awesome!!!"

Hat tip to Sally, who you may remember from her own gory adventures.

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

My Dino Rocket to Mount Doom

Nineteen eighty-four was a banner year. I was nine years old and in fourth grade. That was the year that I got my first pocket knife. I also joined 4-H, discovered model rocketry, and built my first rocket. My friend Robbie Newberg sat at the next desk over and one day he had a copy of Ray Bradbury's Dinosaur Tales. That was my introduction to Ray Bradbury. Shortly thereafter I read R Is For Rocket and S Is For Space and my life was never the same. Next to Bradbury on the library shelf was this guy named Asimov who wrote books about robots and something called the Foundation. And not too far away was this book Dune. I knew that Dune existed because of the 1985 Estes model rocket catalog, which I had picked up at Hobby Lobby, featured a movie tie-in rocket called the Guild Heighliner.

I knew that Dune was about a desert planet, and I knew that it was something badass, like Foundation and 2001. And the back cover of Dune had a very curious blurb by none other than Arthur C. Clarke, who said that it was a towering work of the imagination and that, "I know nothing comparable to it other than The Lord of the Rings."

Say what now?

Lord of the Rings. Hmm. That looked like about a zillion pages. But evidently it was the sequel to something called The Hobbit. So I read The Hobbit and it was frankly pretty kickass. I really dug that Bilbo guy.

All of this had taken some time. Right after The Hobbit I started Fellowship, and I know it was the fall of 1987 because I was 12 years old and the upstairs room in our circa 1900 farmhouse was finally finished and I had taken up residence that summer. Lights out was 9:00, I think, so I spent the hours between 9:00 and midnight under a flashlight with John Carter and David Bowman and Calvin & Hobbes. But first with Frodo and Sam and Strider and the rest of the gang. At first Fellowship kinda bummed me out. I wanted to go on another adventure with Bilbo. I didn't trust this Frodo upstart. He'd never been to the Lonely Mountain; how did I know he wouldn't cave the first time he ran into a troll or some unnaturally large spiders? But he turned out okay.

So to quickly rehash:

4-H -> model rockets -> Hobby Lobby -> Estes Catalog -> *

Robbie Newberg -> Dinosaur Tales -> Ray Bradbury -> the science fiction section -> *

* Dune -> Arthur C. Clarke back cover blurb -> finding LOTR -> The Hobbit -> reading LOTR

Oh, don't try to read The Silmarillion without The Atlas of Middle-Earth handy. It makes a lot more sense if you can actually see what's going on and have some way of keeping the place names and people names separate.

If you're wondering why Tolkien is on my mind, it's because I've been trying to get hold of a copy of The Children of Hurin, but every bookstore in town is sold out. I'll keep you posted.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Another chapter down

One more to go.

Man, I hate dinosaurs.