Archives de Catégorie: English

Beware the Eye of Mordor, er, sorry, of the NSA

This is cool: in a recent Slate-hosted blog post, two professors of English literature make the case that J.R.R. Tolkien, not Orwell, made the best literary depiction of the modern surveillance state. (Hat tip: Patrick Nielsen Hayden, of Making Light.)

"Tolkien’s most potent and intimidating image of centralized surveillance, the Eye of Sauron atop a tower, taking in the whole world, has resonated with those who are paranoid about government monitoring. But it’s Sauron’s vulnerability that has the most relevance for America today."

And for any country in the world that cares about actual, effective safety for its citizens, not the appearance of such. Because we all know how the book ended: Sauron’s near-absolute surveillance was defeated in the end, by "a small group of dedicated subversives willing to sacrifice their lives", who

"slip in under the surveillance system of a great power, blend in with [its] population, and deliver a devastating blow [...]. Far from being covert, much of this operation is conducted in plain sight, with the great power aware of its enemies’ existence, if not their intent." (The Eye of Sauron is the modern surveillance state", by David Rosen and Aaron Santesso)

My emphasis. Because in our world as on Middle-earth, all seeing is not all knowing. In fact, the more information you amass, the harder it is to parse through it. Meta-data may contain enough information to pinpoint an individual in time and space, to reveal their politics and their sex life, but how do you know which set of data is relevant to national security in the first place? In the book, Frodo and Sam rely on their very insignificance, this state of "visible anonymity" of the needle in the haystack, to travel through Mordor, and even when they encounter a patrol of Orcs, they are seen but not discovered, because they look like just two more denizens of Sauron’s empire. As long as they don’t use the Ring, they are in effect invisible.

J.R.R. Tolkien's cover design for The Fellowship of the Ring, first part of The Lord of the Rings: the Eye of Sauron, within his Ring of Power

Tolkien’s cover design for his Fellowship of the Ring: the Eye of Sauron and the Rings of Power. (Source; Wikimedia)

By an interesting little coincidence, J.R.R. Tolkien effectively finished the redaction of The Lord of the Rings in 1949, the same year as George Orwell published his 1984. Both authors lived in an era marked by the rise of the Soviet Union and the Third Reich, and both had experience of war-time censorship within England itself. The same generation produced also such writers as Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and Arthur Koestler. Not to mention Russian author Yevgueny Zamyatin, whose science fiction novel We closely prefigures 1984.

But when it came out in 1954, Tolkien’s book looked at first glance like escapist fantasy, a book for adolescents and dreamers. Too bad: he used his "secondary creation" (a phrase he coined, by the way) as a means to explore the same phenomenon: the accumulation of power into the hands of a tyrant, on a scale never ever achieved before in the history of humanity, thanks to technology. And his depiction of Sauron’s evil empire captures both the terror of living under a totalitarian regime, and the inherent flaws of such a regime, where paranoia at the top breeds distrust and inefficiency all down the line. It’s a very human nightmare, for all the Orcs and trolls and evil wizards and giant spiders that inhabit it!

Rabid for science?

So this Sunday, I’m in bed with a bad cold. Not much to do but drink hot tea and listen to podcasts about viruses! In a recent episode of Skeptically Speaking, Desiree Schell talks with veterinarian Monica Murphy and science writer Bill Wasik about a very old and familiar, but also very uncanny, disease, rabies. It’s Episode 190,
– Rabid
, from the title of their book.

Every topic covered is just fascinating: from the early perception by ancient civilizations of the link between the human disease and the one in dogs, to the PR savvy of Louis Pasteur in using the already rare in his time, but still terrifying rabies to make the case for immunization. Also, the death-defying job of rabies lab research in a time where there was no vaccines and no means to cultivate the virus, except by using infected rats and rabbits that had to be handled with extra care…

And of course, we find interesting insights into human psychology in the course of the program, like the case of pet owners of the 19th Century who didn’t want to believe that their beloved animal could be the vector of a deadly disease! Nothing new under the sun, indeed.

I shall call this the Argument From Cars!

Just a little bit of Twitter silliness about nonsensical questions:

Screen capture from Twitter (click to go to the original tweets)

Pure logic. I swear. (And if you don’t already follow @Rev_Xavier and @aratina, well, you should.)

And it even has a nice ring in latin: the Argumentum ad Autocinenetis! ;-)

Dear Guardian: That was a very silly article you did on Bugarach (and no, there’s no Mayan prophecy)

From time to time, even a respected press outlet gets in on the 2012-en-of-the-world bandwagon. This time, it’s Britain’s The Guardian, with the breathless title: "Bugarach: the French village destined to survive the Mayan apocalypse".

Article by Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian’s Paris correspondant

The content of the article is quite disingenuous, with statements like:

"According to a prophecy/internet rumour, which no one has ever quite got to the bottom of, an ancient Mayan calendar has predicted the end of the world will happen on the night of 21 December 2012, and only one place on earth will be saved: the sleepy village of Bugarach."

Actually, we know quite well what’s going on. There’s even a whole Wikipedia webpage devoted to "The 2012 phenomenon", with discussion of the ancient Mayan calendar (no, NOT a prophecy) which was wrongly interpreted as showing an "end" to their time counting… just like our yearly calendars end on the 31st December, only to start again on January 1st of the year after that!

There’s also a Wikipedia page for Bugarach, with a mention of the cult settlements who gave rise to some serious concern here in France… but Ms Chrisafis’s article doesn’t tell us much more than what is already on the free encyclopedia, or in the various articles it links to.

As for the people of Bugarach, they have good reasons to be a bit wary of their celebrity among occultists, New Agers… and the world’s media. The Guardian‘s article acknowledges this, with what looks like unintentional humour (or perhaps is it faint sneer?):

"The oddity is that tourist bookings this year seem to be down slightly, not up. The usual walkers, eco-tourists and people coming for spiritual retreats seemed put off by news crews doing lives-to-camera on armageddon."

Odd, indeed, to avoid a media circus when you just are looking for a place to enjoy nature in peace, far from the madding crowd…

Must be something special with the French, whom our dear British neighbours love to look down on, and scrutinize as if they were from another species.

Zombies and poetry: Margaret Atwood free to read, on Wattpad

"Poetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts". (Rilke)

Oh, yes, zombies. They’re mindless, shambling; they’re coming for your brains… And then things will never be the same.

Image: cover of Thriller Suite, poems by Margaret Atwood, published on Wattpad

It’s also a powerful metaphor. Trust Margaret Atwood to explore it! And not only in The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, the horror fiction series she’s writing for Wattpad in collaboration with Naomi Alderman, and which was announced Wednesday worldwide.

There’s also Thriller Suite, a collection of poems by Atwood, also published on Wattpad, in which my favourite is this one:

There you have it: zombies.
Didn’t you always suspect?
"Poetry is the past
that breaks out in our hearts"
like a virus, like an infection.
How many poems occur about
the dead one who isn’t dead,
the lost one who semi-persists…

"Zombie Poetry Zombie", by Margaret Atwood. Free to read on Wattpad, both the website and the app. Click, enjoy and… shiver.

(Hat tip: @bibliomancienne, ActuaLitté.)

The One Tweet movie review: Prometheus

Short and pithy: both a summary and a critique, by Martin Sutherland (@sunpig) on Twitter:

Via Abi on Making Light. (With discussion, links and rants in the comment thread. Spoilers included, of course!)

Photo montage: Ridley Scott and the head of the Alien

Oh, and what is this "Chekov’s gun" he’s referring to, you say? Why, it’s a narrative technique so well known in the biz that not only is it rarely explained any more, but it’s spawned several tropes of its own…

Webcomics interlude: the entertainment industry

Unspeakable Vault (of Doom): "The Hollywood Malediction". (I’m thinking of Prometheus and Benicio Del Toro’s projected adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness…)

Scandinavia and the World: "Eurovision 2012" – and Sweden triumphs, at last! ;-)