Friday, April 18, 2014

The Wisdom of Fictional Characters - on Snow Queens and Mermaids (with free fiction!)

Read through to the end of this one for a complete free short story!

While winter may at last be giving way to spring, a bit of frost has lodged in my household, as it has in those of many of my fellow parents. Frozen, the latest animated musical fairy-tale adaptation from the folks at Disney, has not only made its way into our home but appears to live in near-constant playback. It is rapidly approaching the point at which I think of our TV not as a general viewing device, but as a single-purpose Frozen machine. I'll admit that the story on which it is based, Hans Christian Anderson's "The Snow Queen," is not one with which I was familiar.   The public domain, free e-books, and the Google Books app on my smart phone were able to fix that readily enough. How does the new match with the old?  How does this mirror Disney's earlier Anderson-based film The Little Mermaid? A line in a horror novel I'm currently reading brought these questions to mind.

The  novel in question is Caitlin R Kiernan's The Drowning Girl. It is, thus far, an utterly brilliant book of which I might write a full review after I finish. Kiernan's protagonist, a self-described insane young woman, has somewhat of an obsession with Anderson's "Little Mermaid" story. On seeing the Disney film, she is deeply disappointed at Disney having taken a true story and replaced it with a pretty lie. Did they do so? And did they do the same with "The Snow Queen"? To answer that we need to read and consider the original works.

Illustration of the evil magic looking glass
from Anderson's "The Snow Queen"
It is well-known that many fairy tales, in their original telling, have a darkness or even a brutality about them. Rapunzel's prince has his eyes gouged out with thorns. Cinderella's step-sisters cut pieces off of their feet to fit into the famous glass slipper. The endings are not always happy, and when they are we don't always get their bloodlessly. Some of Anderson's tales have a touch of the darkness we see in the Brothers Grimm, but Anderson's religiousity sews a hint of a silver lining onto this dark mantle. Yes, the little match girl freezes to death alone on the street (see here for my take on this particular tale), but not without a glimpse of the comfort and joy she'll receive in the next world. The Little Mermaid, in the Anderson tale, is not able to win her prince's love. At risk of dying by the sea-witch's curse, she is given a magic dagger by her sisters. With this magic she has a final chance to win back her life by killing the prince's bethrothed, but at the last moment she throws the dagger into the sea, dooming herself. In the final scene, her spirit is greeted by angels, and told that by this act of generosity she can, over the course of years or centuries, earn an immortal soul. Is this a happy ending? It is, but at a cost. The biggest problem with the Disney version is the same as my biggest issue with the Disney version of Rapunzel - in both cases our protagonists make sacrifices for what they desire - Flynn dooms himself by slicing off Rapunzel's magic hair to keep it from the witch, Ariel gives up her voice in a bargain with the Sea Witch. In both cases, the sacrifice is cheapened by not only giving the character the object of their desire, but handwaving away any lasting effect of the sacrifice. Kiernan's character is right: The Little Mermaid lacks literary truth or any real moral weight. We end with a fight scene and a "happily ever after" for all involved.

What of "The Snow Queen" and Frozen? This is an interesting case in that the Disney film bears almost no resemblance to Anderson's tale of Kay, a young boy whose heart is frozen by the titular Snow Queen and his friend Greta, the girl whose faith, purity, and love rescue him. There's one magic element missing from the Disney version: a magic mirror created by a demon through which one sees everything at its worst. The mirror shatters, and tiny shards of it sometimes get caught in someone's eye or heart. Those so afflicted see things in a dark and distorted way, and eventually likewise feel bitter and hateful. In "The Snow Queen",  Kay is so afflicted both in his eye and heart. It is through this dark lens that he finds the evil snow-queen beautiful, and in the end our heroine's act of love not only thaws his frozen heart but also washes away the shards of glass. There's clearly a great deal of metaphor in Anderson's story and what I would argue is an explicitly Christian worldview. While there is a measure of repetition in Greta's varying adventures, the story works quite well and is certainly readable to a modern audience.

Frozen introduces interesting variations on the theme. What's most interesting to me is that the Snow Queen herself is no longer an evil temptress (certainly a problematic archetype to say the least), but young princess forced to hide the magic within her lest she inadvertently harm those around her. The idea of a frozen heart remains, but to far different effect. Elsa, the snow queen, is forced to flee after she reveals her powers by accidentally throwing the entire kingdom into an unnatural winter during an argument with her sister Anna. Here the frozen heart can still be metaphorical, representing the harm caused by being shut-out by a loved one. We're told repeatedly that only "an act of true love" can unfreeze a heart; the story builds nicely to the idea that the male lead will give a "true love's kiss" (as in The Little Mermaid) and thaw Anna's heart. At the last minute we're given a reversal of the usual Disney formula in that Anna turns away from her would-be male rescuer and sacrifices her own life to save her sister. This of course, is the "act of true love", ANna's heart is thawed and the sacrifice is once again returned with no lasting consequence. Even the snowman gets to survive the coming of summer, as Elsa has an epiphany which gives her such fine control of her ice powers that she can give create a tiny pocket winter just for a single comedic sidekick.

I'll say this about Frozen -  in elevating sisterly love over romantic love AND in having the female hero save herself rather than wait for a man to do it this film takes a huge feminist step. It also nicely skewered the idea of "love at first sight" which we see in too many of the Disney princess films. I still think that there's room for improvement, and fear that at the heart of this story there's still not as much truth as their could be.

I'll close with a piece of my own fiction: my take on "The Little Mermaid". Enjoy!

The Second Littlest Mermaid
by Leonard C Suskin

The sea-witch chose the mer-king's second-youngest daughter. It was not  because she pitied her, although she did know how it felt to be in the middle. You explore the same as any other girl, always diving to new depths, but whatever depth you attain, be it your first words, planting your first sea-palm in your private garde, singing your first song, you were always chasing the ones who had come before you. Oh, you still had bright shards of innocence not yet polished smooth by the currents of life, but  there was another after you, wasn't there? One whose innocence was sharper and brighter than yours, and one who everyone knew was the last one. The last egg, the last hatchling, the last to see all things under the sea with bright-eyed wonder, the last to gaze longlingly upward towards the light and the other world.

You know the sea-witch as a villain and think she chose the littlest mermaid. It's a fine tale, told to bring children of the earth closer to the sky. The other story begins under the sea, long before the mer-king's daughters would come of age and be allowed to kiss the sky.

If you listen carefully to the whispers in a seashell you just might hear a hint of it.

The sea-witch visited the royal gardens disguised as a peasant-woman. The king and queen weren't fooled, of course. They knew enough of the old stories to know that any peasant-woman who dared swim into the royal gardens was either a witch or a very brave peasant indeed. They had thought of this, planned for this, hoped for this. Days earlier their second youngest - we'll call her Bella in this tale - had seen her mother taking a bright orange bit of seaglass from within a hiding place deep within her garden. Sea-ferns grew in the rough form of a great sea-beast, with the bright bits of glass and metal hidden in its belly, head, and chest. They were carefully chosen and carefully placed, hidden to all but clever children and parents who see more than you'd think. That is the way of parents everywhere.

"That's mine!" the second-youngest mermaid yelled as she saw the mer-king placing bright orange glass in her sister's hand. It was a lovely piece of glass, orange as the trickle of light that oozed into the shallows near dawn, worn smooth by countless years under the sea. Bella had buried it in her garden days ago, in the very center of her whale-sculpture.

"Now Bella, you need to share with your sister. She's too young to find such treasures on her own. Beside, you buried it. Nobody would even know it was there."

"I know. It's mine. I found it." The second littlest mermaid quivered with rage, the water around her growing all the more salty.

The king shook his head sadly. "I am disappointed in you. To refuse to share with your sister something you've hidden and forgotten... this is not how a princess acts."

The young mermaind whispered, "I hadn't forgotten," to the empty sea as her father swam off.

Was that the moment the sea-witch made her choice? Did news of the small girl's almost-rebellion somehow reach her ears? Perhaps. It is said that she had ears everywhere, that the starfish and the jellyfish and the plentiful krill all follow deep currents to the sea-witch's lair, that they whisper their secrets to her. Perhaps.

A few short days later a peasant-woman came to the royal gardens, as the king suspected. Witches, after all, aren't the only ones whose ears span the sea like a great kraken's tentacles. He knew and smiled when he saw her. He had been wise; his youngest daughter, the strange fey creature always looking airward had never been shunned, never denied the chance to spread her fins. He knew the stories. It was always the least who received the witch's blessing, and always the ones who denied her who would pay.

So the young mer-girls were defferential and polite to the old peasant womn visiting their gardens. They tried hard not to stare at the rotting scales flaking off her tail, didn't look twice at gaunt skin stretched across protruding ribs, swam as close as they could, refusing to recoil from the sweet stink of decay permeating the seawater around her. They were all "yes, m'lady" and "welcome lady" and "would you like to see my garden?"

The witch smiled to herself with an air of detached amusement as first the oldest, then the second, and so on down through the youngest led her by the bony hand (in theirs so soft and supple, the yougest still plump with babyfat) through their carefully tended gardens and well-traveled pathways to the best, most secret parts of the great wreck.
She laughed with them and listened to them and ate too-sweet candies from their hands. The king saw her sitting quietly with the littlest mermaid gazing up at the surface and listening to their daughter's every word,

"I cannot wait until I'm fifteen and get to see the surface, oh, I can't wait. The glorious baubles from the wreck and the great golden light and .. oh, I just know it will be glorious".

The sea-witch listened. The kind didn't notice the second-smallest daughter plucking the sea-witches discarded scales from the ocean floor, but the sea-witch did. Before taking her leave, she hugged the girls farewell, forcing them to hold her a little longer than was comfortable. She knew she was testing their loyalty to their father more than their charity toward an old woman, but that didn't much matter. Loyalty is a fine trait if not taken too far and, besides, she had made her decision long ago.

Before she left the sea- witch told the littlest mermaida secret and asked her next sister a question.

Time passed, the mer-children grew and soon would come of age and get the chance, one year after the next, to swim to the surface. The first children, now young ladies, explored, each a little further landward than the next, each bringing home stories of sky and sun, land, trees, smoke from distant fires. The second littlest floated quietly in one place, brought only the smell of the air and a glimpse of distant ships to disappointed sisters.

She told them she was captivated by the beauty of the light on the water and intoxicating gulps of real air. The sun's warmth was as her sisters had described, the feeling that she'd reached the top and there was no more upward to swim as disorienting as she'd imagined. After a moment to catch her bearings and take in the wonder of it all, she spent the whole of her time in contemplation of the sea-witch's question.

She returned without finding an answer.

The littlest mermaid's story had been told so many times before; the sailor, love, a poorly-made bargain with the sea-witch. How did she think she'd woo a man without her voice? Were he to choose a voiceless mate, would that make him in turn a poor choice? Young love rarely asks questions, and you know how it went. His betrothal to another, her time running out, her sisters' desperate gamble to save her.

The eldest sister took the lead. "I know we could save her. Father would be devestated were she not to perish. As would we all."

The second sister lacked the responsibility of age, and had never been whispered a question or even a secret from the sea-witc. She was cautious. "It was dealing with the sea-witch that brought her here, to the brink of death. Why should we make the same mistake?"

The third sister followed the eldest, leaving the final choice to the second-smallest.

She agreed to go to the sea-witch. She cut her own locks, took them up with her sisters' and swam to the deeps, towards the sea-witch's cave. Downward to the sea-floor, down a deep crevasse, farther and farther from the light until she was swimming blindly, with the miles of rock above  becoming a palpable sensation, something felt and sensed rather than seen. Until she heard the witch's voice. "You've come to make a bargain, yes?"

Tendrils of hair swirled around her hands and wrists tickling her arms, her neck, her face as she swam deeper. On her bare scalp she felt the gentle caress of the deepsea water and a tingle that could only have been the great mass of rock above. Blindly, she extended her hands to make the offer but the sea-witch wasn't going to make it that easy. The sea-witch never made things easy.

"Yes, a bargain. This hair... my hair and my sisters'... for the life of our youngest. We know she'll not win his love today and we know there are no days left."

A heavy silence settled into the cave, barely stirred by the gentle ocean currents.

The mermaid felt the water stir, felt the witch nearing her. She relaxed her grip on the tangles of hair as they were slowly pulled from her grasp, felt something hard and smoothed and carved just right for a mer-girl's grip pressed into her hand. A whispered voice, "it was a fair bargain. The sea will take what it is owed. Her, or the prince... or you."

"I have three other sisters. That's four lives for one. You owe us something more."

The witch agreed to this, but, because witches can never appear to be too generous, asked one more price in return. "Can you answer the question I asked you so long ago, when you were barely more than a hatchling playing in your garden?"

The girl nodded once, sending little wavelets through the cave. "The garden was different because I knew there was a treasure buried within, and with that there could have been more. When it was gone, I knew it was gone, and the garden was just a garden. Lots of things are like that."

The sea-witch pressed something into her other hand, before retreating into the depths of her cave. The mermaid swam upward, with her new treasures. The coral dagger, ready for her sister, and a smooth, shining glass bauble.

With time growing short, the mermaids rushed to the surface to meet their littlest sister. The eldest took the honor of handing over the dagger herself, but the second-littlest didn't mind; Did she mistake the littlest mermaid's tears as she turned the blade over in her hands for gratitude at their sacrifice? Perhaps.

When the other sisters returned to the undersea palace, she waited. She saw her sister's sillhouette at the ship's rail, saw her cast the dagger into the sea. As she felt her body disolve into airy sea-foam the sea-witch's bauble burst, releasing the treasure that had started it all.

The little mermaid's voice.

With arms already melting into foam she reached for it, with lips already disolving she breathed it in and trapped it inside her so mermaid and sea-foam and voice were one atop the ocean.

The waves and wind and time buffeted her and broke her, spreading bits of her sea-foam self throught the world. Each bit had a shard of a voice, and sometimes, just sometimes someone walking on a moonlight shore takes up just the right foam-touched seashell baring the lingering scent of her passing. You can still hear the echoes of her voice to this day, whispering the secret that under the sea there is a palace, and in the palace there are mermaids.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Visit with Savant

Discussion of some project details recently brought me to the Savant Systems showroom in lower Manhattan. In addition to the matter at hand, I was treated to a showroom tour as well as a discussion on their offerings, the overall Savant ecosystem, and where they hope to be in the future.
They know the way to the AV industry's heart.
And liver.

The demo space is laid out the way many such spaces are, as a series of simulated rooms designed to showcase the technology in a variety of settings. There's a corporate boardroom with a conference table, a small classroom, a working bar (complete with liquor), and a variety of residential spaces including a sitting-room and a Theo Kalomirakis-designed screening room. The spaces all have a nice, modern look and are powered by Savant's control system. Many spaces, including the theater, use Savant's video-tiling as well as their control, switching, and transport.

Every demo space gets a Theo Kalomirakis theater. I think
it's a law.
As you may or may not know, Savant doesn't manufacture touchpanels. Instead, consumer tablets (in most cases iPads, although Android support is well on its way) as control interfaces. For some very special spaces I see the value in a commercial, hardwired touchpanel with physical buttons and capable of live video preview. For the vast majority of spaces an iPad is a 10" WiFi touchpanel at a fraction the cost of offerings from Crestron or AMX. The nice thing about an iPad is that it's very responsive - as much if not more so than the latest generation of commercial panels. They took advantage of this in some aspects of the standard GUI design, including drag-and drop and pinch-to-zoom gestures. 

Touchpanel inception.
A picture of the room, including
the iPad with a picture of the room
The residential space broke away from the standard interface to show off something a bit fancier. The iPad there had a scrollable image of the room in which we were standing. Clicking on a room element (a light, for instance) would open controls for that element. Even niftier, turning on a light made the light appear lit not only on the iPad interface, but on the picture of the iPad within the interface. It is, no question, a slick bit of GUI design.

What Savant is known for - at least to me - is their Apple-based control systems. For those who don't know, "Apple-based" is very much literal in this context. If you take the cover off one of their control processors, you'll find an actual Mac mini on the inside. They also have the sort of custom-engraved 8-button decora keypads  one seems from many control manufacturers. A variety of control extenders are available, including IP to IR or RS232. Given the number of extenders available and the capabilities of one processor, Savant claims the ability to run an entire campus including scores of rooms using a single unit (although this would be ill-advised as creating a single-point of failure).

They also showed off their switching and distribution equipment. It's the by-now familiar card-cage style switchers with local inputs, local output, and HDBaseT cards. Like many, their cards are of the four-in or four-out variety. Unfortunately, there are no HDBaseT input cards available yet. These are promised soon.

The front (and innards) of a controller. The rear
of a matrix switch
The rest of the discussion was about software. Savant is very proud of their "Blueprint" programming interface, claiming it to be easier and more user-friendly than competitors. They also boast an energy/resource management platform. This is a very nice thing which I'm increasingly suggesting as a standard part of the integrated control system for large deployments. 

Should Savant be considered a viable commercial alternative as well as a residential solution? They at least are working hard enough to position themselves that way and have enough capability to be a part of the conversation. I'm genuinely looking forward to seeing what's next from them.

Closing with a gratuitous rack shot!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Book Review: Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett.

This is what the world looks like when the Gods have
much imagination and little mechanical inclincation
Months after its debut in Britain, the fortieth of Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld books has reached our shores. For those not in the know, Discworld is a series of fantasy novels set on a disc-shaped world balanced on the backs of four elephants which travel through space on the back of a great turtle. It is a world described as one created by gods with more imagination than mechanical ingenuity. Pratchett wrote the first of the Discworld books, The Colour of Magic, over three decades ago, and has been lovingly expanding his magical universe ever since. While the first three books read as a somewhat one-note parody of standard fantasy tropes, the series picked up a surprising measure of depth as it moved on, giving us the chance to see the growth of some very well-drawn and memorable characters. Has this upward trend in complexity and quality continued? How does volume 40 stack up to the rest (or to other books with which one might choose to spend ones time?)  Looking at it with a critical eye, Discworld has likely peaked several volumes ago. What we have now is, while pleasant, the literary equivalent of comfort food. It's still funny and enjoyable enough, but too much of that enjoyment stems from familiarity.

The motif of a typical Discworld book is to apply a modern and anachronistic concept to the fantasy setting and familiar set of characters. We've had the city guard and equal-opportunity hiring (including dwarves and trolls), witches and The Phantom of the Opera, trolls and rock music. Raising Steam, set in the Discworld metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, follows Going Postal and Making Money in following reformed scoundrel turned postmaster and chief banker Moist von Lipwig as he plays a part in introducing the first railroad to the Discworld after the invention of a steam engine. What conflict there is arises from a group of ultra-conservative dwarves known as Grags. We've seen them before as the Discworld equivalent of real-world religious fundamentalists. In the past, they've taken the role of maintaining the traditional culture, leaving more modern dwarves glad that someone was doing so as a sort of vague cultural pride. In Raising Steam we see the darker side of this, as heavily armed Grags engage in sabotage, assault, and even murder against elements of dwarven and non-dwarven society which they feel is inpure or non-dwarvish. They've gone from an insular religious order to religious terrorists, and the new steam engine is quite the modern target.

This should be a terrific set-up for a very exciting and interesting installment in the Discworld series, but it never quite came together for me. In the earlier novel Men at Arms, Pratchett introduced the first firearm to the Discworld.  There was not only tension but, in the final reckoning, a real cost in the death of a guardsman introduced early in the book and who we'd gotten to know. There've also been, througout the books, some real growth by several key characters. Sam Vines went from being an honest cop with a drinking problem to the commander of the watch, the husband of a rich society woman, a father, and a man who's come to understand the role of politics even if he doesn't like it. Does that sound like an interesting character arc? It is. Vimes is a terrific character, and watching his growth and development has been a treat. What else do you notice about the character arc I described? It's over. He's learned what he can learn, found his place in the world, and is both content there and almost supernaturally competent. This makes him, as a character, somewhat boring.

Near-supernatural levels of competence and decency have come to suffuse so much of the Discworld universe that the books have come to feel both too nice and too easy. Ankh-Morpork is ruled by a tyrant, which seems bad until you realize that he's an absurdly benevolent tyrant who is also utterly brilliant, a master-assassin, master of disguise, and thoroughly expert at manipulating people. His level of competency and control has grown greatly since he faced, quite a few books ago, a threat to his office.

Overall, this is sounding more negative than perhaps it should. The Discworld books remain great fun the same way a beloved television series remains fun. As it's settled down to later volumes, both Pratchett and his readers seem to have too great a level of affection for the Discworld characters to see them hurt, changed, or even much challenged. It becomes literary conflict as a Harlem Globetrotters game, in which we know the result ahead of time but come prepared to be dazzled. 

There are hints about how technology can transform the Discworld and, by extension, or own. This is one of my favorite lines of thought which, sadly, was not explored further. One of the cultural contributions of tje goblin race is potmaking. Here is one character's thought as some goblins start working on the new railway, perhaps instead of their pots: 

Sir Terry Pratchett. 
...what would happen if goblins learned everything about humans and did everything the human way because they thought it would be better than the goblin way... Will goblins really stop taking an interest in their pots and will humans learn the serious, valuable and difficult and almost magical skill of pot making? Or will goblins become, well, just another kind of human? And which would be better?

This is a lovely metaphor for globalization and a reminder that, as much as the goblins (and humans from far-flung corners of the globe!) have gained from the ability to share, there is inherent a levelling, a smoothing of sharp edges, and a loss of what makes individual cultures special or unique. I do wish that Sir Terry had taken this thought farther, and the hope that he may is as much a part of what will draw me to the forty-first Discworld book as the chance to revel in the familiar antics of the Disc's zany cast of characters.