A hypaethral life

Henry David Thoreau keeps a fun and thought-provoking blog, based on his diaries. A recent entry caught my eye with its use of a word that was new to me: hypaethral. This adjective describes something that is open to the air, as a building lacking a roof. Thoreau’s use of it here is amusingly metaphorical:

“I thought that one peculiarity of my ‘Week’ was its hypaethral character, to use an epithet applied to those Egyptian temples which are open to the heavens above, under the ether. I thought that it had little of the atmosphere of the house about it, but might wholly have been written, as in fact it was to a considerable extent, out-of-doors. It was only in a late period in writing it, as it happened, that I used any phrases implying that I lived in a house or lived a domestic life. I trust it does not smell [so much] of the study and library, even of the poet’s attic, as of the fields and woods; that it is a hypaethral or unroofed book, lying open under the ether and permeated by it, open to all weathers, not easy to be kept on a shelf.” — Henry David Thoreau, June 29, 1851

I like the idea of a book without a roof, one that would be hard to keep on a shelf, and one that would bring a taste of all the outdoors to any who passed near it. And many’s the day I’ve wished (though lacking the word) that my own life were more hypaethral — that I might look up from my computer and see the sky arching in dazzling blue above, or, later, feel the flickering chatter of stars rain down on me from the dusky twilight. The reminder to look up, to elevate our attention, to imagine the vastness of what lies outside our 12-foot ceilings and plaster and paint, is always a welcome one. Thank you, Thoreau!

Netflix origami: MirrorMask

A friend challenged me to build on my initial foray into Netflix Origami by folding models related to the movie I had just watched. The next movie turned out to be MirrorMask. I found the movie to be a visually delightful fantasy, with elements reminiscent of Labyrinth, Alice in Wonderland, and the Neverending Story. The Jim Henson company was a major part of the movie-making effort, and much of the puppetry speaks to that, albeit with a darker, Neil-Gaiman-inspired flavor. The plot isn’t terribly complex, but I loved the experience of watching the movie.

But enough about the movie — what about the origami? I found instructions for making a Guy Fawkes Mask that seemed like it would fit the bill.

The instructions are extremely sparse and rely on cryptic hand-drawn diagrams as well as assuming that you have a good familiarity with terms like “squash fold” and “crimp fold”. I’m not sure I would have made it through without relying on the eminently more useful video 1 and video 2. But combined together I was able to produce, well, something that almost looks like a mask!

This is a neat little model, and with more practice I think I could improve my execution as well. :)

Escapism as a good thing

There are some who denigrate the reading of fantasy as escapism, a willful rejection of reality in favor of a more pleasant existence in un-reality. As a young consumer of Ursula Le Guin, Patricia McKillip, Orson Scott Card, C.S. Lewis, Robin McKinley, and (naturally) J.R.R. Tolkien, I encountered this view from time to time in a personal way. The same critique could be applied to an immersion in any fictional work, but seems inordinately often to have been leveled at fantasy works specifically (and science fiction by proximity).

Now, there is well crafted fantasy and groaningly bad fantasy, works that open new views to your imagination and works that plunge you into depression or nightmare, stories that inspire and those that oppress. But is stepping into an alternate reality really escapism? And if it is, should we be concerned?

I hadn’t thought about this issue much recently until I encountered it in J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories.” He has several thought-provoking things to say about the craft and purpose of such stories, and he also tackled the criticism of escapism. He points out that “escape” is generally viewed as a positive thing, implying as it does the freeing of oneself from a bad situation. (People generally do not “escape” from happiness, wealth, joy, or love.)

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”

Escape has only taken on a negative connotation in this context because the critics have confused, “not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”

I had an Aha! moment reading this. The negative use of “escape” really intends the meaning of “desertion”. Desertion implies the shirking of responsibility, an abandonment of one’s right course and duty. It is as if, in engaging our brains in imagining dragons or aliens or telepathy, we have deliberately rejected and abandoned the world that lacks those things—and further, that there must be a moral flaw in doing so, because we have some sort of commitment to be faithful to reality alone. But what makes it our duty to muddle along in raw reality, given that our ability to imagine the hypothetical and counterfactual is one of humanity’s unique and awesome gifts?

Tolkien takes this even further, turning the criticism on its head by linking fantasy with faith. The same ability that permits us to dream of dragons and rings is also what permits us to imagine deities, an afterlife, and an existence that improves upon the reality we currently experience. If you believe that there is more to existence than just this world, then you should see value in “escaping” (in the positive sense) from its evils and ugliness. Fantasy is one vehicle for doing so, for reminding us that there can be greater forces at work, and good ends to come, especially when reality seems grim or hopeless. Tolkien seems to view the modern world as a decidedly flawed place, and sees no trouble, and indeed benefit, in imagining and sharing better places.

That particular justification doesn’t quite work for me, but then Tolkien had been through much grimmer times than I ever have. For me, stepping out of my own reality temporarily is valuable in that it tends to help me reset my perspectives. There is a danger in too much fretting about details, in focusing on personal troubles until they are magnified beyond all reason. Stepping aside into someone else’s story can enable a healthy distancing from those concerns, allowing a calmer and more balanced return to them later. More than that, it can give you virtual experiences that allow you to be more compassionate towards others. In short, it broadens the mind.

I wonder what Tolkien would have thought of the Harry Potter phenomenon, in which fantasy reading (about wizards and witches, no less!) swept around the world in a screaming wave of me-too popularity. And if the whole world escapes into the same alternate reality, does that make it a part of reality by annexation?

Juneteenth: the slaves are free

Today was not only the day before Father’s Day, but also a day to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. Inspired by a brief note on NPR this morning, I learned that June 19, or “Juneteenth”, is a holiday that originated in Texas and is now observed by 35 states (including California but not including Utah). President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect in 1863, but Texas was a hold out, and eventually 2,000 troops (!) had to be sent out to Texas in 1865 to enforce the Proclamation. Wikipedia relates that “legend has it” that General Granger read this statement aloud on June 19:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

June 19 has become Juneteenth, and it is apparently a vigorous annual celebration, in Texas and around the world.

I find it difficult to imagine what it would have felt like, as a slave, to learn that suddenly you had the same personal and property rights as your heretofore master. And it always gives me pause when I learn about some new slice of our country’s history that it then seems impossible not to have known. I hadn’t realized that it took years for the Emancipation Proclamation to have an effect throughout all the States. Given thought, some delay makes sense, since at the time merely getting the news out must have taken weeks or months. (We today are so used to instantaneous communication!) But the subsequent lag brings home more forcefully what an upheaval this decision was and how difficult it was to bring the country into alignment — by force, in some cases.

I hope that we never need federal troops to step in and force communities to recognize equal marriage rights for all humans.

FarmVille in the real world

FarmVille is, I hear, some kind of game one plays on Facebook. Well, not just one; the game has over 82 million active users as of May 2010. I’ve never tried it myself, so I don’t really know what makes it so fun or addictive. And although I knew of it in passing, I thought it was confined to Facebook.

Not so.

FarmVille (and its sister games such as Mafia Wars) have entered the real world, the one that you and I live in, through (of all places) 7-11. I was driving along a week ago when I noticed this billboard. That’s right, if you buy a Slurpee, you get a “virtual gift” in the FarmVille world. The gift turns out to be 200 “FarmVille dollars.” Am I the only one who finds this utterly bizarre? I’m aware that people buy and sell virtual goods for real dollars in Second Life. I know that some MMORPG players pay others real dollars to generate game commodities like experience points or gold. But for these virtual objects and services to obtain a “real world” value, they have to reach a certain level of social dissemination and perceived value in a large real-world community. And certainly, 82 million people is a large community — I hadn’t realized just how many people were playing this game.

I now wonder how much of an incentive 200 $FV is. What’s that worth to anyone? Is there an exchange rate with USD? To those of you who’ve played FarmVille: would the promise of 200 $FV be enough to persuade you to buy a Slurpee?

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