Recently in Fun/Entertainment Category

We got to see X-Men: Days of Future Past today, and I have to say that it's the best of all the X-Men movies so far. (Well, I haven't seen The Wolverine, but I can't imagine that's better. I'm also not sure it counts as an X-Men movie.) I do have a relatively unpopular ranking of X-Men movies. Of the ones I've seen, I think they tend to get better with each one, with one exception. I didn't like X2 nearly as much as the first one. But I think the remaining ones get better with each one, even the much-maligned X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which I do think is better than any of the original trilogy. And I think the third was better than the first two, which is also a very unpopular view among most people I know. (I also think the original Spider-Man trilogy improves with each movie, and hardly anyone agrees with me on that, and I loved Batman Begins but hated the Dark Knight, and I'll forever be on some people's nasty lists for that.) All that is to say that I certainly don't expect people to agree with me on every point when I evaluate this, but at least I can give reasons for what I think.

I wanted to reflect a bit on some of the things I did like and a couple things I didn't. First, what I didn't like. It seems action movies, and superhero movies especially, have lately became averse to explaining things. They include dialogue to explain things enough to prevent you from becoming completely lost, but it's not sufficient to get you a good sense of everything that's going on. A story like this with this many characters should include something to let us understand who it is that we're supposed to be watching. We got nothing about Blink except what she looks like and, after looking at her do what she does a few times, a vague sense of what her power does. We got even less on Bishop or Sunspot (and were there others in the opening future scenes that we haven't seen before? I wasn't sure at first who some of them were). The mutants in Vietnam were almost incognito, even to the audience, except for the obvious Toad, who we've seen a later version of. Ink was probably recognizable to comic readers who started after I did, but I'm sure most people had no idea who any of them were besides Toad. It's bad storytelling to have dialogue that no character would ever say, when everyone in the room should know it, just to explain things to the audience. But it's equally bad storytelling to do nothing to explain things to the audience when they do want to get to know these characters and how they work a bit more. Several of the X-Men movies have this problem, but this was particularly annoying, because some of these characters looked really interesting.

I also can't resist saying that the time travel metaphysics in this movie is just plain stupid. It uses a very common time travel story motif, that when you go back in time and change something you have the contradictory scenario where at one time the timeline is one way and then at a later time the entire timeline is different. At what point within the timeline is the entire timeline one way, and at what point within the timeline is the entire timeline a different way? There's simply no way to make sense of it the way they tell the story. The only way to do so is to have simply different timelines, all of which continue to exist, with no change having occurred, just one timeline that's one way and another that's another way, and someone from the future of one timeline is the explanation for events that occur in the past of another timeline. And it was always that way in both timelines. (This is what Abrams Star Trek did.) But the motivation for the story makes little sense there, and the trick of having everyone disappear and suddenly having always been somewhere else instead is a deception, because it's a switch to an entirely different timeline, and everyone still/always dies in the first one. Only in the new one is it different. No timeline actually was one way and then changed to another way. That would require a timeline of ordering where a whole timeline can be earlier than another, but time only occurs within timelines, not between them.

But I never let bad metaphysics ruin a fun time travel movie for me. I can enjoy a contradictory story, and I did enjoy this one, much as I did some of the worst offenders (the Back to the Future trilogy topping the list, with Timecop coming in a pretty close second). I am always impressed at someone doing it right, as Babylon 5, 12 Monkeys, LOST season 5, TNG Time's Arrow, TOS The City on the Edge of Forever, and a number of other stories have done. But fun stories abound with unworkable metaphysics, and this was certainly one of those. I'm always a sucker from time travel, no matter how badly it's done.

So on to what I liked. This was not just the best of the X-Men movies so far. It was an incredibly good story, rivaling the best of the Marvel movies.

It doesn't beat you over the head with a moral message. It's not even prominent, like in Iron Man, the three Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, or the original X-Men trilogy. Nor is it a debate with unclear answers, as in Captain America: the Winter Soldier (and the followup in the Agents of SHIELD show), much as I enjoyed that. But it's there. And that usually makes a superhero movie better. In this case, it's not so much the usual mutant analogy with race or the like, although you do get references to that. It's actually the Spider-Man message that great power brings great responsibility, one of the things Sam Raimi did really well in all three films that the too-soon reboot of that franchise didn't do so well at. Iron Man had the same message. Charles Xavier was basically abandoning his responsibilities, and we begin the movie with dire consequences of that in the future (although we don't know Xavier is really the one to blame until much later. There were people under his charge who died, we discover from Magneto, all because he felt sorry for himself and his circumstances and couldn't bear to deal with the difficult situation he'd found himself in. And it ultimately leads to mutants being hunted down and wiped out.

It also didn't seem like it was bringing in as many characters as they could just to fill the movie with toys for marketing or to try to set up other movies that will likely fail (cough ... Amazing Spider-Man 2). The people who were in it from previous movies made sense to appear when they did, and the ones that only had cameos made sense only to have cameos. The ones that were in it more made sense to be in it more, and even the big change from the comics of making Wolverine the time-traveling consciousness instead of Shadowcat could make sense from a story point of view (and not just because Logan is a favorite of fans or because they needed someone who could play both parts as the same actor). Their explanation for why it has to be Wolverine is not that bad, anyway, even if it's clear that the writers really did it because of those other reasons. I was dreading Quicksilver, given the photos released ahead of time, but I liked how they pulled that character off, and the references hinting at his true parentage were nice. I'm not sure why they showed Polaris (his younger sister) and not Scarlet Witch (his twin), unless they were worried about too many comparisons with the Marvel versions of the twins from Godzilla Avengers: Age of Ultron. But that was a nice cameo of a very minor character for the sake of fans.

But the crucial thing is that they told a story. They told one story. It was cohesive and mostly made sense from the point of view of the characters, which is really saying something given how out of character some of them were acting at various times in the story. There was one overall problem to be solved, and every scene in the movie contributed toward that problem coming about or someone trying to stop it. It was a compelling, high-stakes problem, and you really don't have any assumptions about who is safe (other than Wolverine, of course), and that goes for either time period. When everything the characters do seems to make things worse, the story becomes far from predictable. But so many details that most viewers wouldn't notice are there to be picked up on by fans of the comic books, but none of them should distract from what else is going on for those who don't pick up on them. In that it very much resembles Captain America: the Winter Soldier. This didn't have the benefit of several successful franchises coming together, though, as the Marvel movies do. The fact that they pulled it all off without that really speaks well of the people Fox has gotten together to make this. I'm really looking forward to X-Men: Age of Apocalypse now.

Perception

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I just saw the pilot for Perception. I like the idea that they're trying to portray a schizophrenic crime-solver sympathetically, in the mold of Monk for OCD but without the comedic elements. It's intriguing enough to want to see the other episodes that have aired. I like the main character and several supporting cast members. There was a nice moment during his neuroscience class when he presented an argument for skepticism pretty much the way a philosopher would, a reminder schizophrenic author Philip K. Dick had skeptical philosophical themes in his writing, partly from his neurological condition and the impossibility to detect from within a hallucinatory experience that it is not reality, since it appears just as real as anything else. This is what schizophrenia really is like for many who experience it. I liked that he has to have a handler who lives with him and follows him around on campus to tell him when someone he's interacting with is real or not. (But they don't raise the question, at least yet, of what happens if he hallucinates the handler's response to his questions.)

But two things bothered me. One is that they're trying to portray a schizophrenic's hallucinations as his subconscious mind trying to make sense of things his conscious mind can't make sense of. I know it's popular to emphasize the increased abilities that sometimes come with a disability, and these increased abilities are genuinely present in some cases with some disabilities (sometimes often present, sometimes very rarely). This is true with diminished senses and increased other senses, and it's true of some increased cognitive abilities for some with autism, But this looks like a wholly-concocted special ability for schizophrenia, which as far as I've been able to discern is not a "different" neurological condition with some pros and many cons but is in fact simply a mental illness, with no pros. I may be wrong about that, and experts can feel free to correct me if I am, but I've never even heard of something like this, and it does an injustice to what is good in the neurodiversity movement to pretend there are good elements to a condition where there aren't any, while bolstering what's insidious about that movement by acting like every neurological condition has to have positive features, when that's hardly the truth.

But there was one scene that struck me as being even more ridiculous, and I very nearly stopped the episode and refused to give the show another chance. I stuck it out, and I do intend to watch more episodes, but if they keep this sort of thing up I may not continue. They had a character who was aphasic, which is a varied condition involving brain damage and various linguistic inabilities. Sometimes it's extreme enough to involve a total inability to recognize others' attempts to communicate with language, and this character had that kind of aphasia. But apparently in the Perception universe people with extreme aphasia can tell when someone is lying, even though they have no idea what they're saying, and they find it extremely humorous. So this character was basically a human lie detector who never knew what the lies being spoken were (and may not have even known they were lies, just the the non-verbals involved, or something about the pattern of sounds maybe, was very, very funny.

Not only is this totally absurd, but they even had to bring out the tired example of Bush's 16-words State of the Union moment, where the political left successfully recast his accurate reporting of the conclusions of British intelligence about Saddam Hussein's attempt to get uranium from the West African nation of Niger as an outright lie by Bush. Factcheck.org argued that Bush had indeed not lied, even if something he had said was wrong, and that there was even evidence (which I consider much stronger than they seem to take it to be) to suggest that Saddam Hussein had made such an attempt (from the very reports of Joe Wilson, who was one of most prominent accusers of Bush as a liar). Putting this example next to Bill Clinton's moments of denying his affair with Monica Lewinski is pretty low, especially at a time when there's no political gain to be had by continuing this false narrative about Bush as a liar.

I was hoping that a show intending to portray a schizophrenic genius crime solver would provide a nice guide to what schizophrenia is really like, without the fantasy elements they seem to want to add. It doesn't help that they're immune to critical evaluation of what their political group-think partners tell them. That doesn't give me as high hopes as I'd had when I first heard of the show, but I will continue to give it

Obama the Leopard King

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Cousin Danny found some guy arguing that President Obama is the leopard king of Daniel 7, with the especially convincing argument that leopards have spots of different colors, and thus they can easily symbolize someone of mixed race.

Obama's first book contains much interesting analysis of race. I took down several pages-long quotations from the library's copy in case I ever want to refer to them (since I don't own a copy and don't expect to get around to trying to find a used one anytime soon). His famous speech on race that distanced himself from his spiritual role model Jeremiah Wright also had a lot of worthwhile things to say about race. It's one of the few issues where I think he's more on the right track than not, and his background has allowed him to see things that a lot of people who are not from a mixed background will not be well-placed to notice.

Nevertheless, even he failed to latch onto the insights in the videos Danny linked to. But this makes great sense of his next-day comments on the results of the 2010 election. This explains pretty well why he prefers to read the election as a failure to explain to the ignorant voters why his policies are good, rather than admitting that so many Americans might just disagree with him on policy matters while actually being informed. But, you know, the leopard king can't easily change his spots...

Update 11/10/10: There really are a few interesting things in the second video. I hadn't noticed all of them initially.

1. This guy is a prophet, and he's not claiming that you can get all this from just reading the Bible. He's offering new revelation that this is Obama. So there's no complaining that he's speculating. He's giving a new revelation, just one that also involves the claim that no other country and leader combination best fits the leopard.

2. Keep in mind that he's a prophet, and he's revealing God's word to us in our day in addition to the scriptures. One of his arguments is that the four branches of the military and the four branches of the federal government are the four wings and four heads, and no other country has the four wings and four branches like the U.S. does today. So we should take this as divine fiat that there are now four branches of the government (the House, Senate, executive, and judiciary) as opposed to the three as declared in the Constitution (legislative, executive, and judiciary). Keep in mind that God can decree the Constitution invalid in terms of what it declares to be true of the United States government that it established, so this is entirely legitimate. It's just a huge surprise to me, and it shows that this revelation could only have come directly from God by means of a prophet like him. No one who knows just how the U.S. government works who reads this text could possibly have thought this interpretation even consistent with what Daniel 7 says and what the Constitution declares about the branches of government. We do need a prophet to know these things. So I stand corrected. The Constitution has been amended by a prophet by a method unknown to the Constitution itself.

3. Notice how he points out that Obama is the leopard as the leader of the U.S. with arguments both about the U.S. itself and Obama its leader. The leopard has skin that's both black and white, which reflects the racial makeup of the United States. Obama also has skin that's both black and white. Yes, it's not race-mixing in the sense that he is both black and white, which is what I was originally taking this to be, which would be yet another piece of evidence for my claim that the one-drop rule is on its way out, at least as applied in certain contexts. No, he says Obama's skin itself is both black and white, in the same sense at the same time. So I guess God can declare contradictions to be true after all, and his prophet is informing us of one particular contradiction that God has now declared to be true of our president. His skin is both black and white.

4. Read the comments on YouTube. You will discover a fascinating argument there against this prophet's claims. Obama can't the be leopard, because it's biologically impossible. Leopards are female, and Obama is male. The most amazing thing about that comment? No one even responded to it, and there are plenty of responses by the author of this video to claims made against him. Does this mean that he's finally encountered an argument that's making him reconsider his view? This is a pretty convincing reason not to accept the view, after all. Until I saw that, I was fully on board, but now I'm not so sure.

LOST Finale

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The series finale of the six-year show LOST aired on Sunday night. Judging by comments I've seen on Facebook and other places online, it was a love-or-hate-it kind of finale. Like Battlestar Galactica, a lot of how I evaluate the whole show was going to hang on whether they pulled it off in the finale. I thought Galactica was successful. I left the LOST finale thinking we may have a candidate for a worse finale-to-show ratio than Enterprise, whose final season was among the best Star Trek and final episode was among the worst moments of Star Trek (and the worst moments of Star Trek include Star Trek V, so that's really saying something).

One of the interesting questions for me was the new storytelling device of season 6. The first three seasons included flashbacks, with a different character focus each episode, detailing the backstory of characters now stranded on the island. In the third season finale, the producers pulled a fast one on the audience, because the flashback sequence interspersed throughout the episode ended up at the very end revealing that we weren't seeing previous events but ones that didn't happen. Somehow some characters get off the island, and they're not having a good time of it.

Season 4 then implements a flash-forward dramatic device showing the lives of these characters after they leave the island, with the on-island events eventually catching up to their departure from the island in the season 4 finale alongside the science fiction device of the Frozen Donkey Wheel, which (a) moves the island, (b) sends the guy who turned it himself off the island, and (c) sends the characters who remain flashing through time to various significant moments in the history of the island. 

Season 5 focuses on getting those who left back to the island and getting the flashes through time to stop, which happens when another character leaves the island by turning the Frozen Donkey Wheel, which traps everyone in 1974. Meanwhile, those who return mostly end up in 1977, three years after their friends arrived in the 70s and became part of the until-then mysterious Dharma Initiative, which was exploring the unusual properties of the island. All during Season 5, the character keep reiterating that they can't change the past. Whatever happened happened. Whatever they're about to do already happened in terms of the past of the time they originally came from, and they will now witness it from the perspective of its being present, but anything they know to be true about what will happen is going to happen. Everything that does happen seems to confirm this. But some characters decide to try to change the past anyway by blowing up a nuke near a major outlet of the electromagnetic properties of the island where the Dharma Initiative is drilling.

From that point on, it's unclear whether they changed the past or merely fulfilled what they already knew took place. Season 6 begins with the characters on their original flight, and it doesn't crash. Then the camera zooms underwater, and we see key locations on the island. Did their plan work? Did they blow up the island and sink it? But then we flash to 2007 on the island, thirty years after the bomb blew up, and our characters appear to be still on the island. Their adventures continue as if they changed nothing. They merely fulfilled the past by causing the Incident, an event they'd heard about happening during the Dharma Initiative. That event caused Dharma to build a setup where electromagnetic energy needed to be siphoned off every 108 minutes, and they needed someone to push a button that often. The survivors ended up taking on that task for a year but only after the guy assigned to the task before them forgot to push it and crashed their plane. So their bomb basically caused their own crash. Instead of preventing it, they caused it.

Then what was going on with the plane that landed in Los Angeles? The producers called that a flash-sideways, which suggests an alternate universe. But they denied that it was an alternate universe, leaving it mysterious what was going on. Over the course of the season, flash-sideways characters began to remember events on the island. It wasn't until the finale, though, that we discovered what it was. It's what happened after they all died. Some of them died during the show, some early and some only at the end. Some survived the island-storyline and presumably died much later. But everyone dies sometime. The flash-sideways turned out to be a place they somehow created for themselves to meet up before moving on to whatever is next.

I'd been looking forward to an explanation of this flash-sideways, because it's especially important to the time travel stuff I've been working on. It turns out not. The original "whatever happened happened" line seems simply to be true. The sideways isn't an alternate timeline caused by the bomb blowing up. It's nothing but an illusion for the gathering of all the characters deemed appropriate by the writers to have their as they awaited their walk through the door of glowing light.

It's an understatement to say that I was disappointed. It makes my time travel stuff easier to write, and it confirms that they weren't messing with their originally-stated explanation of how time travel works. But it seemed like pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo that made the whole flash-sideways elements of the season seem irrelevant. There is no sideways reality. It's a fakeity created as an illusion so they can work out their issues with their lives before going on to whatever is next, and the writers left it open what's next. The suggestion seems to be that it's a good afterlife together with their buddies, but it's possible they all step into the light and go on to a miserable eternity in hell for all the show has to say.

So I thought much of the finale was dumb. Even in the island part of the story, which I mostly liked, one main character sacrificed his life needlessly, because another character could have done what he did that killed him but survived. That was truly dumb, because it invalidates the sacrificial death the writers wanted to give him. But most of the island story was all right. I watched it again, fast-forwarding through the sideways except for the last ten minutes, and I enjoyed the episode a lot more.

I should also say that someone convinced me in between watchings that there is a redeeming quality of the overall point of the episode, at least from a Christian perspective. While the show suggests a number of things that I'd disagree with about the religious perspective of the writers, some of it that even seems pretty lame to me, I at first didn't recognize that the writers were recognizing the value of eternity and relationships with people as more important than temporal things, and no Christian should see that as a bad message, even if it's mixed with other things we might disagree with. This is a work of fiction, and I think Christians should see this episode as containing one or two important seeds of the Christian gospel (while also undermining one or two others).

Has that changed my opinion of the finale? Well, watching it a second time without the flash-sideways portion (except the very end) was a lot more enjoyable. I do think I would have preferred removing that whole storyline except the very end if they wanted to insist on that and replacing it with something that would have delved more into the history of the island and the mysteries of the island than the time travel of season 5 was able to do. But I think I can say now that I don't think this was as bad as the Enterprise finale. It was more like the mixed bag that was the Stargate SG-1 finale, which had some fun and interesting moments but didn't at all do what I thought a series finale for that show needed to do.

Fabricating DNA

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There's now a method of modifying the DNA in a blood or hair sample to make it appear to be someone else's DNA.

I saw this on an SVU episode from earlier this season that was on last night while I was finishing up grading an exam. I was hoping they'd just made it up, but I guess not. This is the kind of discovery that it might be immoral to publish if there weren't any way to distinguish the modified DNA from original DNA, but it seems they have concocted a method to detect the subterfuge.

November License Plates

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As you can tell by the late posting of this, I've sort of lost interest in looking for license plates on a regular basis. I got a good sense of what I would find by trying it for a while. I might still post license plates I see on long trips, but this will be the last monthly one. It was fun for a while. I haven't even kept track for December.

U.S. States: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin

other U.S.: District of Columbia, U.S. Government
Canada: British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec

Not seen since Oct 2009: Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Nebraska, Tennessee
Not seen since Sept 2009: Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon
Not seen since Aug 2009: Wyoming
Not seen since April 2009: Idaho, New Mexico
Not seen since Aug 2008: Nova Scotia
Not seen since Dec 2007: New Brunswick, Puerto Rico

Law & Order

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Has anyone else ever thought that they get the Law and Order categories backwards in the credits for Law & Order? They list the police detectives, who enforce order, under the heading Law, and then they list the lawyers, who deal with the law more explicitly, under the category of Order.

I suspect this comes from the old slang method of referring to cops as "the law", so it's not without explanation, but it does seem backwards to me in terms of the actual roles of the various characters.

October License Plates

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U.S. States: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin

other U.S.: District of Columbia
Canada: British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario

Not seen since September 2009: Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, West Virginia, U.S. Government, Quebec
Not seen since August 2009: Alaska, Hawaii, Wyoming
Not seen since April 2009: Idaho, New Mexico
Not seen since Oct 2008: South Dakota
Not seen since Aug 2008: Nova Scotia
Not seen since Dec 2007: New Brunswick, Puerto Rico

September was a really good month for seeing license plates, so this is a much shorter list. A trip down to Philly, then NYC, then Connecticut and Massachusetts and then back halfway across NY helped a little bit, but most of the rarer sights were actually in Syracuse. This is the longest I remember the "not seen since" line for the previous month being.

The District of Columbia was ticketing people for parking in their own driveways, and apparently this was actually legal (at least there was a law that provided for this; I'm not sure whether the courts would find it constitutional). I don't know if this is still going on, but it sounded like a hoax when I first heard of it.

David Boies, Al Gore's lawyer in Bush v. Gore, and Ted Olsen, George Bush's lawyer from the same case (who was also Bush's first Solicitor General) are working together to try to get judicial declaration of same-sex marriage at the federal level. Olson, to be fair, is not advocating the kind of policy-preference right that more liberal lawyers and judges often see in the Constitution and that he has consistently argued against his entire career. His argument doesn't even assume that there is a right to marry. It just relies on the fact that our court system recognizes a right to marry and concludes that it ought to be applied to gay couples as well as straight couples if we're going to be in the business of applying such rights. (However, their argument does seem to assume that couples as couples and not just individuals have rights, or else it assumes what an Equal Rights Amendment would have provided but didn't when it never passed.)

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to reinstate the draft during the Bush Administration and then voted against the bill (almost no one actually voted for it, which was what he had expected). I thought it was strange when Republicans kept pushing a marriage amendment that they knew they didn't have enough votes to pass, but it's well beyond that to waste government time and money by pushing something you don't even want passing to begin with.

Jeff Bridges and Beau Bridges are brothers, and Lloyd Bridges was their father. Beau I can understand. But Jeff? I wouldn't have expected it.

All the miscreants who linked the phrase "miserable failure" to President Bush's biography had succeeded in making it the top website in Google for that expression. I was sure this was a joke when I first heard about it. It was pretty quick to verify, though. It had less skepticism when I heard that miscreants on the right had done the same with getting John Kerry's senate bio at the top of searches for "waffles".

Jeremiah Wright, whose heterodox, anti-white language makes him sound as if he doesn't think white people can be genuine Christians, actually has white members actively ministering in his congregation, sometimes even occupying leadership roles. (I don't think that excuses his rhetoric, which I think still counts as heterodox divisiveness, but he seems not to mean what he says.)

Philip Pullman wrote an entire scifi/fantasy series (His Dark Materials, whose first novel is The Golden Compass) out of an anti-religion and particularly anti-Christian agenda. When I first heard this, I thought it must be an exaggeration and that it probably just had some anti-religious elements throughout, but it turns out as the series develops that the agenda is far more central to the books than at first it appears. Pullman has even portrayed it as his remedy to the Narnia Chronicles, which he thinks call good evil and evil good. (I happen to think he failed in some crucial ways at what he was seeking to accomplish, but I wanted to post on that at some point separately, and I just haven't gotten around to it. Finishing up this post, which I started weeks ago but didn't have enough items to finish, has reminded me that I had wanted to do this, so maybe I'll get to it soon.)

Two days after his big announcement revoking President Bush's stem-cell policy, President Obama signed into law the big budget bill for the year, including a provision that prevented any funding from being used for embryonic stem cell research. I was especially skeptical about this, and it took me a long time and some hard Googling to find enough information to confirm it, but it does seem to have happened.

The Obama Administration's original discussion suggestions for his speech to school kids on September 8, 2009 really did ask kids to write about how they could help Obama, but they later changed it to ask about how they could be responsible. This was especially surprising given the actual content of the speech, which was mostly politically neutral. Why would they then ask how kids could help Obama when the thrust of the speech was just calling them to work harder in school and to be responsible? The original question therefore puzzles me a little unless he changed the speech too, which we have no evidence of (and the official explanation that the revision was what they had meant all along is completely implausible).

You can't help out your neighbor in Michigan by putting their kids on the bus for them every morning without a license to operate a daycare business.

So I've listed ten myths that I at one point just believed when I first heard them, even if in some cases it was only when I was pretty young. I also wanted to put together a list of myths that never sounded plausible to me, even the ones I heard as a kid, but that somehow get passed around as if true (and in some cases even get trotted out as if any serious scholar must believe such a thing).

1. KFC changed its name from Kentucky Fried Chicken because they don't use chicken anymore. They use clones of chickens grown without heads, and the U.S. government won't allow them to call that chicken.

2. There's such a person as Santa Claus.

3. The Bush Administration orchestrated 9-11.

4. Barack Obama wasn't born in the U.S.

5. The Pentateuch was compiled over several generations by people with different and conflicting ideologies, and we can reconstruct which ideology is behind which verses or even partial verses with pinpoint precision, according to such tell-tale signs as which name is used for God or whether it happens to involve a negative or positive assumption or conclusion about a certain tribe of Israel. It amazes me how confident scholars can be of this even though no sources have ever been found for such texts, no textual statements in the text we have indicate anything about any such sources, and no two scholars can even agree on which parts come from which sources.

6. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, is a practitioner of Wicca who sought to convert Christians to Wicca by writing novels about magic.

7. Sarah Palin cut funding for teen mothers because of pro-life convictions.

8. George W. Bush attacked Iraq because he believed God told him to.

9. Sarah Palin thinks God directed the U.S. to attack Iraq.

10. Divine foreknowledge and predetermination are incompatible with human freedom and responsbility. Sorry, I suppose I should find something less controversial. How about the commonly-heard line about how Jesus' statement that it's easier for a camel to get through an eye of a needle than for the rich to enter God's kingdom once you know that there's a gate in Jerusalem called the eye of the needle, and camels can get through it, but it's hard. (I once heard someone repeat that false background to Jesus's statement and then say that knowing that changed her life. Somehow. She never explained any further and probably couldn't have done so even at gunpoint.)

Now that I've seen Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, here are my rankings of the movies and books at this point.

Movies rankings:

1. Chamber of Secrets (movie 2)
2. Sorceror's Stone (movie 1)
3. Half-Blood Prince (movie 6)
4. Prisoner of Azkaban (movie 3)
5. Goblet of Fire (movie 4)
6. Order of the Phoenix (movie 5)

Books rankings:

1. Deathly Hallows (book 7)
2. Order of the Phoenix (book 5)
3. Goblet of Fire (book 4)
4. Half-Blood Prince (book 6)
5. Prisoner of Azkaban (book 3)
6. Chamber of Secrets (book 2)
7. Sorceror's Stone (book 1)

Isn't it interesting that how much I liked the movies is roughly inversely proportional to how much I liked the books? Part of what influences it is how faithful the movies are to the books, not that I insist on getting it exactly like the book, but until the latest film they were increasingly leaving out significant parts of the books, even parts that help explain otherwise unexplained phenomena or actions of characters. It left a much less satisfying experience, especially if you knew that there was an explanation in the books. Plus a lot of the scenes and entire plotlines that were left out were fun, interesting, and suspense-building. When you consider that the movies were actually getting shorter as the books got longer, it just drives home the disappointment, because there was so much room for more in Order of the Phoenix, the longest of the books but the shortest of the movies.

I expected Half-Blood Prince to be an improvement over the last few, because the book is much shorter than the two previous books, and they were willing to make it a longer movie. I figured they'd be able to include a higher percentage of plotlines and scenes from the book, and I was right. They were. There were still places where they changed things needlessly (most annoyingly at the end where they made Harry's incapacity to act because of Dumbledore's spell into a moral choice not to act). There wouldn't have been a huge increase in time if they'd explained a few things a little better with explanations from the book. The most unexplainable thing was the scene they completely made up that wasn't in the book at all with the Christmas attack. Harry's actions there made no sense. But it was far superior to the three previous movies, which all had major plots missing. What was missing from this was no more than what was missing from Prisoner of Azkaban, but it affected the plot less, so I place it above that. I didn't understand from the movie alone everything that had happened by the end, and I didn't get it fully until I read the book.

This film should be understandable in the most crucial ways to those who haven't read the book, and it's the first one since the two directed by Chris Columbus that that's true of, at least in the most important aspects. But those stories made complete sense in pretty much every way as films, and they didn't cut major plots the way this one did with the private lessons Dumbledore gave Harry all year about Voldemort's past, which they abbreviated far too much in the movie to be satisfying. I also thought they shouldn't have cut out the Professor Trelawney storyline, which both explains more on her prophecies, which will play a big role in the next one (although maybe they'll find a way to put it in that one instead). They didn't explain the Room of Requirement well, why Harry couldn't get in, why it looked different from it did in Order of the Phoenix when he did, and why it looked like what it looked for for Malfoy. They had Ginny hide the book rather than Harry, and I wonder if that will create problems when they need to return in the final movie for the item that in the book Harry sees while hiding his potions book. Leaving out the new Minister of Magic might make it harder to explain the transition for the Ministry near the beginning of book 7 as well, and the absence of the house elves again might create problems for when they have to reintroduce Dobby and Kreacher in the next one.

I'm hoping that the decision to split Deathly Hallows into two movies will prevent it from being any worse than this outing, since there really is a lot to include, and pretty much all of the necessary parts could easily make two three-hour movies if done well (and they're shooting for two to two-and-a-half hours per movie). They're going to have to trim some things, as they did here. I'm just hoping that they choose a little more judiciously than they did with a few things in this film.

A Few Quick Notes

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1. I've been extremely busy. I'm teaching two summer classes and barely keeping up with them. Plus the kids have been sick, meaning some have been home and in need of more attention than normal. So I haven't had time to do much blogging. But I've got a few things I've been thinking about that I did manage to put in Facebook updates, which I might as well put here in lieu of anything that will take more time than I have.

2. Remember when Rosie O'Donnell outrageously called it a separation of church and state for President Bush to take the religious identification on the Supreme Court from three to give Catholics, making Catholic justices the majority? I just thought it was worth noticing that President Obama has nominated another self-identified Roman Catholic to replace another Protestant, and I've yet to hear any similar claims from Rosie O'Donnell (although I did hear that Christopher Hitchens is being consistent on this by finding it grave and troubling).

3. I heard a strange NPR story on the dangers of fracking. It took a little listening to discover that they meant this. It was hard to listen with a straight face. I don't know how the reporter got through it.

4. The Supreme Court could rule as early as Monday on a case Judge Sotomayor was involved in that could lead to some real fodder for criticism in her hearing. SCOTUSBlog has an excellent presentation of the issue and how it might go.

5. Once I get a breather I intend to look closely at some of the Sotomayor stuff that SCOTUSBlog has been posting since before her nomination even occurred. I haven't had time to comment on her nomination, but I'm not sure I would even know what to say just yet. Her actual opinions are kind of important, and most criticism so far has not focused on them but on some political speeches and interviews she's given.

Holy Observer

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The Holy Observer is back, with a new format that will probably help them get new content up more easily without having to have a whole issue of material before posting stuff. This looks like a nice mediating approach between my suggestion of turning it into a blog (which they really didn't want to do) and the original method of producing whole issues at a time.

Spock2.jpg

I was really looking forward to the eleventh Star Trek film, due out in a few months now. Casting Zachary Quinto as young Spock was brilliant, and I'll have to see the movie for that even if for no other reason, although I think loyalty to the franchise would be sufficient grounds to see it anyway. But I'm no longer holding my breath about whether it will be a good movie. If it is, I'll be pleasantly surprised, but I'm not expecting as much as I had. I was already a bit skeptical about a script written by the writers responsible for the recent Transformers movie, which was fun but was certainly not interesting script-wise. It was fun mostly because of the visuals. The main human character was painful to watch, and the storyline wasn't all that interesting given the richness of the Transformers material available in the comic books.

It was this interview with script writer Robert Orci that put a full stop to my optimism, though, for two reasons. The most important is that the assurances of producers that I've been seeing that it will be faithful to Trek canon for the fans while still doing something new for newcomers turn out to be a mere facade, given Orci's explanation of why he says it's faithful to canon. But I think the theory of time travel he endorses will also make the movie painful for me to watch, even if it won't be as painful as most Trek time travel stories are.

First, this is how Orci understands the time travel in this movie to work. He recognizes that there's a problem with any time travel theory that allows changing the past, although I don't think he makes it clear exactly why it's a problem. The real reason it's a problem is because if the past happened, then it follows that it didn't get changed, so when you go back you can't change it. If you can change it, then it's not the past. He gets into grandfather paradox issues, but I think those are derivative problems. The main reason is that it just makes no sense to think of changing the past. You can't make something that already was one way no longer be that way but be another way.

There's only one plausible way to interpret time travel stories that seem to change the past (other than the people didn't know what really happened and thus thought they changed something but actually only did what had already happened). If I travel back in time and do something that didn't happen, I must have traveled somewhere other than my past. If I ended up in an alternative time line somehow, then it makes sense to do what seems like changing the past. But the past of my time line doesn't change, and that time line continues on without me. The time line I entered always had me entering at that point and thinking I'd changed the past. This is the only way to make changing-the-past stories internally consistent, but it's still not a genuine change of the past, which the authors of those stories would usually not want.

So I applaud Orci for preferring this to the usual time travel approach. It's an improvement. There are still big problems with it, though. It would seem odd if time travel that doesn't change the past goes to our past and time travel when you do seem to change things ends up at other time lines. So a plausible version of this view must have every instance of time travel involve going to a similar time line, where it can generate a change that makes it diverge from the original one. The unwelcome consequence is that there isn't really anything that we can just flat-out call time travel. It's all Sliders-like world-jumping but with time travel too. You can never just time travel. That's an odd result.

Also, it does disastrous things to the fabric of a narrative in a fictional work that takes years and even decades to weave. Little did we know that the Star Trek canon time line isn't a constant world at all. Every time there's been time travel the characters have moved to a different world. We have no idea what happened after the events of City on the Edge of Forever in the time line that our characters began in. With such a view, it's not surprising that Orci wouldn't mind completely revising Star Trek history, because Spock of the TNG period going back to pre-TOS times and changing things would result in a different time line. That it violates canon is perfectly ok, even if the changes are drastic and far-reaching. It's a way to destroy the canon of Trek history while insisting that the original time line is untouched. It's crazy to think this won't anger fans who see Trek canon as something to build on, not to alter with impunity. It seems Orci wants to go by the letter of his time travel theory in good Pharisaical fashion to ignore the spirit of observing Star Trek canon while technically allowing it to remain in a time line that the movie doesn't follow (except to show that Spock and Nero will presumably never be in that time line again).

Worse still, Orci acts as if this theory of time travel is based on hard science, which just isn't true. The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is certainly held by a handful of scientists working in the philosophical end of theoretical physics. It's a far cry from being the majority view, as far as I've been able to tell, though, and it's certainly nothing in the area of being demonstrable by experimentation. I think, in fact, that it's in principle completely impossible to verify or falsify it. There are several other interpretations of quantum mechanics, and the only reason I know of for preferring the many-worlds interpretation is that it avoids the most plausible fine-tuning arguments for an intelligent designer, not a very compelling scientific reason. If Orci is willing to reinterpret all of Trek canon because of misinformation about what science teaches, that's unfortunate. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm hardly confident with the future of the franchise resting partly in his hands, judging by what this interview reveals. I thought maybe they would finally have an odd movie better than some of the even movies. I'm not so sure now.

doctor11.jpg

The outstanding revival of Doctor Who will soon be retiring another incarnation of the Doctor. David Tennant, who I think has been the best Doctor of the whole franchise, is going to move on to other things after several TV movies that also finish off the tenure of head writer Russell T. Davies, the man behind the series' revival. Steven Moffat, who is taking over the head writer's spot, happens to be my favorite writer of the bunch, having written three episodes that I'd put in the top ten of all time and one that unquestionably occupies the top spot. But there's been a bit of worry about who would become the eleventh Doctor. Rumors circulated that they might pick a woman or a black man. I'd be very surprised if they picked a woman, but I wouldn't have been surprised at all if they'd found a black man who could capture the essentials of the Doctor very well. They've certainly made great efforts to be racially inclusive in the revived show, marking a stark contrast with the very white casting of the original episodes.

It's strange, however, to see some of the response that I've seen now that they've finally chosen the eleventh Doctor, and he turns out to be white. It strikes me as affirmative action absolutism. To be clear what I mean, here are a number of different things people call affirmative action:

It can mean (1) outright quotas, where you guarantee a certain number of spots for whatever group you're extending affirmative action toward. This was originally what happened at the college and university level until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional for state and federal funding to be used that way.

It can mean (2) idealized quotas, where you lower the usual standards to try to reach a ballpark figure, but you don't do it by the numbers. It's effectively a quota, but because you're not an absolutist about an exact number of spots, the Supreme Court allowed it in 2003 as long as you don't use strict numerical criteria in letting race affect your calculations.

Then there's (3) what George W. Bush calls affirmative access, which is to go out of your way to find qualified candidates but not to lower your usual standards very much, and if there aren't qualified candidates in the target group or aren't as many as you'd like, then you don't lower the standards more to fill up the spots more.

The third policy has always struck me as the best, particularly for this sort of situation. You're casting for an iconic character with a history dating back over 40 years. You want to produce the best artistic product you can, and the choice of the lead role on such a show is huge. It would do a lot of good in the world to cast a black actor for the part. However, there are considerations more important than race, and those should never be put aside if it turns out all the black actors who audition are enough away from what you think the role needs to be like compared with a candidate who just stands out as perfect. According to all reports from the producers, they chose someone who does exactly that. He seemed exactly what they wanted. If they had a black actor who'd auditioned who could do the job passably, it seems to me that it would be immoral to hire him instead of the guy they went with. If they had someone who would have been great for the job if the guy they hired had never appeared, who perhaps might have otherwise been their first choice, then it becomes a harder question. It depends entirely on how much better their first choice is. It didn't sound like anyone was close from the way the producers were talking, though.

So it seems like this sort of complaint relies on a very strange moral premise, which I'll call affirmative action absolutism, a view that becomes very strange when applied to the case of there being only one spot. Somehow the idea is that whenever you've got an ongoing role where the actor can be replaced and not have to look anything like the previous actor, and all the previous actors were white, you've done something bad by not choosing a black one at the next opportunity. Such a view strikes me as completely crazy. Race is an important consideration, but it's not the only one, and there are other ones that can be more important. You have to know that none of the more important considerations are determining the decision to complain that something bad has gone on in the selection of a white actor to play the Doctor.

I can't see how anyone but the producers can flatly say that they've failed at some moral responsibility by choosing a white actor, because only those present at the auditions and casting decision meetings can know enough to assert that the producers are lying when they said Matt Smith stood out so far above the other auditioners that it was hard to consider anyone else. I very much doubt they're lying, though. Steve Moffat isn't out to cater to higher-ups in the BBC. He's a long-time fan who has a very good understanding of the essence of the character. He's a storyteller who wants to tell the best story he can with the best cast he can. Why would he choose someone and then lie about the reasons? It's extremely implausible. Besides, claiming that you know they're lying is stronger than wondering if it's true. Claiming you know it requires having been at the auditions and knowing that there are black actors who tried out who would have done just as good a job or almost as good a job as the Doctor. I very much doubt that's true of the complainers, since they almost certainly weren't present for any of that.

SciFi Samson

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Warner Brothers has announced a science fiction retelling of the Samson story in a futuristic context. SciFi Wire's description of Samson catches my interest:

Samson gives a futuristic twist to the story of the biblical strongman who was invincible until he was betrayed by Delilah, to whom he entrusted the secret that his strength came from his long hair.

I have no idea if they're just repeated something WB had given them or are going by their understanding of what the Samson story is about, but it strikes me as relying on a popular misconception of Samson, one that I've seen gotten right in pop culture only once that I can think of (and that was Veggie Tales' Minnesota Cuke: the Search for Samson's Hairbrush).

Samson's strength in the book of Judges doesn't derive from his hair at all. His hair is only mentioned twice. The first time is God's command to Samson's parents that he would be a Nazirite from birth, an exceptional situation given that a Nazirite vow was usually voluntary and temporary. Those who took the vow wouldn't cut their hair, among other restrictions, for the duration of their vow. Nothing is said there to tie the strength to the hair. His hair is simply part of his being a Nazarite. Nowhere else in the Samson narrative is his strength mentioned in the context of his hair until the Delilah account. His strength is simply something God gives him for use in judging those who are evil toward God's people. When Delilah presses him for an explanation, and he mentions his hair, with every reason to believe that she'd have it cut (given her past responses to his lies about the source of his strength), he in effect sets himself up to violate his vow. So God takes his strength away. But the narrative itself never endorses the view that his strength really did come from his hair.

Now it's possible that Samson himself really did think the hair was the source of the power, in which case the fact that he's willing to boil it down to his hair is a sign that he doesn't get it himself. That theme appears throughout Judges and the Samson narratives in particular. The judges get progressively less faithful and more mixed in motivation, culminating in Samson, who frequently shows little care for the Torah's stipulations, up to the point of putting himself in a position where his Nazirite status gets prematurely cut off (pun intended). But it's not clear that he really thought this, as far as I can tell, and the narrator never tells us this.

I can see how a scifi version of it can get some basic plot similarities, but it certainly loses the main point of the whole thing unless it's not replacing the religious elements with scifi ones but simply tells the story with that side intact but in a different context. I have a feeling they won't do that, though, since the point of doing a futuristic version of it is probably to have some science fiction explanation of how hair can contain within it the explanation for super-strength.

Galactica 4.5 Begins

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The last leg of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica aired last night. If you haven't seen it yet and intend to, you might want to avoid this post for now.

Eight months ago, I suggested a possibility for who the final Cylon model is. Based on the information available at the time, I had concluded that the final model must be someone who wasn't on Galactica when the four had heard the music. What I didn't have at the time (it came a few weeks later) was D'Anna Biers's revelation when she arrived in the colonial fleet that the final Cylon wasn't in the fleet at all. That actually rules out several people I'd considered in that post, but it doesn't eliminate my favored choice. In fact, it only made me more sure by eliminating the only other serious contender I was considering.

Even though I've given a spoiler warning, I want to save discussion of the details for after the jump, but I can say first that it looks like I was wrong in my May post about the significance of the numbering of the twelve models. Models 1-6 and 8 were the known models before the last scene of Season 3. The final five consisted of a group of four revealed at the end of season 3 plus one unknown, not revealed until the end of last night's episode. I suggested that maybe the four known of the final five were models 9-12 and the unknown one was model 7, a number often significant in numerology. But according to Wikipedia, Ron Moore has said that the final five aren't numbered. It also looks as if what sets the final model apart from the four we've seen is nothing significant in terms of origins. It's just that not all of the final five are still with the fleet, for reasons that have nothing to do (as far as we can tell) with how the final five got into the fleet to begin with. I don't think that's a big enough spoiler to have to put it after the jump, since it's based partly on Moore's statement and partly on information I was thinking through in my post back in May, not on what happened in the episode.

I do want to raise a question about this statement by Moore, though, before I muse on the details of last night's revelations. How can it be that the final five have no model numbers, and yet the seven we know do? It may be that the two groups have completely different origins. I get that. But why are the ones we first knew about numbered 1-6 and 8 if there's no number 7? If they're not going to number the final five, they at least need an explanation of why the seven are numbered the way they are, or they're going to look pretty foolish for setting things up that way and not thinking to work their revised storyline into an explanation for it (because I'm pretty sure the idea of the final five being different is a later idea, after they'd already numbered Sharon's model as Eight). I was almost expecting a downer after the excellent final episode of Stargate Atlantis last week, and there were certainly low points to this episode (most of the scenes focused on Adama, Roslin, Lee, and Dualla). But I'm looking forward to the rest of the season in a much greater way than I was at the end of the opening episode of the season back in March.

(Was it really that long ago? There's got to be some moral rule about spreading out two halves of the same season that much.)

As I was responding to this comment from Neil, I realized that I was getting into a bunch of issues that I don't think I've ever discussed comprehensively on this blog before, and I thought it might as well be its own post. Neil raises some questions about Christians reading (and presumably watching) science fiction and fantasy, questions that are more general (and more legitimate) than the common complaint about magic in fantasy. He wonders whether certain writers or stories (he has in mind a series by Stephen Donaldson that I'm not familiar with) can be dangerous in leaving behind what he calls an amoral residue. There's also the worry that spending time in fictional worlds is escaping from reality and might even be an addiction. It also might be a waste of time when there are more important things to do. He suggests that God might speak through such literature, but hasn't God spoken much more clearly in other ways already, so why should we need this kind of thing?

I think there can be a number of different healthy motivations for a Christian to read or watch science fiction or fantasy, many of them no different from the motivations for any other kind of fiction. One is simply entertainment. The idea that entertainment is just escape from reality seems wrong to me. I know people who think of it that way, but I don't think that's what they're actually doing when they see themselves as escaping. They might be distracting themselves from things they don't want to think about, but the things they're thinking about, while fictional, are based on reality in some way, or they couldn't think about them. It's just a rearrangement of real things, and those are good things that God created. It's also an engagement with the process of creation, an ability that I think God has given to us as part of being made in his image. The use of the imagination develops abilities God wants us to develop. Thinking about fictional worlds is one way to develop intellectual virtue. It's also simply good to enjoy good storytelling and to appreciate people using their God-given abilities to produce something enjoyable.

There are also moral themes in literature, and fiction of any kind helps us evaluate our lives in many ways. If the story in question only motivates moral evaluation of fictional cases, and those cases could never come up in real life, then at least it allows us to practice our ethical thinking in hard and strange cases, which is still a good skill to develop, because we will confront new situations that require such skills, especially as technology develops and social relations become further changed from what we see as the norm. But many ethical issues in fiction, even in fantasy and science fiction, are also going to come up in real life. Sometimes the author wants to make certain moral points, and sometimes we need to develop the ability to think for ourselves about those questions and not just accept what the author wants us to take away from it. But that's not a reason not to read or watch it except in cases where someone has a problem doing that. Maybe in Neil's case the Donaldson series was like that, and for all I know it might have that effect on me too (I know little about the series in question, so I have no idea). It's certainly worth being vigilant about how things affect you, but that's true of any fiction, and it's true of a lot of things besides fiction. It's true of observing how your friends live, and Paul tells us not to isolate ourselves from those who aren't Christians, even if he also says that Christians ought to live differently from the world.

I like fantasy and science fiction in particular because they help illustrate philosophical questions in ways that real life sometimes can't. One way to show that a sophisticated hedonism is wrong is to point out that with Harry Potter's invisibility cloak or Sauron's ring you could get away with almost anything you want, and it would still be wrong to do so. A sophisticated hedonism says it's only wrong to do certain things because it's against your self-interest (given that people will be mad at you for doing it and want to stop you and punish you). But these cases show that the real reason it's wrong isn't because it's against your self-interest, because you can achieve the self-interested goal in such cases, and it's still wrong. Scenarios like the Matrix or science fiction or fantasy worlds with very different social relations raise interesting questions about the moral principles that we assume as fundamental, because they lead us to wonder if they would apply in a very different situation. If I spent ten minutes coming up with a list, I could probably name off at least a dozen examples from science fiction and fantasy that I use regularly in my philosophy classes to illustrate points that are a lot harder to make clear or vivid without the aid of such examples.

So you don't need to think of fiction as revelation in any important sense to think that it provides an occasion for something that can be productive. It's bad if it distracts from more important things, as is true of any kind of enjoyable activity. At the same time, a little rest and relaxation, especially if it engages aspects of our thinking that we don't otherwise use, is part of being productive in the long run. So there has to be a balance, but I think this kind of imaginative fiction can contribute a lot of good toward our moral development and to our lives as well-rounded human beings, even if there are also risks and dangers, as there are with most pursuits in life.

Fantasy Recommendations

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We usually listen to audiobooks while we're driving. We've gone through the whole Harry Potter series (after reading them in hard copy). We've also tried out some new authors. We didn't like Ursula LeGuin's first Earthsea book very much, but we did like Terry Goodkind's first Sword of Truth book (something I can't say about the new TV adaptation Legend of the Seeker, which doesn't have much of anything to do with the book besides the character names and a few very general characteristics taken from the original storyline but modified enough to remove the most interesting aspects). Sam has long been a fan of Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, and we listened to one of those also (after having read a bunch). I'm not as impressed with her writing, but I like the world she's created, which is one of the things I like about fantasy and science fiction in general.

One of the problems we keep running into is that we listen to something and then can't continue on because our library doesn't have an audio version of the next volume in the series. They don't have the second Goodkind book or the next McCaffrey one after Moreta, where we left off. We also are re-reading Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, and the library had book 6, so we've been listening to that, but they only have a few more, and they're much later in the series. We could always listen to books we've read or ones one of us has read. I'm thinking Lloyd Alexander might be good (new to Sam). There is always Tolkien or Lewis if we want to go through those again. Our library system has Stephen Lawhead's first few volumes in the Arthur/Pendragon series. I tried reading the first one when it came out but didn't get very far, and maybe having an audio version would make it easier to get through it.

But I'm wondering if anyone has further recommendations of authors to try who would be similar to what we've liked. I don't like Stephen Donaldson. I thought his white gold series was awful. Besides what I've mentioned, we both really like Terry Brooks. I've thought about Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, Raymond Feist, Fred Saberhagen, Katherine Kerr, and David Eddings, but their respective first volumes aren't in the library system. They do have some of the Dune series, including the first one, but I'm somewhat hesitant about that unless Sam decides to push it. Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber is available, but I don't know much about that other than seeing his name mentioned a lot in scifi/fantasy contexts.

Batman sues Warner Brothers

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When I read that Batman was suing WB for the use of the name 'Batman', I was sure I was reading a wrongly-timed April Fools joke. But apparently it's true. It's not what you'd think, though. A Turkish town called Batman has sued Warner Brothers for using their name. I'm not entirely sure why D.C. Comics isn't their target, since they've clearly been using the name for far much longer.

Dawkins vs. Potter

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In a bizarrely ironic twist, Richard Dawkins has joined the anti-Harry-Potter bandwagon. I wonder if his allies in this fight will appreciate his help.

It reminds me of when secular feminists decided to recognize the harm pornography contributes toward women. The difference here is that Dawkins' reasons don't seem to be anything like the usual anti-Harry crowd's. Religious opposition to pornography typically involves some reasons the recent feminist opposition hasn't included (such as its being wrong to lust after someone you're not married to), but Focus on the Family and other evangelical groups that have opposed pornography have long accepted many of the same arguments that feminist opponents of pornography have more recently come to. It objectifies women. It sends a message about women that harms them and psychologically influences the men who view it in a way that leads them to do things that further affect women negatively. I've seen one prominent feminist, Catherine MacKinnon, claim that her religious allies against pornography didn't share any of her reasons, but when I read that I couldn't help but conclude that she hadn't actually talked to James Dobson, Josh McDowell, or any others among the most prominent evangelicals opposing pornography. I'd heard almost all of MacKinnon's arguments from evangelicals while growing up.

Dawkins, on the other hand, shares very little in reasoning with other Potter foes. He doesn't fear that kids are going to become Satanists because they read fantasy literature, and he doesn't care a whole lot about whether the series teaches kids bad morals. (By the way, David Baggett's chapter in Harry Potter and Philosophy gives an excellent response to such arguments, especialyl on the latter issue.) Dawkins just worries about whether it's a good thing to stir kids' imaginations about things that aren't possible given the way the physical world works in real life, and his reason for that is that he expects fantastical literature to open kids' minds up to the possibility that naturalism is false, which might make them more likely to become creationists or something.

Warning: for those who have not read the last two books of the Harry Potter series, this post does include spoilers.

Before she wrote Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling answered a question about the Fidelius charm on her website:

When a Secret-Keeper dies, their secret dies with them, or, to put it another way, the status of their secret will remain as it was at the moment of their death. Everybody in whom they confided will continue to know the hidden information, but nobody else.

Just in case you have forgotten exactly how the Fidelius Charm works, it is

"an immensely complex spell involving the magical concealment of a secret inside a single, living soul. The information is hidden inside the chosen person, or Secret-Keeper, and is henceforth impossible to find -- unless, of course, the Secret-Keeper chooses to divulge it" (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)

In other words, a secret (eg, the location of a family in hiding, like the Potters) is enchanted so that it is protected by a single Keeper (in our example, Peter Pettigrew, a.k.a. Wormtail). Thenceforth nobody else - not even the subjects of the secret themselves - can divulge the secret. Even if one of the Potters had been captured, force fed Veritaserum or placed under the Imperius Curse, they would not have been able to give away the whereabouts of the other two. The only people who ever knew their precise location were those whom Wormtail had told directly, but none of them would have been able to pass on the information.

This seemed fine to me when I read it. But then I read Deathly Hallows. Hermione Granger seems to contradict the above explanation. She acts as if everyone in on the secret becomes a Secret-Keeper once the Secret-Keeper dies. If that's right, then the secret can be spread after the Secret-Keeper is dead, and it can be spread by anyone who was told the secret. This is why she thinks the Death Eaters know about Sirius' house once they apparate into its location with a Death Eater in tow. As Secret-Keepers, they can reveal the site to someone.

There's one problem with this. Severus Snape was also in on the secret, and he could have told them the secret. He didn't, and he would have had to have an excuse. If the secret couldn't be told by those who were merely told it, then he would still have that excuse. So is this a sign that Hermione is wrong and Rowling's original explanation is correct? Not necessarily. Perhaps Snape was lying about who the Secret-Keeper was, and Voldemort didn't know it had been Dumbledore. Then Snape would still have an out, and he could pretend not to be able to say. So this isn't really strong evidence that Rowling's original explanation was correct after all.

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