Welcome to XX10!

So, the new year’s begun.

It seems most people will be calling it twenty ten. How unimaginative! In fact, I’ve tried, unsuccessfully so far, to introduce my own little name for it, namely, Double X Ten, i.e. twenty = XX (and) ten. However, it doesn’t seem to be catching on.

(Come to think of it, I guess it could be called Triple X, too, or XXX, i.e. twenty = XX, ten = X. Ha!)

The great Agatha Christie

I’ve been an avid fan of whodunits for most of my life. I especially like the ones from the 1920a until the 1960s, and especially Agatha Christie, though not only. I also enjoy most books by Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Carter Dickson/John Dickson Carr, Craig Rice, Patrick Quentin, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Margery Allingham, Ellery Queen, and many others. There’s just something about that era in whodunit history that speaks to me.

Of Agatha Christie’s whodunits, totalling some 80-ish novels, I’ve read all, and most of them several times. I’ve also read many of her short story collections, but I don’t think she excelled in that format as much as did Dorothy Sayers. I’ve read some of the novels she wrote as Mary Westmacott, too, but they seem a bit bland to me. It’s the whodunit genre that she excelled in.

Actually, the only reason for this blog post is to list some of my favourites. So here goes (in chronological order):

1922 — The secret adversary (Tommy & Tuppence)
1923 — The murder on the links (Hercule Poirot)
1925 — The secret of Chimneys
1926 — The murder of Roger Ackroyd (HP)
1930 — The murder at the vicarage (Miss Marple)
1932 — Peril at end house (HP)
1934 — Murder on the Orient Express / Murder in the Calais Coach (HP)
1936 — Murder in Mesopotamia (HP)
1937 — Death on the Nile / Hidden horizon (HP)
1939 — Ten little N—ers / Ten little Indians / And then there were none
1940 — Sad cypress (HP)
1941 — Evil under the sun (HP)
1950 — A murder is announced (MM)
1957 — 4.50 from Paddington / What Mrs McGilliguddy saw! / Murder, she said (MM)
1962 — The mirror crack’d from side to side (MM)
1964 — A Caribbean mystery (MM)
1966 — Third girl (HP)
1968 — By the pricking of my thumbs (T&T)
1975 — Curtain, Poirot’s last case (HP)

Perhaps the most surprising title in that list is Third girl, which many see as a weak(er) entry in Christie’s catalogue. I don’t. I’m not entirely sure why, but for some reason I just like it. The plot flows very nicely and despite a somewhat silly plot twist the resolution holds up pretty well.

By the pricking of my thumbs probably has *the* best 96 first pages of any whodunit in history. In those pages, Christie manages to create a tangible feeling of lurking and growing menace, without there being anything particularly nasty ever happening (until page 96, that is). It’s just Tuppence investigating something that looks like a mystery. The book is worth reading just for those pages.

With some 80-ish books, there’s bound to be some clonkers. Indeed there are. Christie’s absolute worst include:

1927 — The big four (HP)
1946 — The hollow / Murder after hours (HP)
1965 — At Bertram’s Hotel (MM)
1967 — Endless night
1969 — Hallowe’en party (HP)
1970 — Passenger to Frankfurt
1973 — Postern of fate (T&T)

Most of the above-listed books drag on endlessly without anything interesting going on at all. There are sections, sometimes whole chapters, that just feel like pointless padding. They’re ill-constructed and badly planned, especially Passenger to Frankfurt, which is probably the worst thing she ever wrote. It is confusing and illogical. Had it not been written by a major literary name, I seriously doubt any self-respecting publisher would have touched it.

The big four is an odd entry in Christie’s catalogue. I admit it’s a fun read. It’s a fast-paced romp, with a twist at the end. But still it fails. The characters are out of character, and the plot is way too fantastical. Luckily she never tried writing anything like it again.

I also must mention Crooked house, which seems to be rated highly in many people’s lists. I didn’t like it at all. That’s probably because it’s the only book in which I spotted the murderer immediately when s/he was introduced. It’s the only time I’ve been totally sure of who the killer is, and when it turned out I was right, I was left with a hollow feeling of dissatisfaction.

Agatha Christie elevated the whodunit genre way above Arthur Conan Doyle. Her plots and dialogues find no match in Doyle’s books. Although I have to admit that Sherlock Holmes is probably *the* most fascinating fictional detective of them all, especially on TV and film. But Doyle’s books feel stiff and stagey in many ways, and they don’t quite appeal to me. Nor are Doyle’s plots very well-constructed, even though they are fascinating. He relies too much on clues the readers are never served with. Christie had a sense of “fair play” towards her readers. That is, she allowed only clues that the reader had been shown (though usually in very subtle ways). She was a master of creating solid, consistent and overall-believable plots, and her dialogues are virtually always flowing naturally and seldom feel artificial.

I also much prefer paperbacks, especially pocket editions, to the hard cover ones. Granted, hard covers look nicer in a book shelf, but the pocket editions have much better covers. Sometimes they’re pieces of pure art, with hand-drawn little masterpieces. That, of course, doesn’t apply to Christie’s pockets only, but pocket books in general, especially the ones dating from prior to the 1980s. After that, their quality deteriorated dramatically, it seems.

Spielberg’s Munich and Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia

After seeing Spielberg’s Munich, it suddenly struck me that the movie has many parallels with David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. The character development of the main protagonists, Avner in the former and Lawrence in the latter, is very similar, even near-identical, as are many other aspects of the films.

Both movies are based on books retelling (alleged) true events, though understandably dramatized, as movies tend to be. Avner and Lawrence are both low-ranking military servants who are sent out into the field. There they each lead their own small band of “bandits” in various guerilla attacks against the enemy. Their activities seem successful at start, but things don’t always go according to plan. Group members get killed. Moral doubt grows in the mind of both Avner and Lawrence. They are pulled out of the field before their jobs are finished. Their respective assignments leave them morally devastated, and they both feel manipulated by higher powers. When returning from the field, they are greeted by admiring strangers, but they themselves seem to be in a state of confusion and disillusion. Even though their field assignments are considered to be successes by the higher-ups, both movies end without offering any proper resolution or closure for the main protagonists.

There are indeed many similarities. Both Lawrence and Avner start from inexperience and enthusiasm, go through success and satisfaction, a phase of fanaticism, and they both end up with disappointment, disillusion and paranoia. There’s also the small guerilla group, the sporadic attacks against the enemy, the death of fellow group members, the revenge killings (the “No prisoners!” attack on the Turks, the killing of the Dutch girl), and there’s all the guns and the bombs.

Spielberg is a self-confessed Lean fan. He’s even stated that Lawrence of Arabia probably has the best script ever written for the movies (included in an interview accompanying the Lawrence of Arabia DVD). Perhaps he’s in the habit of making hyperbolic statements. I wouldn’t know. But it wouldn’t seem impossible to imagine that Spielberg did indeed use Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia as a vague blue-print for his own movie. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We all seek our inspirations from somewhere.

Is illegal copying of software theft?

If I take a DVD with a piece of software on it, without the owner’s approval, then everyone would agree that it is an act of theft. But if I only copy the disc’s content, or download it over the internet, and thus do not deprive the owner of any physical object, is it still theft?

The most basic understanding of theft would be when you take possession of someone’s physical property without that someone’s approval, be it a car, a wallet, or some jewels. Prototypically theft involves touchable things, but it can also extend to nonphysical things. For instance, you can illegally empty someone else’s bank account without actually moving any physical coins or money around. It would still be theft, even though no physical objects are involved. In both cases, you would have deprived the rightful owner of something of value.

But can the concept of ‘theft’ be extended to illegal copying and downloading of software? Clearly you have not deprived the owner of anything physical or even digital. You have merely copied it. The software itself is still there in its original place, so how can it be theft?

If I steal a physical DVD with software on it, it is not the disc itself I want. It’s the content of the disc that I want. If I illegally copy or download it, I’m after the same thing. The fact that I’m not taking the software with its physical container/carrier seems irrelevant to me. I have illegally transferred something into my possession that doesn’t belong to me. I have thereby also unduly benefited from someone else’s property. I have infringed on the legal owner’s right to control it’s distribution. Does this amount to theft? Instinctively I would say yes, it does.

Now, I can understand if people object to this. It’s common to treat words and their meanings as fixed points in the universe. If you have a fixed concept of the word ‘theft’, and try to apply that to illegal copying/downloading, then you would naturally conclude that illegal copying is not an act of theft because you’re not depriving the owner of the thing you’re making a copy of.

But words and meanings are not fixtures. Nor should they be treated as such. The world around us changes all the time, and so we must constantly re-negotiate our vocabulary to match it. Otherwise our language would eventually be useless.

The meaning of ‘theft’ relies on (at least) three concepts, namely, property, ownership and possession, as well as on how those concepts are transferred between keeper and taker. When the idea of theft was originally thought up (an occasion now long lost to history), there were no digital products around. Now there are. I can have ownership and possession of a physical thing like a car, and I can have ownership and possession of a digital product like a piece of software or a digital recording.

A piece of software cannot normally change hands in a physical sense, only copied. That is, while you can transfer the ownership of software, you cannot physically transfer the property itself. You can copy it and then delete the original, but unless you transfer the software’s physical carrier/container, the software by itself cannot be transferred.

If the concept of ‘theft’ depends necessarily on the illegal transfer of the property itself, it should by implication never be possible to steal digital products. To me, there’s something wrong, and obsolete, about that. In principle, anything that can be possessed can also be stolen. It really isn’t that much of a stretch to re-think the idea of ‘theft’ to include illegal copying/downloading. We need to focus on theft as an act of illegally taking possession of a property, and only that. The physical transfer of the property itself does not have to be involved.

I should perhaps emphasize that I’m not talking about the legal definition of ‘theft’ here. I’m trying to understand a colloquial usage of the word ‘theft’, in particular my own. And to be quite frank, I’m not even sure that I’m all that categorical about it. Perhaps we do need a new word for this. I guess my only point is that it’s at least not impossible to think of illegal copying/downloading as an act of theft.

Mobile phones for literature, or m4Lit

A new form/genre of literature has emerged, namely, stories intended to be read on mobile phones, also known as m-novels.

Leveraging the popularity of mobile phones, the m4Lit project has launched the first mobile novel of its kind, or m-novel, in South Africa. Kontax, which follows the adventures of a group of teenage graffiti artists, is made specifically for mobile phones, and is available in both English and isiXhosa. It is being released chapter by chapter on a daily basis, with the first chapter already out.

m4Lit’s press release states:

The m4Lit pilot project aims to explore whether teens are interested in reading stories on their cellphones, whether and how they write using their cellphones, and whether cellphones might be used to develop literacy skills and a love of reading. Enter Kontax, an m-novel written on commission from the Shuttleworth Foundation by prize winning ‘mobilist’ Sam Wilson. Kontax is an m-novel made for mobile – and from 30 September readers will be able to access the dynamic teen narrative from their WAP-enabled cellphones, or from their computers. Every day another exciting chapter in the mystery plot will be told, with 21 chapters rolling out over 21 days. Teen readers will be invited to interact with Kontax as it unfolds on their cellphones: they can vote on and discuss the progressing plot, leave comments, download wallpapers and finally submit a written piece as part of a competition, with airtime prizes available for winning submissions.

You can read more about it at the m4Lit project blog, or you can read the still-ongoing novel itself, titled Kontax and written by Sam Wilson.

I guess it won’t be long before we can read a whodunit mystery on twitter.

Where are all the good yellow highlighters?

I use highlighters almost daily, and I have grown very fond of the yellow ones. They are usually not too garish nor too dark to ruin a text. The yellow markers also allow you to fotocopy a page without rendering marked bits unreadable, unlike the blue, green and orange ones. In addition, yellow markings seldom bleed over to the other side of the paper. The other, darker colours often do, especially with thin and/or low-quality paper.

However, not all yellow markers are good. The ones at sale here in the Göteborg area (west coast of Sweden) are next to useless. I’m talking about brands like Timing, Bic Brite Liner, and Pentel Handy-Line, which seem to be the only ones sold around here. Their yellow markers are either too glossy or too light, and the markings rub of very easily. After not very long (usually within a year), the yellow markings have paled and become completely invisible. What exactly is the point with marker pens like that?

A few years ago, there was another brand of marker pens at sale here. They were called Accent and were made in the US. Their yellow marker was a bit darker than that of the other brands. Not too light, and not too dark. It was somewhere in-between glossy-light yellow and too-dark orange. It was almost ochre. Markings I made five years ago are still visible and show no sign of either rubbing off or paling. I want those highlighters back in our local stores!

Animated logos and other stuff on DVDs

Like most people, I am grateful for all the magnificent DVD releases we have seen over the years. It is absolutely wonderful to have home access to all kinds of great movies, TV shows and music concerts, and most of them in very good quality, too. I have a lot of appreciation for the people and companies involved in the making of those DVDs, which often come with a whole bunch of interesting, high-quality extras.

Having said that, I have one issue with them. It concerns most DVDs on sale, and it’s all those stupid things you have to sit through to get to the good parts. Sometimes the DVD starts with a copyright notice that locks up your DVD player. At other times, it happens when you press “play”. Although I can understand why they think they must include it, in reality it’s utterly pointless. Those who pirate DVDs are already aware of the fact that they are doing something illegal. They don’t need to be told that. It might as well say “Don’t feed this to your cat”.

But my gripe is not with the copyright notice. It’s all the other idiotic crap I have to sit through. Sometimes it can get pretty crowded at the front of a DVD. First there are animated logos for all the production companies involved (usually several). Then there’s a short movie telling me how bad stealing is, followed by trailers for other DVDs*, after which I often get some kind of animation leading to the DVD menue. If you’re really unlucky, you’ll get the DVD from Hell which contains all of them.

OK, so why not just skip them? Unfortunately, very often the useless cannot be skipped or even fast-forwarded. Somewhat luckily, with some DVDs, you can pop it in, go out for a cup of coffee or a beer, have it run all the annoying stuff on its own, and when you return, the menue is nicely displayed on the screen. But not seldom, you cannot do even this. Quite a number of DVDs stop at various locations, forcing you to chose “enter” and “language”, so you’re stuck sitting there after all. On more than one occasion, I’ve actively avoided DVDs I know have these forced stops.

It’s perhaps OK to sit through it once, or even twice, but enough is enough. It’s like I’m being punished for being a paying customer. Indeed, all those forced logos, messages, trailers, and the annoying stops do nothing but create bad blood between the DVD makers and their customers.

(Note * = I have to point out that I actually appreciate the trailers, but only if I can chose to watch them at my own time. I don’t want to be forced to watch them. My living room is not a cinema. Watching movies on a DVD is not the same social event as “going to the movies” where the trailers function more naturally as a warm-up to the main event.)

Catholics and child abuse in Ireland

And the Catholic Church is at it again. This time it’s the horribkle story of the Christian Brothers and their exploits in Ireland. From BBC News we can read that:

An inquiry into child abuse at Catholic institutions in Ireland has found that sexual abuse was "endemic" in boys’ institutions. It also found physical and emotional abuse and neglect were features of institutions. Schools were run "in a severe, regimented manner that imposed unreasonable and oppressive discipline on children and even on staff".

The nine-year inquiry investigated a 60-year period. About 35,000 children were placed in a network of reformatories, industrial schools and workhouses up to the 1980s. More than 2,000 told the Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse they suffered physical and sexual abuse while there. …

The five-volume study concluded that church officials encouraged ritual beatings and consistently shielded their orders’ paedophiles from arrest amid a "culture of self-serving secrecy". It also found that government inspectors failed to stop the chronic beatings, rapes and humiliation.

The Irish Times succinctly summarises the situation with: "abuse was not a failure of the system. It was the system."

Further down the BBC News page we can also read that there will be no criminal charges brought on any of the clergy involved.

The findings will not be used for criminal prosecutions – in part because the Christian Brothers successfully sued the commission in 2004 to keep the identities of all of its members, dead or alive, unnamed in the report.

That there will be no prosecutions is absolutely astounding, but clearly in line with Catholic ideology (and in this case also that of the Irish state), which seemingly is to protect the perpetraters and piss on the victims. Obviously it is more important to protect the "good name" of Catholicism than to right a wrong.

According to a BBC Panorama documentary aired a few years ago, covering up child abuses is a long-standing tradition within the Catholic Church. The current Pope Benedict has been instrumental in this concealment conspiracy for years. In the London Evening Standard, we can read that:

In 2001, while [the current Pope Benedict] was a cardinal, he issued a secret Vatican edict to Catholic bishops all over the world, instructing them to put the Church’s interests ahead of child safety. The document recommended that rather than reporting sexual abuse to the relevant legal authorities, bishops should encourage the victim, witnesses and perpetrator not to talk about it. And, to keep victims quiet, it threatened that if they repeat the allegations they would be excommunicated.

Systematic child abuse is obviously nothing new among the Catholic clergy. Eamonn McCann of the Belfast Telegraph provides a historical perspective in his column:

The oldest known instruction to Church officials, the Didache, dating from the second century, commands, ‘Thou shalt not seduce young boys’. The earliest recorded gathering of bishops, the Council of Elvira, in 309, spelt out 81 Canons, of which 38 dealt with sex. Among those excluded from receiving communion were ‘bishops, presbyters, and deacons committing a sexual sin’, ‘those who sexually abuse boys’, and ‘people who bring charges against bishops and presbyters without proving their cases’.

Why would the Church have mentioned such things had they not already become problems?

No doubt, Pope Benedict will continue to do his utmost to protect the interests of paedophiles and child abusers, rather than to do the right thing, which would be to help bring the perpetrators to justice.

His God must be really pleased with him.

Music for Darwin 200

I have entered a piece of music into Myriad’s 21st Sample Tunes Friendly Contest. This year’s theme is "Evolution", in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. The closing date of the contest if May 31, so if you’d like to enter, too, there’s still time.

There’s quite a lot of hullabaloo re Darwin this year, being an anniversary and all. Actually there are two anniversaries. Not only was he born 200 years ago, his book On the Origin of Species first appeared 150 years ago. Hence there are special editions of magazines, Darwin-themed conferences, documentaries, all kinds of special events, and so on and so forth. Most of these can be tracked via The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online, one of the most useful sites on the web.

Anyway, back to the contest. The name of my contribution is "Natural selection: a prelude to evolution". You can see the score here, where you can also listen to it by clicking the play button. In order to do so, however, you must first install the (free and unobstrusive) Myriad Music Plug-In.

The piece is performed by digitally simulated instruments. There’s a flute, a grand piano, an acoustic guitar, a cello, and three percussion instruments (maracas, cabasa, triangle). I suppose that makes it a quintet, as you would need five people to perform it. The melody and its various permutations, although not entirely original, turned out quite satisfactory. The percussions tap out a deceptively irregular rythm, which may sound odd at first. But it’s not entirely random. If you listen carefully, you can hear a kind of "intelligent design" underlying it. (No, I’m not a loony creationist.) In fact, the rythm is based on a quote from Darwin himself, namely "I have called this principle … Natural Selection" (fr. Origin of Species, 1859) — hence the title of the piece. I know this last bit sounds as if it doesn’t make any sense, but trust me, it does.

For realz!

Have you ever wondered what the Z in for realz is actually doing there? I have. The dictionary form of the phrase is for real, without a final Z.

There is a (formally) similar expression, for keeps, in which the S is historically a plural marker. Apparently, the word keeps is short for keepies, and originates from some sort of game in which players collected marbles. The ones one won, one “kept”, and these became known as keepies. Possibly the phrase for keeps has contributed to the formation of for realz by way of analogy. Although admittedly, it sounds a bit far-fetched.

The Z in for realz seems clearly to be a plural marker (i.e. plural S), but why has it been added at all? There doesn’t seem to be any plurality involved in the semantics of the phrase, not even metaphorically. (It means ‘in earnest’, ‘really’, ‘truthfully’.)

We may get at a solution if we look at phrases like many thanks and many apologies, in which there clearly is a plural S on each respective noun. But here it makes sense. You can easily think of many acts of thanking or apologising, so here the plural meaning is semantically justified. The assumption is, of course, that the more you thank or apologise, the more sincere you are. However, when we say many thanks, we say just that. We don’t usually go on actually thanking multiple times (although that may happen, too). The point here being that the plural forms’ major function is to intensify or emphasize the act of thanking or apologising, not to mark a plurality of acts as such (which in these phrases would only count as a minor, secondary function).

It is conceivable that it is this intensifying function of the plural S that is being used in for realz. Hence in this phrase at least, English plural S seems to have developed a function devoid of plurality. If that really is so, then it would be interesting to see if this intensifying S pops up elsewhere in the language.

(Another explanation would be that there’s some cross-linguistic interference going on, namely, from Spanish de veras, in which veras is a plural noun with a Spanish plural marker S. If that’s the case, then it would seem that English has incorporated the Spanish plural S as an intensifier, and again, devoid of plurality.)

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