Decoding Alice in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland DecodedIt is tempting to suggest author David Day’s lush new book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded is the final word on the mysteries and secrets behind Lewis Carroll’s iconic children’s fantasy, but alas, it would be an over-reach. Surely others will follow, perhaps even Day himself will extend his research to a sequel.

Aside from the difficulties of probing the motives of a man dead more than 125 years, there comes the question of interpretation, which is more like opinion than it is fact. Looking back 150 years at possible explanations for a reference or a character sometimes involves guesswork.

But even from its original publication, people knew there was more to Alice than a simple children’s tale replete with frivolous nonsense. As Day explains, Carroll himself acknowledged some of the references and metaphors. But there remain others for be dug out of the text like opals from the Australian bedrock. Day is a superb, if sometimes eccentric, prospector.

In an interview in the National Post, it notes,

Day also argues that the book was meant to give a classical education to someone like Alice, who, as a girl, wouldn’t be able to attend Oxford. Every character in Wonderland then becomes an allusion to a scholar or to a figure in Greek mythology; a reference to mathematical concept or to a famous work of art; or, quite frequently, a combination of all of the above.

It is fun, in a conspiracy-theory sort of way, to entertain hidden references to ancient gods, myths and mysteries, but as Sigmund Freud allegedly said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Those of you old enough to remember the Von Daniken Chariots of the Gods books know how quickly such egregious assumptions can be discredited and ridiculed.

Still, Day’s effort is not to be dismissed: his arguments and theories are well explained and generally compelling. It is, to date, the most comprehensive and wide-ranging peek behind the Alice curtain, and certainly most elegantly published version (the full-colour hardcover is gorgeous). It took the author almost two decades to research and write.

And it’s a good social biography of Carroll and his milieu, although it helps if you know something about the Victorian era, the British Empire, the impact of Darwin, and the social and political attitudes of the day.

But don’t lose track of the prime reason Carroll wrote the book: to entertain, delight and (possibly) educate children. Let’s not rub off all the innocence and the magic by too much analysis. As The Telegraph noted of the original book:

Future generations may see other hidden meanings. In a tale this rich, it seems highly likely they will. But for children the story itself, with its universal theme of an innocent youngster attempting to make sense of a strange adult world, is enough.

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Where Have all the Readers Gone?

books, glorious booksNo, it’s not a remake of Pete Seeger’s famous 1955 anti-war song. That’s the title of an article that appeared in the Globe and Mail this week, by Peter Denton, lamenting our overall slide into image-based information with the “…intellectual attention span of squirrels…” *

It grabbed my attention from the headline, but I stand at odds over his conclusions and his figures.

Denton worries that people are reading less and sliding towards “personal illiteracy”:

It’s not that e-books are taking over, either. People hardly buy books any more. Even fewer read them. My e-book sales are almost non-existent and I am told this is a common complaint. Canada’s one large book retailing chain stocks as much other stuff as it does books and displays it much more prominently.
Simply put, we are no longer a country of readers – at least not of more than 1,000 words in a row. Anything longer is skipped over like those Internet terms of service agreements, jumping to the agree button at the end.

Now I realize I am not your typical reader, and may be the exception to the rule, but I think my generation is, on average, both very well-read and continues to read a significant amount. My parents were avid readers and they shared their love of books with me. But more than that, for me a good time is an hour or two simply browsing in a bookstore or library. Hell, even wandering through my own personal library is a delight because I always find something to pull off a shelf and look through.

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Who By Fire

I’ve been reading a biography of Leonard Cohen, recently: the 2012 I’m Your Man, by Sylvie Simmons. It’s an interesting journey through the life and thoughts of an exquisite artist who is, by nature, somewhat reclusive and stays out of the spotlight, but is deeply dedicated to his art.

I don’t normally read “star” bios or autobiographies – frankly they often seem contrived and the lives portrayed, no matter how gussied up in prose, merely shallow. Most of them I categorize as “who cares?” books.

Even those musicians I respect and admire have little to keep me turning pages. I struggled with Keith Richards’ autobio and never finished it. In Eric Clapton’s bio I got through a mere chapter. I read the two-volume bio of Elvis, but it took months to complete. I have read a few Beatles’ bios, mostly because they were such a huge influence on me when I was young. Most of these books, however, bore me with their similarities and unbridled adulation.

But not this one. I was glued to it (as much as I can be glued to any one book when I’m always reading a dozen at a time).

Cohen interests me for many reasons. First, he’s Canadian and that colours his work and his life for me in ways an American or British artist cannot. Not many Canadian writers or musicians garner the praise and awards he has.

Second, he was first a poet and novelist before a songwriter, and I have an appreciation – bordering on worship – of both talents in others. I read his poems and books when I was a sales rep for McClelland and Stewart, in the mid-70s, and even met him once at a party thrown for M&S authors. I still have several of his books in my library.

Third, he eschewed the glamour and glitter that permeates most stars’ lives and lived plainly, simply and austerely. I respect people who do not feel the need to wear their money on their sleeve. He makes himself known by his literary and musical achievements, not by his bling.

Fourth, he studied and practiced Buddhism for many years, and was even ordained a Buddhist monk – a dedication and effort I can only admire from afar; my dabblings in Buddhism seem like a splash through a rain puddle in comparison. Yet the grandson of a respected rabbi also retained his Jewish faith and culture.

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Just My Type

BemboThose long legs. Gently sloping shoulders. The swelling curves above and below. The sophisticated line of the throat. Everything to attract me, to draw my aging eye, to warm my heart. The sensual Bembo. She’s my kind of type.

Bembo is one of the great Renaissance typefaces that has since been revived. It was designed by Francesco Griffo and first used in a book of poems and essays by scholar Pietro Bembo, published by printer Aldus Manutius, in 1495. Monotype recut it for modern use in 1929, digitized it in 1990 and more recently, in 2005, redesigned it for today’s printing as Bembo Book.

Bembo Book’s designer, Robin Nicholas, says this of the typeface:

Bembo was drawn to embody the elegance and fine design features of the original but marry them with the consistency of contemporary production methods… (Bembo Book) is slightly narrower than existing digital versions of Bembo, it is a little more economical in use and gives excellent colour to continuous pages of text. Ascending lowercase letters are noticeably taller than capitals, giving an elegant, refined look to the text.

Adobe also made a Bembo typeface, but it seems to have drawn criticism from the admittedly rarefied community of type aficionados. Thomas Christensen, who writes The Typehead Chronicles, says this:

Adobe Bembo, however, has received a lot of criticism in the typophilic community for not living up to the quality of the metal version. It is said to be light and spindly and to produce a palid gray page. (Some of this criticism may be overdone.)
Some recommend Minion as an alternative, but I am not a fan of Minion. Another proposed alternative is Dante, but I think it has an entirely different feel. There are a couple of new versions of Bembo-like digital fonts that might be worth looking into. One is JY Aetna by Jack Yan. Another is the new Yale typeface by Matthew Carter, but it is only “available to Yale employees, students, and authorized contractors for use in Yale publications and communications,” a restriction that is a giant step backward.
Now, in 2005, Monotype has released a new digital version of Bembo, called Bembo Book. It is said that this version restored many of the admirable qualities of the letterpress Bembo…

Although dismissed by Christensen, Robert Bringhurst’s book, The Elements of Typographic Style, is set in Minion (with captions in Scala Sans), possibly because it doesn’t intrude into the language and the message (Bringhurst shows many typefaces in his examples). For the most part, a typeface should not be visible to the reader any more than a  window pane is to someone looking outside.

But it will be visible to a typographer or graphic artist, much like one magician knows another magician’s tricks. The trained eye will see how the text flows, how the eye is directed, how well the elements balance.

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Judas, a Biography

Judas kissLong before Darth Vader, long before Lord Voldemort, long before Stephen Harper, Judas Iscariot reigned as the supreme icon of evil in Western mythology. Judas betrayed God. How much worse can you get?*

For 2,000 years we’ve used the term Judas to refer to anyone who betrayed anything, any cause, any belief, any friendship. Yet, like all the icons of evil that came before, and who have followed, Judas holds a fascination for us that transcends his actions.

Dante consigns him to the ninth circle of hell, one of three traitors forever chewed in the mouths of the three-headed Satan. Yet Brutus, Cassius (the other two sinners in Dante’s story), Benedict Arnold, and Vidkun Quisling never achieved such attention or notoriety. They were all were members of their respective inner circles; all betrayed their friends,their beliefs and their leaders. But they are paltry shadows beside Judas.

Perhaps that’s in part because none of the others are religious symbols, and religion far too often brings out the extreme in people.

Susan Gubar’s 2009 book, Judas, a Biography, which I’ve been reading of late, is a fascinating look at the relationship the West has had with Judas these two millennia, and how he appears in art, music, literature, religion and popular culture. Judas has become a reflection of a lot about ourselves: our fears, our religion, our mythologies, our politics, our behaviour.

Many of us have had the deeply disturbing experience of betrayal in our own lives; someone trusted, a friend or lover, someone we cared deeply about who betrayed us. And when that betrayal is over something crass like money or political favour, it cuts us deeply. We never forget, never forgive our own personal Judas.**

But who was Judas that we still use his name for such acts?

The Gospels are spare in their actual history of Judas, even in his final acts. But a whole body of legend has grown up around the man, his family, his parents, his childhood and, of course, his afterlife. All of which, as Gubar points out, is merely imagined; unsubstantiated by any historical documentation, but become part of the mythology. All of it meant to polish his evil sheen, rather than redeem him.

What’s to redeem, you might ask? Well, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

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Myth and Meaning

From My Buddhist Life on Facebook
People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues help us find within ourselves.

So says Joseph Campbell in an interview with Bill Moyers, 1987, published in the book, The Power of Myth. The book is based on a 1988 PBS documentary about Campbell’s life and studies. You can see the episodes of the show on billmoyers.com and read the transcript. The above quote comes from the book (paperback edn, p.4) which has considerable material not aired in the TV series.

Campbell was the doyen of mythology and comparative religion studies, and author of numerous books on the subjects. He was closely associated with the Jungian school of psychology, too. He died just before the TV series was aired.*

Campbell wrote the now-famous The Hero With a Thousand Faces in 1949, a book that has hugely influenced writers and screenwriters ever since. It lays out the core ‘hero’s journey’ in all mythology and great literature. Anyone interested in becoming a novelist will have read it by now, or at least read one of the many spin-off titles that explain the progression and cycle Campbell expounds.

In The Power of Myth, Campbell explains why reading mythology – and by extension by reading fiction – we humanize ourselves and connect with our collective past. And how it broadens our understanding of the world and other cultures:

Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts – but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message.

When you consider the parallel rise of the Christian and Islamic fundamentalists – the scripture literalists – you can appreciate Campbell’s advice. Reading only the mythologies of our own religion and culture, we fail to appreciate that they are myths. Without the broader vision, we collectively interpret our myths as facts, rather than allegories and metaphors.

One of the reasons I oppose home schooling as dangerous is that it tends to breed this sort of inward-looking approach; to keep children within the narrow confines of a particular religious interpretation, rather than let them experience the culture and myths of others. It creates irrational beings.

Home-schooled children never get to glimpse the rich possibilities of life, to see the choices and the options available to other children. They never get to realize their own visions, only to fulfill the visions of their parents. They never get to go through what Campbell called the necessary rituals to become members of the tribe and the community. They cannot function rationally in the world without those rituals.

Home schooling instead rolls out easily-indoctrinated child soldiers, sexist and racist, armed for the culture wars against the heathens, the pagans and other inferiors.

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1914: My Grandfathers’ Year

War is announced in London

As I read further into Max Hastings’ book, Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914, I wondered, as I have done in the past when reading similar books about that time, what my grandfathers must have felt when that war broke out.

What it meant to them and their worldview, and to their imagined futures, both at the start of the war, and then at the end, after four years of struggle, of deprivation, of fighting.

What was it like to finally come home? What did they think, then, of the world? Of their leaders? Of their own nationalism? Of the results? Was it worth the years? Was it worth the cost of their youth, their innocence? Did the end justify the means?

I’ve looked at the photographs taken then, but they only give me a generic appreciation, a two-dimensional view. A book in my library, Collier’s Photographic History of the European War (1916) has photographs taken during the first two years of the war, of the leaders, the soldiers, of the ruined cities, of the armies, but while they fascinate me, none really convey the sense of horror, desperation, and terror that the war engendered.*

What did my grandfathers feel? How did they sleep? Did they dream of bombs and artillery shells? What did their wives at home think? Was every passing day without news a good dayor a reason to worry more? Did they sit alone in the evening as the sky darkened and wonder where their young husbands were? Did they imagine them dead?

Both my grandfathers were young men, in their mid-20s in August, 1914. It was expected that they would join the war. That’s what patriotic young men did. Duty to king and country. And, although I don’t know the exact dates they enlisted, both men did.

I only know my grandfather in England signed up in Oldham or MAnchester, and went to war in Egypt and Palestine. Across the ocean, my grandfather in Canada went aboard the Niobe in Halifax, to patrol the Atlantic. They survived the war, both of them, and came home intact. Millions didn’t.

Both had grown to manhood in a period of great change and upheaval in the previous two decades: technology, industry, politics, medicine and science all went through transformations that changed the way people did and perceived things. It’s hard to imagine now, but the technological changes in the years before WWI were earth-shaking. They transformed everything and everyone they touched.

But so did society change. Old orders were challenged. New politics emerged. New ideas often expressed themselves in dramatic and violent ways, polarizing everyone involved.

There was, for the first time, a shared popular culture: theirs was the first generation raised under the influence of the phonograph. It’s hard for us, more than a century later with our iTunes and iPods and streaming media, to imagine what impact that one device had on culture and society, but it was huge in their day. It created mass – pop – culture.

It was only a couple of decades before their birth that submarine telegraph cables linked the world so messages could be transmitted instantaneously. That changed the way people saw the news, therefore their world picture. News that once took weeks, even months to travel by post now took seconds. Events that took place around the globe were no longer distant in both time and geography. They were immediate. And immediacy helped propel the war.

Theirs was also the first generation to grow up with the telephone. While still limited in range when they left for war, it would within their lives reach from across town to across continents and then overseas.

In November 1915, the one millionth car rolled of the Ford assembly line. That is just one car company of several in America at the time, and it had been in business only a dozen years by then. The automobile was rapidly changing social and community life, changing the way people travelled and worked. It de-isolated people from their surroundings.

So did the airplane. The short flight at Kitty Hawk had taken place the same year Ford opened his factory: 1903. While commercial air travel was still years away, the airplane fired imaginations and would play an important role in the war.

Einstein’s remarkable insights into the cosmos were forcing a re-evaluation of how the universe worked, how it was structured. New forms of literature, of art, of music, poetry and even dance flooded popular culture.

Nothing seemed solid. Everything was shifting, in flux. Old rules, old ideas were being overthrown and replaced with the new. It seemed an exciting time, but also a time when everything has become unstuck, unanchored from its past. Tradition fell prey to novelty.

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In Search of Kant’s Categorical Imperative

I have not read Immanuel Kant. Until recently, I did not feel at all apologetic about that statement. But when I watched the video above, I realized how much I was missing. A remarkable thinker, he proves to be, whose thoughts about society, religion, behaviour and politics appear at first glance quite akin to my own cogitations. And in many ways, his conclusions – at least as stated in the video – seem very Buddhist in nature. That “categorical imperative” seems most intriguing, and familiar in many ways, and I want more explanation.

The video, above, was posted on my Facebook timeline via Open Culture with this description:

His primary ethical mandate, which he called the “categorical imperative,” enables us—Alain de Botton tells us in his short School of Life video above—to “shift our perspective, to get us to see our own behavior in less immediately personal terms.” It’s a philosophical version, de Botton says, of the Golden Rule. “Act only according to that maxim,” Kant famously wrote of the imperative in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, “by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

I had read about Kant, of course, mostly in works about the development of Western philosophy, but not his own words.

My personal efforts to read the European Enlightenment philosophers to date has been much like wading through treacle. This is why I usually prefer a more modern, conflated synthesis. But that has the problem of distance: I end up reading an interpretation of his words, not the words themselves (which would be a translation, compounding the matter). I need to know more; I need more depth to better understand his ideas and how they relate to my world.

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Read, Re-read, Repeat

Master and MargaritaI’m currently re-reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s fantasy novel of Soviet life under Stalin, The Master and Margarita. Since this is actually a newer translation than the original one I read many years ago, I’m not sure it properly qualifies as “re-reading.” However, for me, re-reading a novel is uncommon.

I seldom have the time to re-read, because my current reading list never dwindles (in fact it grows as I continue to add books to my library). Plus my interests and not static: I constantly seek to learn new things.*

I always have a dozen books on the go, piled beside my bed in an unruly assortment. Most of these are nonfiction: history, politics, philosophy, science and style guides in particular.

Among that pile are books about books, including a newcomer I added a week or so ago: Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great. It’s a book about the joys of re-reading science fiction and fantasy.

I tend not to read such collections of reviews, but when I glanced through her pieces while standing in the bookstore, I was impressed by not only how many authors and titles she has read, but on how many I didn’t know.

I’ve always thought of myself as a scifi buff with a fair bit of background knowledge and reading (not, I’ll admit, as much about fantasy). But Walton’s reading list makes me an amateur who has barely scratched the surface. There are many whose names I recognize, and some works I’ve read, but among the dozens of titles and authors are far too many with which I have little knowledge, let alone have read.

And Walton is re-reading them, That simply flabbergasts me. I’ve always thought of myself as a voracious reader, but she outstrips me as rapidly as a motorcycle passes a pedestrian on a highway.

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A Sense of Pinker’s Style

Sense of StyleI share one of Steven Pinker’s passions: I like to read style books, grammar books, language books. To me, they’re like literary chemistry sets. When I was young, getting a chemistry set for Christmas or a birthday opened a whole world to me. I’d explore all sorts of interactions and experiments until I had run out of chemicals to do them with. Used litmus paper littered my bedroom.

Reading a book on style or usage is similarly exciting to me. How words can be placed, can work together, how they meld or conflict, the alchemy and the choreography of language, all delight me. There’s magic in writing.

I have a wall of books about language, about style, usage, etymology and meaning. Pinker’s works are just a few among many that date back to the early 20th century. The greats are there: Bernstein, Fowler, Stunk and White, Gower, Flesch, the CMOS, as well as AP, CP media stylebooks, Blackburn, Crystal, Walsh, Pinker and many others.

I recently got Copperud’s American Usage and Style: The Consensus (1981) and have been reading it at bedtime. I never tire of them.

No, this isn’t a strange pastime for someone involved in writing . Everyone who cherishes his or her art and craft as a writer reads style and grammar books, and does so regularly and eagerly. I don’t know a reporter or editor of any merit who doesn’t read them. Only amateurs don’t.

You expect a doctor to keep up on medical trends through books and journals. You expect a builder to keep up on changing codes and materials. You expect an IT guru to keep up with technologies and trends. Why wouldn’t you expect a writer to do the same? Language and style, after all, are always in flux. Anyone who doesn’t read such books regularly doesn’t deserve the name of writer.

Since writing is a critical mode of communication, everyone should know at least the basics. And books help remind us of them. It doesn’t have to be stodgy or boring: there are plenty of humorous and entertaining books on grammar and punctuation. Lynn Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves, for example. Karen Gordon’s Transitive Vampire series is another.

If you don’t quite get the difference between they’re, there and their, or its and it’s, or your and you’re, you really should take the time and learn. Language is a tool you can use as a chainsaw or scalpel: coarsely or effectively. But back to Steven Pinker. He’s not one of your basic book authors.

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Mao: The Unknown Dictator

Mao, the Unknown StoryAlthough I have read many biographies of the European dictators, and many histories of Europe and the Americas in the first half of the 20th century, I hadn’t read much about modern China until recently. Mao: The Unknown Story (by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday) was the first full-length biography I’ve read about Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong) and it is a remarkable work about a time and place in history that remains veiled to most of us even today.

Mao’s rise to power and his leadership that won the Communist Party its iron-fisted rule in China has often been portrayed as one of courage, sacrifice, determination and brilliance. Western journalists like Edgar Snow helped make Mao a sympathetic, even heroic character in Western eyes. But it was a sham. Snow was fooled into creating an image by being fed carefully doctored material. Mao’s image in the west was whitewashed in an effective propaganda campaign (one is reminded of the story of the Potemkin villages…).

According to Chang and Halliday, Mao’s life and political career has more in common with that of Josef Stalin than any other political leaders. He was, they write, a monster, responsible for the deaths of at least 70 million Chinese,more than any other international leader (I have read claims for higher figures about Stalin, however), mostly during the catastrophic “Great Leap Forward.”

I have to admit I struggled a bit trying to keep track of a host of characters with whom I had no familiarity, especially those who appear at the start of Mao’s career and don’t last its length. Of the roster of Mao’s friends and foes who appear later, I only really knew from my previous reading about Chou En Lai,  Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao; and not really all that much about them.

I knew a little more about Jiang Qing, of course, because Madame Mao got Western media coverage when the Gang of Four fell from grace after Mao’s death. Most of my previous reading on China has been about its classical philosophers and poets. I knew more about Li Po, Tu Fu and Lao Tzi than about Mao and his minions. But I am trying to educate myself in China’s modern history.

Reading about Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” in this book, I thought about several Western novels: Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Golding’s Lord of the Flies, all of which have some resonance. I also thought about Jan Wong’s excellent biography, Red China Blues, in which she found her youthful idealism for Mao’s China dissolved in the hypocrisy she discovered when she went to live there.

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CRAP Design

The Non-Designer's Design BookCRAP: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity. An unfortunate acronym from the four basic principles of graphic design first expounded in Robin Williams’ delightful little book, The Non-Designer’s Design Book. It’s now in its fourth edition, adding 24 pages since the last edition, almost 50 since the 2nd and more than 100 since the first).

Of all my books on graphic design, this has been my favourite for several years, ever since I bought the first edition in the late 1990s. It condenses so much information, so many ideas, so many nuances into clear, understandable principles.

Plus, it’s well-illustrated, with many visual examples of good and bad design.

Every chapter and many sections offer some quiz, test, or challenge for readers to work on. None of which are terribly difficult and some of which are subjective, so there’s no right or wrong answer. But it’s a good exercise because sometimes the answers reveal things we missed in our initial exploration.

Since Williams came up with the CRAP list, it has been expanded and enhanced by others online. The principles have been included in courses, infographics and videos, too. They apply not only to printed publications, but digital ones as well, as this site shows.  You can find many more online, and I recommend you do so. But go back to the original to see how and where it started.

Other principles are often expounded on by subsequent authors: whitespace, balance, flow, scale, focal point, hierarchy, unity, movement, variety, emphasis, gradation, proportion and grouping for example – but you can tackle these once you’re understood the essence of CRAP.

I can recommend this book to everyone who does any sort of design, from PowerPoint slides to rack cards to brochures and even town newsletters. If you aren’t a graphic designer – and I am not – then it will give you the basics to help understand what design is all about. If you are, it’s a good reminder of the core principles.

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In Praise of Audio Books

Audio booksAlthough I had listened to them in the past, I really discovered the joys of audio books several years ago, when my 92-year-old father entered hospital for his final months. As I travelled to and from the city frequently that summer, audio books kept me entertained and my mind from dwelling on the more serious questions of his health and mortality.

Travelling to Toronto to visit my mother in her nursing home, for several years after he passed away, often became a trip with audio books, too. Although I have always been an avid and voracious reader, CD recordings soon found a place in my library alongside the printed books. And, this year, her 95th, as I drove to and from the city, I again found them an equal source of distracting comfort.

Today, as I walk my dogs, I listen to audio books still. Sophie’s 14; old and slow, a little stiff, and she pokes along, stopping frequently to sniff. Listening keeps me from becoming impatient with her glacial pace. Some days I actually appreciate her slowness more because I get to finish a chapter.

Reading and hearing a story create quite different responses in the audience. A well-read story creates a remarkable emotional reaction in the listener in a way that reading the same book doesn’t. That, of course, is why radio shows were so popular before TV pretty much wiped them out. But I grew up in the last period of the era of great radio dramas and remember listening to them with fondness. I still get a kick out of them.

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The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction

I have been reading the essays of the late critic, Walter Benjamin, most famous for his 1936 piece, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction (an earlier translation of this essay is available here). Wikipedia notes of this essay that it has been,

…influential across the humanities, especially in the fields of cultural studies, media theory, architectural theory[1] and art history. Written at a time when Adolf Hitler was already Chancellor of Germany, it was produced, Benjamin wrote, in the effort to describe a theory of art that would be “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” He argued that, in the absence of any traditional, ritualistic value, art in the age of mechanical reproduction would inherently be based on the practice of politics.

While Benjamin writes of the authenticity of a work of art and how a reproduction lacks this (and how this affects the experience of the viewer), it came to me that some forms of art – novels in particular, but also the book in which his essays are reproduced – are meant for mass reproduction. Without the technology of mass reproduction, printed material was limited in its influence and reach. This in turn limited literacy itself.

Benjamin also mentions the lithograph as a technology that reproduced art, both of which are related to the printing revolution. He doesn’t mention its contemporary technology, steel engraving, which was developed at the same time. Lithography is a chemical process, while engraving is mechanical.

But what I think he ignores is that neither was intended to reproduce a piece of art, but rather to create a unique piece that could be reproduced with integrity (for example, illustrations in a book, but engraving was also used extensively for printing money). The artists who perfected these forms meant for their work to be copied and printed. Only when the plate or stone wore out from use, and finer details become smudged or lost, would the piece begin to lose its authenticity.

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.

Benjamin was not merely commenting on art, but on politics and society. He opens with a somewhat mixed Marxist analysis, rambling a bit before making the point that modern reproduction takes art from its original use as religious and ritual items to the realm of the political. Mechanical reproduction removes art from its role, and in doing so changes the viewer’s aesthetic appreciation of it. In the essay, he gives the example of a photograph of a cathedral, which removes the viewer from the emotional and religious experience of being in the actual building.

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Ex Machina

Ex MachinaEx Machina – “from the machine” – is a British film that is more about philosophy and morality than science. It opens a can or worms, philosophically, that underscores issues now being raised by advancing and increasingly intelligent technology. Its spare but crisp production reminds me of George Lucas’s first film, THX-1138.

Spoiler alert, by the way…

It is, in its essence, a modern exploration of the themes presented in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, using artificial intelligence as the  fulcrum, rather than the reanimating of dead tissue.

The film poses questions that are current in all AI research, but are also important on the larger ethical scale about how we treat intelligence outside our own, robots in this case being metaphors for companion and food animals:

  • How do we define sentience?
  • How do we recognize sentience in others?
  • How do we treat sentience?
  • Is there a separate morality and behaviour for our interaction with non-human intelligence?

None of these are answered in the film, although the quest for the answers is part of the plot (which is also part-thriller). And lingering over all of it is the Turing Test: is it real sentience or simply the illusion of it? And how can we tell the difference?

It also suggests the question of what exactly emotions are:

  • Can emotions be programmed?
  • Are emotions predictable and quantifiable?
  • Can a machine experience emotions?

Then there are the questions about gender and sexuality:

  • Is gender programmable?
  • Does sexuality reside in the intellect or the physical appearance? or both?
  • What attracts men and women?

The film also poses the question that is paramount in Frankenstein:

  • Is the human creation of an intelligence moral or ethical? Can it ever be?
  • What treatment or response does the creation deserve?

And as a sub-theme, the film throws in the morality of slavery and male domination: earlier models of robot appear to be kept as sex slaves by their designer (particularly Kyoko, the assistant and cook, who is revealed to be a robot only half-way through the film – and is perhaps more enigmatic and interesting than Ava, the lead character).

Are these merely sexbots: tools and devices for use, or are they sentient beings? Plus, the main robot, Ava, has evident and expressive sexuality. Is it real/authentic (i.e. a native response) or simply programmed? Are the males  – who both play a dominant role – sexist or sympathetic in their responses to the female robots?

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