Tuesday, December 18, 2007

What does activism mean, really?

You know, people like to say something, usually in reference to politics: If it ain't broke, don't fix it (IIABDFI).

"Fix" and "broke". Nice choice of words. Seems to imply something mechanical.

So let's apply this precept to engineering!

Do we maintain the same technology year after year, only fixing problems when they crop up? Or do we seek to improve them a bit?

If we do, then

Would it be better to continually improve the oil lamp, or replace it with something entirely different--say, a lightbulb?

Do we just keep souping up our horse and wagon, or shall we overturn the whole damn system and drive cars?

IIABDFI is, we can see, an entirely silly aphorism based on--what, ignorance and lack of basic sense? Often the best thing is not to fix what ain't broke, but improve upon it.

And the greatest advances in human history are based on sweeping away what came before entirely, and making something new.

It is taking an active stance towards world affairs and society. We don't seek to repair what's broken (return to the past, which nostalgia proves was better). We may make small improvements.

And sometimes we'll pull out the tablecloth from under the dishes and change the whole thing. And that's gonna be a good thing, in the long run, and people have to learn to cope.

Activism. Not trying to preserve order or return to an older state of being, but advance in a new and better one.

Monday, December 10, 2007

I come upon the giants in the fields, sleeping in the aftermath of their grim slaughter.

Their bodies rumble with deep, earth-shaking roars, and I whisper in my noble mount's ears to calm him. The stench of blood fills the air, and I restrain my stomach as it struggles for freedom. Beside each hulking body lays piles upon piles of sheep, torn to pieces. I expect to see white fluff floating on the wing--a silly conceit.

My mount skitters nervously as it catches the ubiquitous smell, and my helmet falls over my eyes. I push it up and drop my lance; my squire hands me the lance and my helmet tips again, but I have, in my wisdom, anticipated this. As I fling my arm up to stop my helm, the edge of my shield hits my forehead, knocking me to the ground.

I blink and groan, rolling onto my knees. It is a struggle to stand in armor, but my efforts are not in vain. I rise to my feet, my head searing with pain. Worse, the clanging thud of my fall has wakened the giants, and they lumber to their full heights.

They rise above the treetops--fearful, hideous aberrations on the face of nature. Ones rolls as it tries to stand and crushes the nearby farmhouse; I wince and pray to God that the farmer and his wife were not inside. There are two of them, clumsily constructed, as of cold clay and rock. Lumpy, crude parodies of human beings--God's misbegotten children.

But not without great strength, I remind myself, as a massive club thuds into the ground immediately to my left. My horse rears and tries to run, but I lunge--painfully slowly in my heavy armor--and catch the reins. It is a strong horse, but the weight of a man in armor dragging on its reins is enough to slow it. I call for my squire, and he helps me hoist my bulk onto my mount's back.

I am fearless. The giants stand over me, but I do not move in the face of them until I am fully in the saddle. Then I urge my horse on, galloping past them and turning. They are slow-witted, weak-minded, and it takes them a moment to realize where I have gone.

In that moment I charge, and stab the larger of the two in the back of the knee with my lance. He roars and stamps the ground--I barely escape his pounding feet, and the great quaking earth in the wake of his feet nearly dismounts me again. But I am valiant and strong, and even as the stinking spittle of his cry rains down on me I turn, and catch him a second time. This time I aim higher, sticking my lance into the meat of the other giant's thigh.

Their flesh, though it appears rocky, is rotten with pox, and my wooden lance tears it away to the bone. This smaller giant tries to turn more quickly, to pursue me, but her newly ruined leg betrays her and she falls to the ground, taking part of the forest with her. She moans and raches for me, pulling trees from the ground and throwing them at me. We are nimble, though, and dodge between them, the blood pounding in my ears.

She will present no more problem, and I turn my attention again to the male, who now chases me, limping only slightly. I toss my lance aside, draw my crossbow and load it, turning my mount to face the monster. It neighs in fear, but I pay it no mind. I fire an hour, and strike the great titan's eye. He screams and clutches his face. The foolish beast tries to dig the arrow out, and so completes the injury. I use the time to load a second arrow and take his other eye.

Now he is blind and mad, stumbling for me. I turn and dig in my heels, urging my mount onward. There is a ravine not far from here that my squire and I passed not long ago, and this is where I now ride. I whoop loudly, triumphantly, as I ride, and the injured foe follows the sounds of my yells.

We run together now, the space between us drawing to a close as I ride for the ravine. Twice his hands reach and nearly catch me; I dodge, quick as a bird. At last I see the brush that marks the ravine's edge and ride straight for it, making sure to sing my triumph all the way. As I reach the edges I turn, my horse's hooves skittering on the crumbling soil, and double back, ceasing my cries. From behind me I hear a great cry of surprise, then nothing more. From a safe distance I listen to the first fall to his death, then turn my attention back to the female.

She is limping, lumbering to me, her wound gushing great spouts of thick yellow fluid and slow red blood. I make a wide circle around her, seeing my squire with my discarded lance. A good servant anticipates his master's needs. I come to retrieve it, and he opens his mouth to speak, to beg me off. I do not listen. I take the lance and ride back into the fray.

I charge straight for the female, her face gaping wide in stupid glee. She bends to catch me and I dodge around. In her excitement she tries to folow me and trips, falls. I ride away a little and turn. The giant is on her back, trying to life herself to her side.

This charge is my strongest, my lance steady and my mount pounding hard at the soil. As she rolls to face me, myy lance strikes the giant, digging deep into her stomach. She screams, high and painful, and her flailing arms fling me from my horse. I hear my horse scream as well.

It takes me a moment to regain my senses, lying in the eves of the wounded giants great loins. The blood is puddling around me, and the putrescent stink brings me to my feet. My lance is gone; I do not know what has become of my horse.

I draw my sword. She is a lovely thing--I found her in a museum and took her away under cover of night. This charge may well be my last, and so I put my full strength into it, jabbing and slicing at her hands when they come to me. I leap over the expanse of her arm, and her throat is in view. My blade swings out and cuts deep into her throat. I withdraw and swing again and again, until her limbs fall still, and finally her head is severed.

I am covered in gore and sweat, standing amid the corpse of a giant. My squire appears, breathless, leading my miraculously unharmed horse. He pats me all over, making sure I am not injured. "Good show," he says, "good show. A battle that will live on in legend, no doubt, sir. Only . . ."

I sigh. "Windmills again?"

He shrugs apologetically. "It's what they are, sir."

I stare across the field of battle, thinking of the adventure of my long life. I have rescued maidens and pursued great deeds of valor; I have seen such sights as most mortal men never will. And . . . windmills.

"It is peculiar," I say, "that where I see the beautiful and fantastic, everyone else sees the ordinary. The pale dross of the everyday. So then, my friend, which one of us is mad?"

My squire thinks a moment, then answers. "You, sir."

"That's as may be." I wipe my sword clean and stow it in its scabbard. "Come, my friend--perhaps there is a damsel still to be rescued before nightfall."

He nods. "Very well, sir."

Monday, December 03, 2007

Today I checked my UGAmail to find I was expected to write an RA Review. A prime opportunity, I decided.

So, with the help of my dearest Daae (full name credit to her if she wants), here is my review:

"I have not seen my RA or indeed had any indication that he exists at all since the day I moved in. This being said, I have not had any problems with abuse of power or overbearing authority, much in the same way that people in a state of anarchy do not complain about the leadership. Indeed, I find the levels of noise, filth, and organization consistent with most historical examples of anarchy. His leadership is as unimpeachable as it is unnoticeable. Truly, he leads best who leads least.

I have heard tell that he is known among the residents on A Hall. However, I regard these rumors with as much credulity as I do those of Yeti-fighting in the Myers lobby. Until I can substantiate it, I remain unconvinced."

Saturday, December 01, 2007

I saw Transformers (the new film) tonight. When Optimus Prime first appeared, I freaked out. I explained to my wife: "This is Optimus Prime. He is everything that is good and noble and high-minded in the world. He is order and light." And--I did not add out loud--in the animated series, he died in fighting for good.

Which had me thinking--because, you see, I often side with the bad guys. Jesus Christ could be argued as exactly the same deal, but in Paradise Lost, I prefer Satan. Frankly, if nothing else, Satan is a far more interesting character.

And yet Optimus Prime is interesting and compelling. There are good and interesting and overall worthwhile characters that fight on the side of good.

Perhaps it is because Christ, in PL, is primarily a static figure. He is not a thing of change. His speeches are simply hymns to glory. Moreover, we know that the good guys in PL did not rise to their position of greatness. They simply dealt themselves the highest cards. Jesus is great and mighty and wonderful because he decreed it should be so, not because he worked for it.

Optimus Prime struggles for goodness--that is why he is worthwhile and interesting.

In PL, Christ offers himself as a sacrificial lamb to redeem all mankind. And yet this is not an awe-inspiring sacrifice, for we know that it is only temporary. He is certain to win. This is, perhaps, why it is easier to buy religion as a gnostic. The gnostics believe in a world of good and evil as nearly equal forces, and it is uncertain which will win. If we know good will always win, why should we care when it does?

In PL, there is a battle in Heaven. The angels under Lucifer design a mighty cannon and use it in their attack; the Host of Heaven responds by hurling mountains at them. One side creates an ingenious and complex projectile system, and their opponents throw rocks, like cavemen. This is the essence of the good/evil conflict of Paradise Lost: the Evil creates something new and brilliant, and the Good simply uses primitive, static force.

Perhaps this is the nub of it. It seems, very often, that Evil is the label applied to that which is simply new and different. It is what is unpredictable--and therefore somewhat dangerous. Evil is exhilarating, and ultimately it is innovation. These forces of Good that I discount do not seek to rise higher or to make things better; they seek only to preserve things as they are or return them to some previous state of superiority. Then they will rest easy.

They are not innovative, but reactionary.

Optimus Prime seeks to make things better than they were. So does every hero or champion of good that I have ever respected--PL's Satan included. You see, this is the center of the war in Heaven: Heaven could not be Paradise, for if it were, rebellion would be impossible. Sociologically speaking, we only rebel when we can imagine how things might be better. Desire, you see, is a flaw in Paradise. Any desire that is not instantly sated or eliminated means that there could be something greater than Paradise, and therefore proves Paradise a sham. Satan seeks something he believes is greater: the principle of liberty and personal choice. The forces of Heaven seek to simply preserve things as they are.

I watch Heroes with my uncle. He once remarked that it scared him a bit that I derided Peter Petrelli (the quintessential good guy) and admired Sylar (the unequivocably bad guy). I think I understand why I felt that way now. Peter is a static and reactionary force: he does not like his newfound powers and seeks to do away with them. Sylar understands the world has changed, and goes with the change. He sees the opportunity to, in his twisted mind, make the world better than it was.

But you see, we have such a character on the side of Good as well. Hiro. He finds joy in his powers, and he sees the world has changed. He does not fight that change, but seeks to make the world a better place. He does not idealize the past as a time that was better, but works in the hopes of a future that will be far greater.

I think, now, on all the good and noble characters in fiction I have admired. King Arthur. Optimus Prime. John Milton's Satan. Albus Dumbledore. They seek a new world better than the one we have. They know they fight against insurmountable odds, and they know that they very well may die in the attempt, without ever achieving any success.

And yet they go on fighting regardless.

NOTE: When I speak, I speak of characters in fiction. I do not speak of Christ or Lucifer as religion portrays them, but as John Milton does in Paradise Lost. Just as when I speak of Optimus Prime, I do not mean the real one, but the one we see in movies and cartoon shows.