July 24, 2007

Darned Obsessed Muggles Delayed My Detergent Purchase

Category: Literature — Cranky @

At 1:00 a.m. this past Friday I went to a drug store to pick up a few things. Imagine my surprise when I got there, and there was a long, meandering line at the till that looped back on itself, and then went right out the door and down the street. Now these late night trips are nothing new for me. I’m a night owl, and I don’t usually get to bed before 3:00 a.m. on weekends. So I knew that this line was unusual.

Suddenly I knew what had happened – the new Harry Potter book was out.

You know, a lot of people suffer under the delusion that print is dead, and that kids don’t read. Well, this new book sold 5000 copies per minute for the first day, not so much breaking records as vaporizing them. Kids (and adults) have devoured each volume of the series, and the size of some of those books is prodigious indeed. 800 page volumes are not normal for “children’s” books, and yet these kids (who “don’t read”, after all) weren’t turned off in the slightest.

So what’s the point? Children like to read. You only have to write something they want to read.

Anybody who has read the series knows that these books do not read like they are written for children. There are complex social interactions, serious themes, and, dare I say it, big words, but Rowling knows that if you treat kids seriously, they respond well. One of her biggest regrets was dumbing down the title of the first book for American audiences. She bent to the will of Scholastic, the publisher, who believed that the word “Philosopher” would turn off U.S. children.

Like Tolkien before her, she knows the secret. Write fantasy like it’s real, and deadly serious, and people will buy it. Kids will read it. I suspect she’s done far more for literacy than “hooked on phonics” ever did, and we can only hope she continues to write, or that other authors make that elusive connection to today’s youth. 


July 16, 2007

Won't Somebody Think of the Horses?

Category: Social — Cranky @

This morning I read in the newspaper that there has been yet another accident at the Calgary Stampede. Three horses died in a wreck during the chuckwagon races, which are part of the annual celebration.

It’s a bit disturbing that I was unsurprised. After all, my perception is that the Calgary Stampede is a rollicking good horse-killing time for the whole family to enjoy. But is that perception accurate? I decided to do a bit of research. Turns out that my perception is completely accurate.

2002 – 6 horses dead in chuckwagon race accidents.

2004 – 1 rodeo horse put down.

2005 – 9 horses drowned in the Bow River after being spooked into jumping off a bridge.

2006 – 2 horses dead, one of a heart attack, one put down after a derby accident.

2007 – 3 horses dead in the aforementioned chuckwagon race.

So in the last 6 years the Stampede has killed 20 horses. Now I’m not exactly a staunch supporter of animal rights, but it’s time for the Stampede to drop these events. They have no moral high ground over, say, bullfighting in Spain. By now they know for certain that the odds of killing horses every year are very high. Each time there is an accident the organizers claim to do a complete review, each one of which leads to “safety modifications”, but the danger inherent in something like a chuckwagon race can’t be removed.

These sports should not be allowed, let alone sanctioned, by an ostensibly civilized First World nation. I don’t give a damn what dangers people place themselves in. Race car drivers know the risks when they enter the race, and if tragedy strikes then so be it. The survivors move on to the next race and I’ll happily tune in. But the horses have no say in the matter, and it’s immoral to place them in harms way for such a trivial reason.


July 8, 2007

Knowledge, But At What Cost?

Category: Life — Cranky @

Tonight I watched two movies back to back, both of which had plots surrounding magicians. As I watched these films I began to think about the stage magic I’ve witnessed in my life. I’ve seen a number of amateur magicians and hypnotists in small venues, as well as a big budget production offered by David Copperfield. Via television I’ve seen a much greater number of performances, but I don’t trust those shows even a little bit. Television is an inherently deceptive medium, and no magic performance onscreen can be credited at all. No skills, save that of editing, are needed to splice together disjointed scenes until the result looks convincing.

I considered the classic illusion of the levitated woman. While she hangs in mid-air the magician takes a large ring and demonstrates how there are no suspension wires or other support mechanisms by passing it around her. And suddenly I had an insight – I saw how it might be done.

So I went online and searched for over an hour, and finally I found the answer, and it was as I had expected. There are probably other ways to do it, but the method I had thought up is one that some magicians use.

Strangely, the fact that I was right did not thrill me at all. I know that at the bottom of every magic trick and illusion is an ugly, ordinary mechanism. There are no exceptions, so when somebody does something that seems impossible, I always know I’m being tricked. As long as I don’t know the answer, though, that little thrill remains.

I want to know about biology, physics, astronomy, and chemistry. I want to know about metallurgy, fabrication, construction, medicine, psychiatry, sociology, philosophy, and music. I want to know how to build a house, fix a car, tune a piano, design a circuit board, read hieroglyphics, and construct a bridge. I want to know almost everything

But I gained nothing in learning the secret behind the levitating woman. There was nothing in it that was of value outside of the trick itself. All it did was cost me a little bit of wonder.

I’d certainly rather not be fooled easily, but if I am amazed, perhaps I’ll leave it at that and simply enjoy the experience.