Friday, April 28, 2006

I guess the Vatican has decided to help Dan Brown sell books and promote the movie. Brilliant.
My faith in the publishing industry has been restored:
NEW YORK (AP) — A teen novel at the heart of a plagiarism dispute has been pulled from stores. Author Kaavya Viswanathan, a Harvard University sophomore, had acknowledged that several passages in How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life were borrowed from the works of another writer.

Publisher Little, Brown and Company, which had signed the author to a reported six-figure deal, said in a statement Thursday that it had notified retail and wholesale outlets to stop selling copies of the book, and to return unsold copies to the publisher.

Visnawanathan has apologized repeatedly for lifting material from Megan McCafferty, whose books include Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, saying she had read McCafferty's books voraciously in high school and unintentionally mimicked them.

McCafferty's publisher, the Crown Publishing Group, labeled Viswanathan's actions "literary identity theft" and had urged Little, Brown, which initially said her novel would remain on sale, to pull the book.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Has anyone lost their faith because of the Da Vinci Code?
(Well, yeah. I have. My faith in the publishing industry. Just Kidding. Sort of. See post below this one.)

Reason I ask is--as is often the case when a controversial 'Catholic' book or movie comes out--it's become a matter of concern to Church leaders and many Catholic writers that this book and by extension the movie will lead Christians astray.

I notice Dan Brown isn't too concerned. In between trips (laughing all the way, no doubt) to the bank, he had time to make an appearance in his home state. Giving entirely way too much credit to the extent to which any scholar worth his or her weight in salt would consider the nonsense in his book as worth comment, he said it's basically up to scholars to judge the "ideas" presented in the book.

But back to those Christians concerned about the book's effect on the Faithful. On the whole, I think there is certainly cause for concern about a book that promotes falsehoods--and if you think Christians are the only ones who think so, read Laura Miller's excellent take-down of Brown in Salon.

But...while it's quite likely that Christians with insufficient background in the history of their own religion will suck for Brown's crap---hook, line and sinker... I can't help what degree might someone truly lose their faith over this swill? Meaning, to the point where they disregard even the basic morality in the Commandments? In other words, will they become full-blown nihilists because of Brown's book? Or something in between, or not even as questionable? I'm wondering whether all this running around on the part of scholars, media hopping and discussing the many problems with the book leading up to the movie is really helping, if not making the matter even worse. Barb Nicolosi certainly seems to have had enough, and I don't blame her.

Having read the novel, my own feeling is, if your faith is such a wisp o' nothing that it gets blown out by an overwrought melodrama (based on sham research), you probably didn't have much faith in the Church to begin with. Maybe the Church should be taking advantage of natural selection here, if I may borrow a metaphor, and be grateful for the opportunity to prune the congregation of its intellectually weaker elements.

In fact, given the recent clergy abuse scandal in the American church, could you not argue that a lot more people lost their faith when they saw how the bishops of the church responded--than when they read Brown's book? Especially because the greatest damage was done precisely by those people in positions of authority whose faith was, shall we say, probably not the sharpest? How else to explain the complacency and complicity? (Interesting follow up question: had the clergy abuse scandal not happened, would so many Christians be as worried about Brown's froth?)

Some Catholic journalists and bloggers have worried whether some Christians will lose their souls because of the influence of the book. But will they really? Led astray for a while, perhaps most of their lives, yes a very real possibility, I concur. But is that the end of the story for such people?

Let's take the most average example of such a case. Most novel readers are women. So let's take a woman from Massachusetts, a pretty Catholic state in terms of population. This woman is reasonably educated, at least nominally Catholic, meaning she goes to Church on Sundays and holidays and confession once a year. She knows one or two priests and nuns as friends; she lives a straight life. Maybe she's married with kids...

Then... she buys into the whole mess of the Da Vinci code's oh-so-controversial "thesis". Jesus married Mary Magdalene, they had a family of super heroes. The church suppressed this and lied, and in outrage the woman stops going to church out of a sudden disgust. And she's not the only one; still other people suddenly fall for the fashionable idea that the institution responsible for these lies lasted ... for 2000 years by fooling millions of people?

The Soviet Union ...the last most obvious institution I can think of that was built on lies lasted long? 70 years? How much longer do we think the lies propping up Chinese Communism can last?

But to believe the Catholic Church has succeeded in surviving for 2000 years based entirely on a pack of lies I do find hard to believe (with all due respect to Christopher Hitchens who, when it comes to religion, relies more on his bile than his wits). Oft evil will shall evil mar, as the old saying goes. I think the Church has lasted because the Gospel is basically true. The man described in the Gospels, as Einstein once pointed out, mirrors the reality of who he was--which is, enthralling to most people who read his words. Too real to be a product of fabrication. Or to be the tool of second-rate hacks. Somehow the Man in the Gospel strikes me as--and I may be going out on a limb here in my interpretation--the last person in the world to get married and raise children.

So... what if some people do buy into the novel's nonsense? Maybe it's not entirely a bad thing. In other words, is it really likely the people to be turned away from the Church by this book weren't already fairly uncritical to begin with--the kind CS Lewis's marvellous Screwtape complains about so eloquently in the Screwtape Letters? And is it certain these stray sheep will persist in believing what a candyass novel says--for the rest of their lives? Or, like many people as they get older, like you and me and the prodigal son, as life forces them to become wise, will they change their minds?

My own feeling, and once again I may be overly optimistic, is that anyone with even a modest education in church history will not be fooled by the swill being peddled as history by Brown's comic strip. Or if so, not for long. The others who do...probably need to be fooled. For a while. And then they can wise up.
Dan Kennedy makes an excellent point about the Viswanathan scandal.
Indeed, if you take a look at the Crimson's side-by-side comparisons, you'll find it hard to rule out the possibility -- the likelihood? -- that Viswanathan propped McCafferty's "Sloppy Firsts" open in her lap and started typing, making just a few changes in an inept attempt to cover her tracks.

It's hard to muster much sympathy for Viswanathan, who got a $500,000 contract to put her imprimatur on a novel that others "conceptualized" for her, and that she then couldn't apparently bother to write entirely on her own.

But I'll give her this much. In a more sane world, she never would have gotten the contract and the publicity that put her in the public spotlight in the first place. She would have plagiarized at Harvard, flunked a class, maybe even been forced to transfer to another college. And she would have learned an important lesson -- quietly. Instead, she's dealt herself a devastating blow from which it will be hard to recover.
I will refrain from comment about the young woman's intelligence. And...again...what does this tell you about the publishing industry? Too depressing for words.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Not letting Dan Shaughnessy get away with anything:
The CHB turned in one column last week, and yet the best he can muster today is a slapped together list of shots at local sports management.

Is this really what the Globe is paying him for?

There's the obligatory Theo cheap shot, raising the Bronson Arroyo angle once again, as if there was any chance the dreadlocked pitcher would be throwing so well here in Boston. Ever heard of small sample size, Dan? Hint: Ask your urologist.

He calls Bill Belichick "His Infallibleness" and Epstein a "real sacred cow" who "forever will be the boy wonder who can do no wrong."
James Woods gives Harold Bloom a real work-over.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Day Without Yesterday is now officially available at NRO's Bookservice.
Book Club Dept. I've been on a science fiction binge since Boskone in February. After meeting Allan Steele there I ran out and bought Coyote, which was very enjoyable. I also finally got to Philip Pullman's Golden Compass, Robert Charles Wilson's Spin and (with a pause to savor Alice Munro's latest collection of short stories, Runaway) am now in the middle of Lois McMaster Bujold's Paladin of Souls. All of these writers are excellent. Still waiting on the shelf for me: Jeffrey Carver, Connie Willis, Gene Wolfe and John Crowley's Little, Big.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Michael Yon:
As I consider this whole manufactured controversy about my intentions in saying, then and now, that Iraq is in a civil war, and whether or not I used the right definition, and even, ridiculous as it seems, whether I have been hijacked by forces that oppose this war, what strikes me as most telling, and truly as most sad, is that, still, more than a year later, almost every soldier I’ve met in Iraq and most recently Afghanistan, still has to ask that same question: Do the people at home know about the progress we have made over here?
This made for a very Happy Easter:

The Rev. Charles J. Murphy is returning to St. Francis Xavier Church in Weymouth now that the archdiocese has cleared him of sexual abuse charges.

‘‘It was a nightmare for him,’’ Boston attorney Timothy O’Neill, who represented the Rev. Murphy in a lawsuit, said yesterday. ‘‘He has had tremendous support from the community. There was no credibility (in the charges) whatsoever. He’s a good man.’’

In August 2004, the Rev. Murphy, then 70, was placed on administrative leave following allegations that he molested a young girl years ago while serving as director of counseling at the former Boston School for the Deaf in Randolph.

I have only a couple of comments. 1. Notice that when ambulance chasers "lawyers" get their cases thrown out, they start whimpering about "technicalities." 2. Notice that the woman who smeared Father Murphy doesn't have to give her name or make an appearance. She can run back to the shadows.

As I've said before, the Archdiocese did not do itself much credit when this whole charade started in August of 2004. They went from one extreme, covering up abusers, to the opposite: Father Murphy, whom I've known my whole life, and who taught me how to serve as an altar boy almost 40 years ago, was basically thrown to the wolves and has had to fend for himself, including relying on the charity of the many friends and families who stuck by him and helped him get an attorney. I can't help wondering whether Cardinal O'Malley will be sending him an apology.

Don't expect the Boston Globe to run a related piece any time soon. They're content to just write about the accusations—not the actual verdict.

Friday, April 14, 2006

What better way to commemorate Good Friday than by a new translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem, Dream of the Rood....

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

For those of you dreading you'll have to read DaVinci Code before the over-hyped movie comes out (or even after), help is on the way!

Rev. John Wauck humorously summarizes the plot—so you won't have to.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Carl Zimmer discusses the latest flurry of PR from the Discovery Institute.
Is it me, or is it strange that intelligent design advocates are telling biologists that they aren't working hard enough, that they are not getting enough results from their lab work? Remember, this is the same Michael Behe whose sole peer-reviewed paper in the past eight years was a computer model (and a pretty poor one, it turned out). Compare that to the work of Joe Thornton, the principal investigator on the new paper. In the past eight years he's published twenty papers on hormones and their evolution: he's been sequencing hormone receptor genes, working out how they respond to different hormones, determining how they're related to one another, and even resurrecting them after 450 million years of oblivion. All Behe is doing is complaining that Thornton hasn't done enough, without even bothering to explain how a scientist could even set up the sort of test he demands. The fact of evolution, which Discovery Institute folks like to ignore, is that natural selection is tough to measure precisely even in living populations. The challenge gets far greater after millions of years have passed. Scientists can detect the fingerprint of natural selection on various genes, but they may never be able to recover the precise chain of events that drove the evolution of a new kind of gene.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Belated Book Discovery. I don't know what else to name this dept. But lately I've been discovering a lot of good writers who have been around for a while.

This gem was recommended to me by Tor editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden. And boy...after some of the other recent SF/Fantasy offerings I've sampled, Steven Brust is a major standout. The Phoenix Guards is not only fun—but like the best writers, Brust will stop you in your tracks now and then with an observation or wry comment so elegant you have to put the book down and grab a high-lighter.The book jacket is frankly vague about his background, but wherever Mr. Brust hails from and what his level of education, it is clear that he loves Alexander Dumas (and probably Jane Austen) and indeed 19th century French literature in general. To say that he imitates Dumas would be misleading. He takes the style, the atmosphere and the entire sensibility and makes it his own. While the fantasy world in which the story takes place is not striking (Brust mercifully spares his readers the obligatory cheesy 'maps' that go along with most fantasy novels), and further, his talent for name creation doesn't exactly result in characternyms that roll off the tongue—you really don't care because you are so absorbed in his style, the pace and the characters. Even his villains are disarmingly polite. I realize that the self-consciously stylized, often pedantic nature of the dialogue could drive some readers nuts, but I have to say that over 450 plus pages, I never tired of Khaavren, Aerich and their companions--or of the narrator. Brust is a breath of fresh air, especially when compared to the ponderous and heavy-handed narrative styles of the other vaunted fantasy writers working today.

Overall, superb. I'm looking forward to reading the next in line.
The Boston Globe has a Business feature today on a local company's efforts to create a compression format several times better than the current standard for movie downloads on the Internet (mpeg-4). Below is a selection from the article by Hiawatha Bray (which will not be available for long--the Globe archives its stories and requires payment).

A Concord company called Euclid Discoveries says it has invented a video-compression technology that could spawn a lucrative new market for Hollywood or a major new crisis.

The firm says its EuclidVision system can compress digital images to make them much smaller than today's most common compression technologies, MPEG-2 and MPEG-4,which were created by the Motion Picture Experts Group. MPEG-2 is the compression system used on today's DVD movie disks. MPEG-4 is a next-generation system that can reduce the size of a movie even further.

But EuclidVision promises to squeeze video files more than ever before. Euclid Discoveries chief executive Richard Wingard said EuclidVision will let movie companies shrink a video so small that it becomes easy to distribute films over the Internet. He said that his company has filed 15 US patents on its compression system and is in discussions with a number of companies to bring it to market.

That could be good news for Hollywood, which launched new services last week to sell downloadable copies of recent films. Reducing the size of these downloads could boost Internet movie sales. But it could also popularize Internet movie piracy, just as MP3 music compression caused a global boom in illiicit music downloads.
It will be interesting to see whether the EuclidVision codecs will become available for use in programs like Sorenson Squeeze, or whether Euclid will be offered only as a stand-alone solution at greater cost to developers.