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etymology

One of the characteristic SFnal musical instruments is the theremin, an electronic instrument that's controlled by waving one's hands at two antennae, one for pitch and one for loudness, and that produces weird spacey gliding tones. Many people know that it was invented in Russia and named for its inventor. But "Theremin" isn't exactly a plausible Russian name; Russian doesn't have a "th" sound ("Theodore" becomes "Fyodor," for example). And in fact the Russian spelling of the inventor's name is transliterated as "Lev Sergeyevich Termen." So how did we get from "Termen" to "Theremin"?

My hypothesis was that "Theremin" was the French transliteration; French was the prestige language in Russia for a long time, resulting in things like the communist anarchist Bakunin having his name spelled "Bakounine." According to Wikipedia, though, it actually went the other way: The family were Huguenots who had moved to Russia, and "Theremin" was the original spelling. It would have actually been pronounced something like termã, but Russian doesn't have nasalized vowels, so it was approximated as "termen." In any case, where the inventor's name became known internationally, English speakers pronounced it as if it were English, giving us "thair-uh-minn." And that's what the instrument is called in the Anglosphere.

parts of it were very good

This afternoon C and I went to our local movie theater. The previews I had seen of Passengers looked interesting, and I figured it was relatively likely to have a short run, so we saw that. And I have to say it was a really well made science fiction film, not flawless, but one of the best I've seen in a long time—up until roughly the last half hour, where it fell repeatedly into some all too common Hollywood vices.

Actually, the first bad sign came earlier than that, roughly midway through: An instance of "the black guy dies." That's such a cliché it has its own TV Tropes page; you'd think the scriptwriters could have avoided it.

But the real problem came at the end, during the crisis that the previous scenes had led up to, slowly and cleverly. Not once, not twice, but three times, the logical conclusion of the plot calls for an unhappy outcome; and all three unhappy outcomes are avoided, in implausible way. Really, if the story you're setting up is "The Cold Equations," that's the story you should tell, and that was the story I was ready to be moved and impressed by, with the protagonist being one of Kipling's Sons of Martha. Instead the film not just backed off, but repeatedly did a 180° reverse—a sentimental choice, in the sense of James Joyce's saying, "The sentimentalist is he who would enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for the thing done."

And it's really too bad, because until then, this was shaping up to be a classic of science fiction. It had really impressive visuals of a journey between the stars and of the technology of a starship. It had a primary conflict of Man versus Nature, as the ship's systems began failing; and some of the failures were impressively visualized, particularly the pool of water in zero gee. The secondary conflicts of Man versus Man and Man versus Self derived logically from this and developed equally inexorably, without being rushed. There were some really suspenseful scenes of physical danger, but no villain at all.

I'm not sure I can bring myself to watch this again; likely I'll never buy it. But there's enough good in it so that I feel it was worth watching. I just wish the filmmakers had had the courage to make it a tragedy.

point of view

Charles Stross has put up a link to the first chapter of his forthcoming novel Empire Games, the start of a second series about people with the genetic talent for interworld travel. It looks interesting and I definitely plan to read it. But one sentence pulled me up short:

She didn’t know it yet, but it would be the last normal workday of her career.

On one hand, that yanked me right out of the protagonist's point of view to that of the omniscient author. On the other, it also gave me advance knowledge of what was to happen later in the fictional timeline, and in doing so took away my sense of suspense, that peculiar state in which the reader's mind imagines that it doesn't know what comes next.

I have the impression that this sort of thing may be common in technothrillers; at least, I read one lately that did it every few chapters for an entire book. But it perplexes me that a genre that lives and dies by suspense would favor a literary device whose natural effect is to diminish suspense. And I'm surprised that Stross would have resorted to it, especially since the sentence, and the entire paragraph that it constitutes, could have been entirely cut with no damage to the narrative flow.

I just realized

Much of American holiday folklore can be traced to a single source: the poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," by Clement Charles Moore, more commonly known as "The Night before Christmas," from its first line. This is where we get the archetypal description of what Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus looks like. However, some details have changed over the 193 years since it was first published.

According to Moore, Saint Nicholas is not actually a man (not even a canonized man) but a diminutive being that Moore calls an "elf." His actual size isn't given, but he's carried by "a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer," and he's small enough to fit down a chimney without any sort of magical dematerialization (he emerges "tarnished with ashes and soot"). We're also told that "he had a broad face and a round little belly," and that he smokes a pipe.

Can there be any doubt about it? Santa Claus is a hobbit! It's no wonder he can get through all those late night snacks. And giving presents to everyone is a perfect fit to hobbit customs.

The Electoral College

With Trump's narrow win in the election just past, we've started hearing complaints about the Electoral College, and even proposals to subvert its operation in some way.

Not all of these arguments are principled. Some of them come from people who really know very little about American political institutions, and normally have no opinions about them—but are unhappy, or angry, about an outcome that went against their wishes. Neither party has a monopoly on low-information voters.

But there are people who oppose the Electoral College on a continuing basis, even when it hasn't recently gone against their preferences and even when the next presidential election is a long way in the future.

One of the common arguments against the Electoral College is that it can happen that the popular vote, nationwide, favors one candidate, but the electoral vote goes to the other candidate. It appears that a lot of people believe that this is wrong as a matter of principle. I think this particular basis for opposition is unjustified.

Election of the president by popular vote means putting the entire population of the country into a single voting pool, and giving the office to whoever gets the majority of votes in that single pool. This is a form of what political theorists call a unitary state. But the reason there's a name for it is that not all states are unitary. The other sort of states are federal states. A federal state that has democratic mechanisms will divide its voters up into multiple smaller pools, which have some identity of their own, and will give those pools some influence over the outcome of some elections. And the result will be that some elections will be won by people who didn't get a majority in the national electorate.

We could imagine a setup where there are separate voting pools, but where the mechanism for counting votes ensures that the election will always go to the candidate who won the popular vote. But those aren't really federal states; those are states with a federal façade over a unitary architecture. People may have sentimental feelings about their states, or provinces, or cantons, in such a setup, but the subunits make no difference to the actual outcome.

And it seems to me that if your position is that the only acceptable outcome is that the candidate who wins the popular vote should always win the election, then you are saying that all federal states are illegitimate. Conversely, if you accept that federalism is a legitimate constitutional choice, then you can't object to an electoral process merely because it may go against the popular vote. An actual belief in federalism means believing that the vote of the subunits may be, not a flawed approximation to the legitimate outcome of a unitary vote, but a legitimate outcome in its own right. So unless you want to say that Australia, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, the United States, and some other states are illegitimate, I think you need to do more than point out that Trump didn't win the popular vote if you want to say that his election was invalid.

Certainly there are less sweeping arguments against the Electoral College; arguments that while giving the states a separate voice in some things is a good idea, it's not appropriate in choosing the president. I'm not arguing, here, for rejection of that view, or of those arguments. I'm just saying that I think that the fact that the Electoral College sometimes goes against the popular vote isn't a sufficient reason for rejecting it—not unless you reject federalism as such, which I don't.

dramatic weather

When we moved up to Riverside, I expected long hot summers, and we got them. But I didn't expect the autumns to be so intense! The wind started blowing briskly early this morning. By the time I came back from errands in midafternoon it was really strong, to the point of blowing our gate wide open. Now it's the middle of the night and it's gotten even stronger, making whistling noises and banging things about. At this point it's kind of at the border between exciting and alarming. I won't say we never had such exciting weather in San Diego—there was the night when the board fence at the west of our apartment building blew over!—but what we're having tonight is near the high end of the scale.

the mouse

I decided recently to reread a few of the Narnia books, which I hadn't looked at in many years. On the whole, I have mixed feelings about Narnia. I tend to sympathize with Tolkien's complaints about the mishmash of different legendary and invented beings; and I feel that Lewis has too much tendency to lecture the reader, either in his own voice or through that of Aslan. Really the story often loses its dramatic tension when Aslan comes on the scene.

On the other hand, there are things to like in Narnia. In particular, my favorite book in the series was always The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; and rereading it this time, I saw that the most important reason for this was the character of Reepicheep.

Reepicheep is the chieftain of the talking mice of Narnia. He stands two feet tall, and carries a miniature rapier. This is something of an anachronism, a bit of French ancien régime gear and manners in a world that is otherwise a mix of ancient and medieval; and I find it a bit surprising in that Lewis wrote explicitly, in "On Stories," that he had never been able to take any pleasure in The Three Musketeers, which seems like the obvious model for Reepicheep's courtliness and insane bravery. It's as if Lewis managed to extract something he liked from a story full of intrigues that he couldn't stand.

Reepicheep's courage is an elegant paradox. The classic comparison is "as brave as a lion," but courage in the ordinary sense of the word isn't the main thing Aslan personifies. And really, it's not that hard for a huge beast with teeth and claws to face danger. For a mouse to do so is much more impressive. But Reepicheep has the physical skills to take care of himself, as we see what Eustace, a boy from Earth, grabs his tail and swings him by it; and he's also eager to confront danger. Nor is his courage only physical; there's a crucial scene where he stands up to Caspian, the king of Narnia, and tells him that Caspian must not do something that Caspian desperately wants to do, and that if Caspian tries to do it it will be Reepicheep's duty to physically restrain him.

Beyond that, Reepicheep has other admirable qualities. For one, some time after the clash with Eustuce, at a time when Eustace has gotten himself into a seriously bad situation, Reepicheep is the one who befriends him and tries to encourage him, which is a fine illustration of nobility of character. For another, there's the scene near the end where Reepicheep, at the point of gaining his heart's desire, takes off his sword and throws it into the sea, saying he won't need it any longer. I really can't think of any other character in Lewis's fiction who, for all his faults, so unhesitatingly does the right thing.

quotations from Orwell

Earlier today, I happened to think of a well-known line from Orwell, to the effect that there are some things so stupid that only an intellectual could believe them. This time, I decided to do a Web search. I didn't find those exact words, but I did find what I think is the original wording, and its source. It also turned out to be a plausible source for another famous Orwell line, about people sleeping peacefully in their beds because rough men are ready to do violence on their behalf. Again, those exact words didn't turn up—and I think I've seen it said that Orwell never actually said it—but I did turn up a line that expresses very much the same sentiment.

The source for both was an essay Orwell wrote in May 1945, "Notes on Nationalism," which can be seen here. In it, Orwell says that One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool. And a bit earlier, he gives a list of obviously true beliefs that adherents of various systems of ideas cannot accept and therefore cannot admit; one example, for pacifists, is that Those who "abjure" violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf. I think each of those is plausible as an original source for the lines I referred to.

found art

The New York Times has published two maps: One of the United States without the areas that voted for Clinton, and one without the areas that voted for Trump. The second was kind of an archipelago, rather like Earthsea, which started me thinking of these as settings for fantasy novels.

And it hit me: The map of Trump America was recognizably the same land area, but eroded away along the coast and the Great Lakes. It would be fairly plausible as a setting for a story in a future world where the icecaps had melted and the sea levels had risen! A vast, somewhat sparsely populated land with a somewhat familiar shape. . . .

Goldenhand

I learned, just recently, that Garth Nix had written a new novel in the Abhorsen series, about the further experiences of Lirael. I have loved this series since I first happened on Sabriel, so the new book was one of my first requests from the county library. And I'm very happy with it.

For one thing, it brings together several threads of story from previous books, and resolves them: Lirael's grief for the Disreputable Dog, Nicholas Sayre's curiosity about the Old Kingdom, the fate of Lirael's mother, and the fate of Clariel, an Abhorsen of the far past who came back from death to be a major threat.

For another, it expands Nix's world. I was totally excited when I looked at the map in front and saw a facing page with a map on a different scale, in which the entire Old Kingdom was tucked into one small corner at the bottom. For an inveterate worldbuilding nothing can be more exciting.

But most of all, I liked the two focal characters: Lirael, the Abhorsen in Waiting, returned to her home and seeing it differently; and Ferin, a younger girl from a remote northern tribe with a really unusual background. Most of the novel alternates between their viewpoints, and does a brilliant job, with nearly every chapter ending a cliffhanger. Both of them are exemplars, but exemplars of different things; but Nix also makes some brilliant parallels between them. Nix has a really good sense of character, and he's at his best here. And there are also love stories woven into the plot for both of them. I was especially pleased that despite making two of the characters awkward, Nix resisted the temptation to hold things up by having them conceal their feelings for no good reason; there's enough real drama going on so there's no need for false drama.

Nix may be my favorite living fantasist. At any rate, I can't think of another I like more.