Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Variant Frequencies hosts the story Sacrifice, written by Jason McDowell and narrated by Rick Stringer and Ali Groves.

It could almost be the story of what happened to Cole Sear when he grew up - the boy who could see dead people in M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense". Their stories are different, but have much in common in all the right places.

"Unfortunately, the great Roman Catholic Church, for all its history of exorcisms and the like, is no longer much of a believer in the supernatural."

Our protagonist is Father Michael Brannigan, one of few who can see the spirit world. This story has a comfortable, steady build up, showing us Father Michael Brannigan's child hood, allowing us to understand that he is driven to help wherever he can. This is why he joined the church.

He was driven to go to those parts of the world where he might be most needed. He is a compassionate man, passionate about bringing peace - and Christ - to Zaire, Africa.
He will bring The Word to the natives.

"I learned the true meaning of "heathen". I learned why it is that God will allow no Gods before Him."

Father Michael Brannigan could see the spirits, and he could help them to the light, some of them anyway. Those who wanted the light.

"My second sin was lust."

Jason McDowell has crafted this tale well. The first part shows his boy hood, the second part shows his grasping for a manhood he always denied himself. In a heart-beat the third part turns from a leisurely pace to a thrilling dive where all sins are accounted for..

A thoroughly gripping story, with some inspired elements of Cthulu horror. I had to listen to this one twice to properly understand the ending, but it was well worth it. Easy 9 out of 10.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A short discourse the meaning of religion and science

I am of the notion that the implicit purpose of our religious texts (Bible, Talmud, Koran) is to provide a rule book and moral compass for a society. They tell us how to live. And because we all have a very basic need to believe in something bigger, more powerful, more meaningful than ourselves, these texts are written in terms of the actions and words of gods, angels, devils, saints, prophets etc.

As our societies change, our rules change; our sense of morals change. Unfortunately our religious texts have not changed as well. We are left with books that reveal we are not all equal and that belief in other gods is wrong. We should not look for literal truths in outdated texts. I would rather that we read these texts as parables to be interpreted and changed as we change.

Science represents our best understanding of the world as we know it at the time. Science and our understanding of the world as revealed through science changes in time. What we consider fact now is nothing more than what we can currently understand and can prove in some way.

I see a natural link between science and religion. Science is all about trying to understand and explain things. Many of our myths are religious stories and try to do that too: explain some natural event in terms of one god or other. Eventually, we reached the point where enough people began to wonder if it was really Thor, Guruwari or Yahweh that caused that light in the sky, shaking ground or pestilence among the people. Our curiosity grew beyond the stories we would tell each other, and soon enough our equipment and growing knowledge showed us that there other explanations.

I see this is as being the dichotomy broached in this thread: do we still need religion to explain things to us when science has an answer too?

I believe the answer is intrinsic: science is about what we know and religion is about how we should live. Both of them should change as we change, and we need to understand that what is right today, can be wrong tomorrow. Without this we will find it hard to adapt. [ erm.. evolve. :) ]

One last thought. We have a lot of religious hierarchy who do manage to interpret religious texts in different ways, and sometimes those appear to be positive ways. However, I am not convinced they have the good of society in mind. Instead they have a lot to protect: money and power. I have the same sense of cynicism for our political and business structures. None of these large organisations have the good of humanity at heart, because the need for making money and gaining power is too high a priority. We will never have a good balance between religion and science for this same reason: as long as someone has to be wrong for someone else to be right.

I originally posted this in the Excape Artist's forums.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now

Melbourne Winter MasterpiecesGuggenheim Collection: 1940s to NowNew York–Venice–Bilbao–Berlin30 June to 7 October 2007NGV International

This exhibition showed off a wide variety of abstract art from the 1940s up till now. I get it. Rebelling against the idea of art as a self contained picture, abstract art attempts to provide only part of the experience: the art comes about by challenging the viewer in some way to draw in the rest of the experience from their own reactions and emotions. I experienced many different emotions.

Some pieces were confronting.

A table top full of teeth. I walked around the table several times, imagining what creatures gave up those pieces of bone and what logic was used to place them on the table.

A wall of bathroom tiles, slightly dirty. Bulging in some places. In other places, bursting - with guts. Red, bulbous, moist.

A video showing two people copulating. When he withdraws, his penis is topped by a bee hive and bees fill the screen.

Some pieces are inscrutable.

Jackson Pollock is my poster child for inscrutability. Paint scrawled across a canvass. Despite a heart felt invitation to myself to look deep and see whatever my inner self wants to see, there is no meaning. It is just chaos, little more than a child's experiment in colour and contrast and almost but not quite more. There were others, but I only remember his name.

Some pieces were confusing until I let my perspective shift and find something to admire.

A set of large orange boxes placed in a straight row. I walk to the end and stroll back and forh, letting my eyes take in the shifting lines and colors reflected off the surfaces.

Bruce Nauman’s suspended Floating Room. A wooden room, hanging from the ceiling, "Light Outside, Dark Inside". From the outside it is a well lit wooden box. On the inside, it is a sparse white room without any illumination apart from the light outside. I walked inside the room and admired the shifting lines as my eyes pulled in and out of focus. It was somewhat like looking at a 3D Magic Eye image, except no pretty pictures come to the foreground when you lose focus. I would really get a kick out this if I were stoned!

One piece in particular felt like an in-joke:
Maurizio Cattelan in a felt suit
. I didn't understand the reference, but it was a comical piece that they made us walk down a corridoor to view, all by itself at the end.

Not all of the abstract art in this exhibition consisted of a single physical object that you could transport whole and hang on a wall. One peice by Felix Gonzales-Torres was a pile of liquorice lollies spilled in a corner. What a crazy idea! The 'piece of art' is really just a set of instructions: get a bunch of liquorice lollies. Find a spare corner. Spill them in the corner. Were they the same lollies displayed all the time?

The same goes for a another piece that consisted of nothing more than two pieces of elastic. One stretched along the floor, diagonally out into the room from the corner. The other piece at chest height, strung between the two adjacent walls.

I feel ambiguous about much of the art I saw in this exhibition - the confusing pieces in particular. What I enjoy is often not the piece itself, but my reaction to it. This is different to a beautiful painting, where my first reaction is visceral, automatic. In this exhibition, many of the pieces are not even identifiable as "works of art" except for the fact that they are all displayed at the National Gallery of Victoria under the banner "Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now".

Each piece was surely designed to be appreciated by evoking a reaction in the viewer, fuelled in part by their own history and experience. I read that so I know it is true. That is also why many people won't get it, won't appreciate it, will discard it as a waste of time. The perspective of the viewer is what makes any work of art great - nothing new here. But abstract art seems particularly vulnerable to this. Appreciation of abstract art is not visceral. It needs a conscious mental leap. You have to decide to shift your focus in the right way to see it, to experience it.

Later, on the drive back with Dad, I pondered aloud the fact in the whole exhibition, I liked Jackson Pollock's work the least, but his is the only name I remember - all other names in this entry are thanks to Google. Perhaps there is a meta game to abstract art. It is not enough to bare witness to the work, to view it as an exercise in imagination by letting your reactions and emotions fill in the experience. There is history behind each piece, behind the artist. I do not know much about Pollock, only a half remembered film and less remembered articles. From these, I know that Pollock was a tortured soul, that he poured a lot of effort into his work and that it must have meant something to him. So, I postulated aloud to my father, perhaps appreciation of the work also requires acknowledgement of the artist in some way, to help build the experience. Or maybe I want to justify paying $20 to see, among other things, what seemed to be a child's work on a very large canvass.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Harry Potter: my tale of the completion

July 21st, 2007. Around 8pm.

The biggest question was how many copies to buy, one or two?

My step-daughter would take to her copy like a ravenous wolf and possibly swallow the whole thing down in under a week. But was I willing to wait that long for a second hand book? Plus I knew she would be excited enough about the book that it might be hard for her to relinquish her copy into the hands of another reader.

I had discussed the possibility of buying a second copy previously with my partner, who told me in clear and concise terms that I would not buy second copy when we would already have a perfectly serviceable book in our house that would be made available to me imminently. But wait, I reasoned, my Dad didn’t have a copy. I would purchase the book, not for myself, but for him. Maybe I would read just a few pages, nay, chapters, in the time between the book’s purchase and the book’s delivery. That was acceptable to my partner.

The thought of the second copy weighed on my mind as I entered Borders that looked somewhat like a circus at closing time. Littered with the detritus of excited purchasers long since gone home, the shop was still haunted by those left behind. Workers patrolled the floor and checkout desks like veteran soldiers, still sporting odd bits of Harry Potter regalia from scarves to glasses, bravely hiding their weariness behind smiles. Customers floated here and there around the shop. No matter what section they inhabited, whether it was picture books, anime, computer programming or CDs, they all carried a soon to be bought copy of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”.

I stopped and checked myself just after I walked in the door. Amazing. By no conscious process of thought or movement I had already accumulated my own soon to be bought copies of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”. They didn’t even have to wave a wand and mutter “bookulous, purchasos!” Yes, some of them had wands. The doorways themselves must have been charmed.

But I digress. Why did the thought of the second copy weigh on my mind? Why did I find myself hovering around the pile of un-claimed Harry Potter books, pondering the price sticker, swapping my second copy between my nervous hands and the un-bought pile, trying to see whether one copy or two felt more natural? Why was I trying to let my inner self tell me whether I should buy one or two copies? It was because I had lied. I knew my Dad had already bought his copy that morning; the second was for me, all for me and no-one else!

After July 21st, 2007.

I bought two copies. I owned up when I got home and took my share of dirty looks. I put down the book I was already reading (My Israel Question by Anthony Loewenstein) so that I could start on Harry Potter right away. My step-daughter took just a few days to read her copy, even taking into account the fact that she stopped Harry Potter to finish a school book in between! There was a period of about two weeks when she would ask me where I was up to in the book, annoyed that I hadn’t caught up, peeved that she couldn’t discuss this or that with me. I pointedly told her that she should not tell me anything, even if it was just her opinion of the direction. It was quite a subtle to and fro there for a while. When she had finished (I was about a third of the way through) she let me know that it was “the best that could be hoped for”. She swallowed the rest of the conversation about what her school friends also thought of it; my eyes were glowing and smoke was coming out of my nostrils by that time.

Warning: some spoilers follow.

I finished the book soon enough. In short, I loved it. It answered a lot of my questions about two of the most charismatic characters in the series: Snape and Dumbledore. In quite a satisfying way it filled in their back stories and left me feeling that each was more human, less archetypal than before.

I had not wanted to believe that Snape was an outright villain, even when he killed Dumbledore. I felt there was more to be revealed about his relationship with Harry’s parents. I felt there needed to be a resolution between Harry and Snape, and there was. But the form of it surprised me. I imagined a tense stand-off between the two, where Snape managed to explain some hidden circumstance behind his actions – a devious double cross against Voldemort that ended with his killing Dumbledore, perhaps under an Imperius curse. What we got instead was Snape on his deathbed after being dealt with by his master Voldemort in a casual, almost arbitrary manner. He released his memories to Harry as silver tears for the Penseive. The memories revealed that Snape’s unrequited love of Harry’s mother Lily and hatred for Harry’s father James had driven him to betray the couple and spend the rest of his life paying for it. The antagonistic relationship he had maintained with Harry throughout the series was shown to be equivocal. There was indeed a deeper purpose. He had sacrificed himself to the service of Voldemort at the behest of Dumbledore. He had become the villain Dumbledore needed him to be. He killed Dumbledore because he was told to do so… by Dumbledore.

The tragedy of Snape’s life was laid bare in this book. His dichotomy involved a love that would never be realized, and forgiveness that would never be granted.

Dumbledore had his own dichotomy, though compared to that of Snape, it was not as stark. The reason was simple enough though. The cracks in Dumbledore’s characters, the shadows that followed his legend, were only developed in the last book. The shadows had been growing around Snape from the first.

Dumbledore was not as pure as the driven snow. He had courted power for much of his life. He came to realize that it was a temptation he could not afford to give in to, but the realization had cost him and his family dearly. It is revealed that Dumbledore was already dying at the end, a result of his own foolish hope to apologise to the dead. He ordered Snape to kill him in order to save Draco Malfoy from committing that same act.

This plot device really made the whole book for me. The sense of tragedy imbued to Snape by this act of sacrifice was moving. It was more than the sacrifice of one’s life: it was the sacrifice of one’s moral soul. It wasn’t just “die for me”, it was “become an evil bastard because I am telling you to do so, just trust me!”

This is why I liked the book: it showed some deep emotions behind these two characters.

There were some things I didn’t like so much.

The pacing in some parts of the book felt a bit uneven. Harry, Ron and Hermoine were on the run for months. During this time, Voldemort was in charge of the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts, through Snape.

Harry, Ron and Hermoine were running, not spending much time in any one place. The passage of time was marked through references to weather and calendar, but not so much in progress towards their goal of finding the Horcruxes or, later, the Deathly Hallows. The book portrayed their decline towards argumentativeness and boredom, a sense of hopelessness driven by the lack of new clues, going over and over old ground. During this time I was more interested in how the larger wizarding and muggle worlds were coping under the increasing influence of Voldemort. The book disassociated from this part of the story though. It showed the social changes through an occasional magical radio show or by overhearing characters talking about the changed world. This felt too forced to me. I would have rather the perspective shifted to another character instead, to show us first hand what was going on – showing, rather than telling.

Harry’s romance with Ginny stumbled and was forestalled in what has become a common moral dilemma for heroes in blockbuster movies of late: “I cannot protect what I love from my enemies, so I cannot love”. This worked for Spiderman 2, but I don’t think it worked for Harry. Why? Because Harry had “Dumbledore’s Army”. Ginny Weasley, Neville Longbottom, Luna Lovegood, Fred and George Weasley were all members of Dumbledore’s Army and didn’t quite get enough airplay. They are fodder for fan fiction writers no doubt, itching to put into stories all the variations, strengths and weaknesses those avid readers imagined while reading the books. Those writers are braver than I, better able to express themselves for the most part. I will satisfy myself by expressing the qualms I felt with J K Rowling’s own creation. I thought that these characters were all strong enough to have books written about them too – so strong that Harry should not have left Ginny, he should have taken her on the road. It should have become Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermoine.

Perhaps the reason this didn’t happen is because it would not have been realistic to let Ginny take such a star position without getting hot and heavy on the personal side of their relationship. She would have been far more than Robin to Harry Potter’s Batman!

This brings me nicely to some overall comments I want to make. What I have enjoyed about the Harry Potter series as a whole, is that it has grown. The characters have grown and the story telling has grown. While maintaining an appeal to a wide variety of ages throughout, J K Rowling has let the characters grow older and the story grow darker. I think this means that new, young, readers will grow naturally to each successive book. This makes for a powerful series overall.

I have finished my journey with Harry Potter. I want to thank J K Rowling sincerely for a most enjoyable ride. I can honestly say that I have never read a book or series that has seemed so equally attractive to teenage and adult readers alike. The greatest gift is a book that I have read and enjoyed with my step daughter from the start!

What happened with my second copy? I thought about it for a while, that book sitting all by itself on my shelf, without any siblings – I had been reading my step daughter’s copies after all. I decided to release my copy into the wild. Book Crossing allows me to share books I have enjoyed with the rest of the world. Hopefully someone else will enjoy this book. Hopefully they will pick it up and decide to journal their own experience with it.

Hopefully I will have helped someone else complete their journey with Harry Potter, walking the worlds of J K Rowling.