Monthly Archives: May 2013

FH: The War on Bore


The Fountainhead, p29-41

Now is where things start to actually, you know, what’s that word…happen. We just spent 20 pages on one day.

Peter Keating looked at the streets of New York. The people, he noted, were extremely well dressed.

Our friend Peter is in New York because that’s where Francon and Heyer have their offices. We get multiple paragraphs describing the building – a door that’s a Doric portico scaled to precise Greek proportions, an elevator covered in gilt and lacquer, a reception room that blends a Colonial mansion with the Parthenon, with a Florentine balcony in front of the telephone switchboard. I know this is supposed to be goofily over-the-top, and it kind of is, but I just contrast it with the “bare walls of grey limestone with long bands of glass” described ten pages ago and think hell yeah Francon & Heyer. Their stuff may be goofy and over-the-top, but I would rather be amused than bored any day, and the style Rand is arguing in favour of hasn’t been detailed enough to be anything other than bland and utterly, utterly forgettable.

(I do hate to admit it, but what we’ve gotten so far of Roark’s designs does make them very good art. They’re soulless, boring, obnoxious, and totally devoid of warmth and humanity. They’re very much like Roark, in fact. The only problem is that all of these are portrayed positively despite that being a terrible thing to inflict upon us.)

Now, an amusing quirk of Rand’s writing seems to be developing, and it’ll be interesting to see how far it goes. In general, buildings with traits she didn’t like tend to get a lot more description than buildings that she did. This is mainly because the buildings she doesn’t like are, not to put too fine a point on it, interesting, while there are only so many ways to say “austere” and “simple” and “boring”. It’s actually somewhat hilarious that Rand’s assertions that all buildings should be individual are piggybacked on extremely generic and fundamentally dull descriptions of so-called “unique” buildings, while the buildings that stand in contradiction to this, which must therefore be clones, are as varied as a medieval crack trip and a thirtieth-floor office encrusted in urns, balustrades and pillars. I mean it’s loopy, but at least it’s uniquely and interestingly loopy.

After half a page describing Keating putting on a smock, we pause for Keating to be made more unsympathetic to make Roark appear slightly more palatable. (It fails. Sweet powers of Chaos does it fail.)

He glanced about him, cautiously at first, then with curiosity, then with pleasure, then with contempt. When he reached this last, Peter Keating became himself again. He noticed sallow cheeks, a funny nose, a wart on a receding chin, a stomach squashed against the edge of a table. He loved these sights. What these could do, he could do better. He smiled. Peter Keating needed his fellow-men.

Rand had this uncanny ability to introduce relatable characters, then add flaws to their characters until they ended up nearly as unlikeable as this book’s ostensible, indefensible hero.

We then learn that Guy Francon hasn’t actually designed anything in years and someone named Stengel is actually the main man when it comes to production, with Francon mainly critiquing designs and engaging in a spot of public speaking. His office is described as being incredibly shiny and reflective, decorated with Jacobean chairs, a Louis XV mantelpiece, and photos of the Parthenon, Rheims Cathedral, Versailles and the Frink National Bank Building. Again, this is over-the-top but fun.

Francon is your standard Mk I jovially insensitive boss. Case in point, he refers to Keating fairly consistently as “Kittredge” for more than a page before getting corrected, and gives advice on ordering wine when taking clients out to dinner. Keating learns rapidly to steer his boss, and then we get reminded that everyone in Randworld is psychic – virtually everyone is capable of telepathically reading what Roark actually means, or sensing the degree to which an employee is grovelling for a client based on a single action.

Hard cut to a discussion of architecture. We get a description of the Frink National Bank Building, complete with a truly absurd artistic orgasm of Roman elements, and how its white marble is responding poorly to the smoke and grime of the big city.

This is, once again, Rand’s problem: she never bothered to actually understand a position before disagreeing with it. As a result, the building is described as being judged based on its ludicrous profusion of Classical elements rather than it, y’know, looking good. Classical-focused architects in Randworld are just generally unable to design a building with any subtlety or control, preferring to simply throw on urns and columns until you need a wrecking ball to get in or out.

I’ve encountered political, religious, scientific and philosophical strawmen in my time, but this is the only book I’ve ever read which included strawman architects.

We move to the Dana Building:

Its lines were hard and simple, revealing, emphasizing the harmony of the steel skeleton within, as a body reveals the perfection of its bones. It had no other ornament to offer. It displayed nothing but the precision of its sharp angles, the modelling of its planes, the long streaks of its windows like streams of ice running down from the roof to the pavements…The tenants of the Dana Building said that they would not exchange it for any structure on earth; they said they appreciated the light, the air, the beautiful logic of the plan in their halls and offices. But the tenants of the Dana Building were not numerous; no prominent man wished his business to be located in a building that looked “like a warehouse.”

The Dana Building had been designed by Henry Cameron.

I love the way that Rand’s narrator voice seems to think that the true face of great architecture is boredom.

Seriously. The Dana Building is a huge metal block with a lot of windows. I’m sure this was very impressive in 1920, but here’s the thing: we have had ninety years of huge metal blocks with lots of windows. We have entire city centres and commercial districts filled primarily with huge metal blocks with lots of windows. Our default image of a skyscraper is a huge metal block with lots of windows. So by around the late 1980s this description really stopped being “elegant and austere” and became “boring and samey”. This isn’t really Rand’s fault, except that this is exactly what she was agitating for by praising this design and consistently pouring scorn and contempt upon Classical styles.

Heh. “She glanced about her, cautiously at first, then with curiosity, then with pleasure, then with contempt. When she felt this last, Ayn Rand became herself again…” Search your feelings. You know it to be true.

We are then treated to a description of Cameron’s rise to glory, reaching the top spot because he was the first to exult in steel rather than try to hide it.

While architects drew friezes and pediments, Henry Cameron decided that the skyscraper must not copy the Greeks. Henry Cameron decided that no building must copy any other.

Now hang on. This is ringing a bell. Let me just dig up two things from a few pages back:

“Rules? Here are my rules: what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape…A building doesn’t borrow hunks of its soul. Its maker gives it the soul and every wall, window and stairway to express it.”

“I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.”

So Howard Roark inherits no tradition, except that of Henry Cameron. His buildings are described in the same way as Cameron’s. His philosophy of design is inspired by Cameron’s, complete with having the exact same central tenet. He even bullies Cameron into taking him on as an apprentice, even though Cameron could barely afford a roof over his own head.

This is rank hypocrisy.

And speaking of rank hypocrisy, here’s a little quote for you. Record this one somewhere. I will be bringing it back later.

 “Everyone has the right to make decisions, but none has the right to force his decisions on others.” – Ayn Rand

Now that you have that in mind, read this part. (Then look up some of the things Ayn Rand did, like endorsing Presidential candidates so they could make the decisions she wanted and force them on everyone, and I remember reading something about her kicking people out of her little cult of personality for disagreeing with her about music, although that one wasn’t exactly from a reliable source.)

The Columbian Exposition of Chicago opened inn the year 1893.

The Rome of two thousand years ago rose on the shores of Lake Michigan, a Rome improved by pieces of France, Spain, Athens and every style that followed. It was a “Dream City” of columns, triumphal arches, blue lagoons, crystal fountains and popcorn. Its architects competed on who could steal best, from the oldest source and from the most sources at once. It spread before the eyes of a new country every structural crime ever committed in all the old ones. It was white as a plague, and it spread as such.

People came, looked, were astounded, and carried away with them, to the cities of America, the seeds of what they had seen. The seeds sprouted into weeds; into shingled post offices with Doric porticoes, brick mansions with iron pediments, lofts made of twelve Parthenons piled on top of one another. The weeds grew and choked everything else.

You may be wondering how the belief that nobody can tell you what to do or think can be reconciled with the belief that only Ayn Rand’s opinions have any value.

[pause]

Well, goodnight!

All joking aside, this is why I hate this book. The subject matter, the hypocrisy, the psychopath we have for a hero, even the way it beats you half to death with the moral and then finishes you off with an eight-page lecture to the head – those pale in consideration to this flaw: the narrative voice doesn’t care what we think. Rand herself did not care about the opinions of anyone other than Rand. I think that’s blatantly obvious from every part in this book that discusses philosophy, politics, or aesthetics.

Let’s face it. Her argument against Classical architecture is not “it’s overdone” or “it’s boring” or “I don’t like it”. It is formulated as Classical architecture being bad and wrong and evil and a crime against art and blah blah blah you get the idea – all of which, incidentally, is simply asserted and backed up by “evidence” consisting of dimwitted strawmen who crash through suspension of disbelief with a zeal that makes Iron Man going through a wall at maximum speed look relatively tame. This isn’t the argument of someone who understands the idea of live-and-let-live. This is the argument of someone who doesn’t accept that people can legitimately disagree with them, even about such minor things as how their houses look.

I can’t respect this philosophy. It’s not that I haven’t tried, but the sheer contempt Rand expresses throughout this book for people who disagree with her is a massive turnoff. If you can’t give respect to anything else, you don’t deserve to be respected in turn, and Rand is famous for proclaiming that anyone standing for compromise, acceptance and mutual respect is an evil scumbag of no value. It’s kind of like reading that priestess from A Song of Ice and Fire, only portrayed as unquestionably right.

(I will admit that the part about the Classical rut suppressing innovation is genuinely believable. Its presence in this passage feels rather like finding a gold ring in a cowpat.)

It only gets dumber from here.

Men hate passion, any great passion. Henry Cameron made a mistake: he loved his work. That was why he fought. That was why he lost.

Aaaaargh. Dealing with the elitist bullshit in this book is like having ten root canals in the hope of sprouting new super-teeth.

You will note that claims like this tend to be simply asserted, then taken as self-evident, rather than ever actually showing evidence. This makes them entirely consistent with Rand’s general argumentation technique, in which reference to any reality outside the contents of her own head is considered to be, at best, Communist propaganda.

We then get a description of Henry Cameron’s fall from grace, when the man who helped to calm down his clients died. Then Roark turns up.

Roark proceeds to essentially bully Cameron into hiring him. We get lip service to the idea that Roark’s art has flaws that Cameron needs to teach him to avoid, but since we get no descriptions of the buildings whatsoever, and we’re expected to view this as minor technical errors with the idea behind them being brilliant, I’m going to have to view this as pointless.

Roark also plays a bit fast and loose with the truth by claiming he was thrown out for his designs. You may want to remember that he was thrown out for presenting his designs when asked for something completely different. That’s like claiming you were thrown out of college for being male when you decided to prove this by showing up naked to every class.

We then get some more stupidity as Roark explains why he decided to become an architect:

“…it’s because I’ve never believed in God…Because I love this earth. That’s all I love. I don’t like the shape of things on this earth. I want to change them…For myself.”

This is actually making me feel guilt by association. Seriously. This actually makes me feel worse about being an atheist.

Cameron then gets some lines that make me actually genuinely like him.

“I don’t want to see you. I don’t like you. I don’t like your face. You look like an insufferable egotist. You’re impertinent. You’re too sure of yourself. Twenty years ago I’d have punched your face with the greatest of pleasure.”

I’d hold your coat. Perhaps even buy you some boxing gloves to use. My price would be that you did it more than once.

Seriously, this just summarised half the reasons Roark makes a bad hero in one paragraph. (The other half tend to be heavily focused on phrases “boring, self-righteous, immature, megalomaniacal, charmless, obnoxious, hypocritical little sociopath”.) I’d chalk this up to self-awareness, but virtually everything else involving Roark goes out of its way to exult in his boring, arrogant hypocrisy and behave as though his total disinterest in whether anyone he doesn’t know by name lives or dies is in some way laudable or virtuous.

This brings us to another of the many, many problems with this book: only people Roark knows by name are treated as being relevant, significant, or of any merit at all. When Roark scorns public housing because people who make $40 should not be penalised in favour of those who make $15 because they are obviously* more competent, he doesn’t mean himself – he sublimely believes himself more competent than his instructors at the Institute, even though at the time he was making no money at all from his art and held down jobs on building sites to pay his room and board. He only means people he doesn’t know. The people who are making $15 a week who he doesn’t know personally are treated as interchangeable faceless robots without hopes or dreams of their own, who can provide him with no benefit and who therefore do not exist for him beyond an abstract statistic. The people who are making $40 a week are also interchangeable faceless robots without hopes or dreams of their own, but they’re clearly* better faceless robots, because they’re paid more than the first set of faceless robots. This would all be fine if we were supposed to hate the character, but I’m assured that this was not Rand’s intention, even though despite this she succeeds phenomenally well at making him hateable.

Sadly, Cameron then goes against all sense and hires the bastard for $15 a week and sadly does not punch him even a little. And he was doing so well, too.

Next week: bad arguments and worse men.

–       OSM out

 

*a colloquialism meaning “there is a crack in this argument you could drive a truck through”.

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Ex3 Kickstarter Report


11 days left

$476,396 pledged

Backer-only Infernal and Abyssal previews, plus dev video talking about possible future books, posted

3000+ backers

I don’t want to make this blog into a shameless chain of advertisements or anything, but if you’re interested in Exalted, please go and back this kickstarter. If it reaches $500,000, the martial arts section of the corebook will get a massive boost, just as Sorcery already has.

– OSM out

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FH: Howard Gareth Stuart Roark


The Fountainhead, p19-29

We open with a stumbling and incoherent speech by another strawman in the form of Guy Francon.

“May you all serve faithfully, neither as slaves to the past, nor as those parvenus who preach originality for its own sake, which attitude is ignorant vanity.”

I’ll give Rand props for vocabulary here. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered the word “parvenu” anywhere else.

Shortly afterwards, we get about a million words on how much everyone likes Francon. That he continually thinks about himself in the third person and with his full name throughout his brief time in the spotlight is more than a little bit annoying. I assume this was intended to be annoying. Trust me, it works. It’s not quite as annoying as the architectural genius Roark apparently has that manifests in dull and uninspiring grey boxes, but what the hell.

PSYCHE! Francon isn’t the viewpoint character here at all! We cut to Peter Keating, who will be our obligatory “guy not as good as Roark”, who reaps all the rewards because he sold out while Roark decided to beat his head against the wall around the world until it gave way. Despite this, he is a much more likeable character – he’s an egotist, certainly, but he has people he genuinely cares for, something Roark isn’t good at, and admits to his personal failings, something I somehow doubt Roark would even consider. He even doubts his abilities, something Roark would never do and which is very relatable – impostor syndrome is a thing that really exists. (The general rule of this book is that any time a character is given an interesting, relatable or sympathetic trait, a) it is intended to make Roark look better and b) it is extremely bad at actually doing this, usually making him look worse.)

After we get a page or so of Keating behaving like a human being, we pause for him to shill Roark’s talents. Apparently Roark used to help him when he was stuck on a problem.

Wow. Roark actually did something nice. That is…actually surprisingly hard to imagine. It remains hard to imagine for most of this book.

The fact that Keating’s pang of sympathy for Roark is described as “satisfying” is the first appearance of one of Rand’s many failures to understand other people, namely, the idea that most compassion is simply a thing you do because you want to feel good about yourself. Look: there’s a grain of truth in that, it does often feel good to do something nice. But I don’t think that that momentary hit is the only reason people do it. I think that’s a huge oversimplification.

(Oversimplifying complicated situations is something of a hallmark of Rand’s. Just wait until we get to the point where we learn that, with the exception of people directly involved with Howard Roark, only the incompetent ever become poor. I first read that part nearly two weeks ago and I’m still angry about it.)

We get a bit more of Keating behaving like a human being, which would be dull if it wasn’t a refreshing change from last week’s debate between the emotionless Terminarchitect and the fuzzy One-Man Committee, before we get a half page of Keating’s backstory.

Apparently he originally wanted to be an artist and his mother pushed him into architecture. Again, doing that isn’t exactly praiseworthy, but it is a believable human response. I honestly can’t believe that I’ve been reduced to pointing out moments of actual human behaviour as deviations from the norm. Then again, the hero of this piece is Howard Roark. I’ll take anything to remind me that Rand’s take on reality is not a world of cackling collectivist madmen and sociopathic champions of grinding soulless “integrity”.

When he gets home, we are treated to an entire paragraph – and a long one at that, although not as long as some of the ones that come out when Rand really gets going – on the effect of an electric light on the surrounding leaves. I think this is the literary equivalent of the Nostalgia Critic’s “I’M ACTING” gag.

Roark offers his congratulations to Keating, prompting Keating to think that this is the compliment that means the most to him. I know it’s kind of inappropriate, given that Rand had very negative views about homosexuality, but I kind of wonder what the resultant slashfic would be like*.

Keating then asks Roark’s advice about whether to take a job with Guy Francon or a scholarship to a prestigious school in Paris. For most of this part, Roark acts like a regular human being rather than the Terminarchitect, which is almost jarring. It doesn’t last.

“Never ask people. Not about your work. Don’t you know what you want? How can you stand it, not to know?”

Arrgh. Just as he’s acting at his most human, the mask cracks and we see the circuitry beneath. Really, those last two sentences neatly sum up why virtually everyone in this novel would have made a better protagonist than Roark.

Interesting characters have internal conflict. Peter Keating’s struggle between his compassion and his ambition is internal conflict. At one point he tells his girlfriend not to introduce him to her influential uncle because he’s the kind of person who uses people, and he doesn’t want to use her. That is excellent. We see that he has things about himself he doesn’t like, and that he tries to control those things, but isn’t always successful. That kind of internal tension makes him feel real. We care about which decision he makes, which side he comes down on.

That never seems to happen with Roark, because he makes decisions and virtually never reconsiders them. He doesn’t agonise over the correct course of action; he runs it through his programmed subroutines and comes up with a conclusion. He doesn’t question whether a past decision was correct; it’s operated with a toggle switch. He doesn’t doubt himself. That makes him very hard to relate to. Most of us do doubt ourselves. We question whether we’re able to achieve the tasks that are set for us, or the tasks we’ve set for ourselves. Roark never does. Self-doubt is foreign to him. His mindset can’t handle it. To admit that he could be wrong is the same as admitting that other people have a chance of being right. And Roark would rather eat live coals than deal with the idea that someone else might be right.

An important writing rule: A character who never doubts himself, never finds himself on the horns of a moral dilemma, never learns, never changes, never reconsiders, never struggles with his own darker impulses, never regrets a decision no matter what the consequences are, is never on the wrong side of an issue (as defined by the author), is never rash or indecisive, and just generally never has any kind of internal conflict, is a character who is not interesting.

See, a character who is sublimely convinced of their own infallibility could be interesting – if that conviction led them into bad places. If played for comedy, it could lead to displays much like that Simpsons episode where the local MENSA members took control of the town. If played for horror, you get something more akin to the Operative from Serenity. What’s not interesting is a character who is convinced they are infallible, and after hundreds of pages it turns out…they are infallible after all. That’s boring because it’s static. Characters who can’t doubt or make mistakes can’t learn. What can’t learn can’t change. What can’t change can’t grow. What can’t grow can’t hold our interest. Roark’s unquenchable confidence, applied in absolutes as it is, is actively making him more boring. It’s like reading a terrible fanfic where the author forgot to give their Sue purple eyes or superpowers.

As for an answer to Roark’s question: We can stand not having perfect knowledge of what we want because we need the ability to doubt ourselves. It’s how we stop ourselves becoming monsters. The worst horrors wrought upon humanity – by inquisitors, by dictators, by racist groups and sexist groups and religious or antireligious zealots – have been by people who lacked the ability to doubt themselves.

Yeah, this part is painful because you can see the potential for Roark to become an interesting and three-dimensional character, but Rand didn’t quite have the guts to make the leap.

Suddenly, a wild MRSKEATING appears!

Wild MRSKEATING used HENPECK!

It’s super effective!

Then there’s some stuff to reassure us that yes, Peter has trouble with his domineering mother. Again, we’re supposed to view this in a negative light, but let’s face it: he still cares about that familial connection. Roark doesn’t do that.

And suddenly, more stupid appears out of nowhere.

“What will you learn at the Beaux-Arts? Only more Renaissance palaces and operetta settings. They’ll kill everything you might have in you. You do good work, once in a while, when someone lets you.”

I did mention Roark was obnoxious, right? Pretty sure I mentioned that.

But seriously, one rather obnoxious theme that we keep getting is that there is some eeeevil conspiracy to crush individual expression. And by “theme” I mean “several characters explicitly state their involvement in it”.

After more domesticity, Roark states that he’s going to work for Henry Cameron, and claims it’s settled. Despite having never discussed it with Cameron.

Forcing someone who can barely afford food to employ you. Heroism, ladies and gentlemen!

Finally, Peter rushes off to catch up with his friends:

He was ready. In a few years – so very soon, for time did not exist in the speed of that car – his name would ring like a horn, ripping people out of sleep. He was ready to do great things, magnificent things, things unsurpassed in…in…oh, hell…in architecture.

Look on the bright side, Peter. If this book teaches us anything, it’s that architecture is the Most Important Career In The Entire World, to the point where architecture critics seriously form conspiracies. It certainly doesn’t teach us anything worth learning about ethics, philosophy, economy, psychology or logic, although you can learn quite a lot about all of those things by taking Rand’s conclusions and applying five minutes’ thought – which is, as far as I can tell, five minutes more than Rand herself ever did.

Next week: Henry Cameron and the Monkeysphere.

– OSM out

 

* I am sure that there is Roark/Keating slash out there. I am equally sure that I do not want to see it. Please don’t tell me where it is.

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MTG: Return to Ravnica Block Awesome Awards


I’m going to start doing this thing sort of irregularly.

Bear in mind that I am not sorting according to power or combo potential, although that may be a factor. These are subjective awards calculated purely on coolness.

 

Most Awesome Non-Multicoloured Mythic Rare

#3: Utvara Hellkite. The image of blanketing the skies with dragons is just too epic for words, especially in EDH. I do not have a copy of this one, but I really wish I did.

#2: Giant Adephage. The huge beetle is cool. Its ability to multiply is cool. The way it works well with all the green guilds (even, to a degree, the Golgari Swarm) is cool. Therefore, it gets a silver award.

#1: Maze’s End. I really, really like interesting alternate win conditions. ‘Nuff said.

Runners-up: Angel of Serenity, Necropolis Regent, Worldspine Wurm

 

Most Awesome Multicoloured Mythic Rare

#3: Master Biomancer.  If you’ve ever seen him in action, you’ll know why. There is nothing more rewarding than scavenging a Deadbridge Goliath onto him, then having every creature enter the battlefield with seven +1/+1 counters on it. Just watch out for removal.

#2: Borborygmos Enraged. And he most certainly is. His abilities have a nice amount of synergy, plus, y’know, turning land draws that are probably dead when you can cast him into lightning bolts.

#1: Voice of Resurgence. It’s astonishing how elegantly designed this creature is.

Runners-up: Progenitor Mimic, Blood Baron of Vizkopa, Vraska the Unseen

 

Most Awesome Non-Multicoloured Rare

#3: Mizzium Mortars. I have a soft spot for heavy-duty fireball bombardments.

#2: Stolen Identity. Cloning shenanigans are always fun, and repeatable cloning shenanigans are even more fun.

#1: Grave Betrayal. It’s too expensive to be particularly useful, but just look at how crazy cool it is.

Runners-up: Angelic Skirmisher, Chromatic Lantern, Pontiff of Blight

 

Most Awesome Nonlegendary Multicoloured Rare

#3: Dragonshift. Yay dragons.

#2: Fathom Mage. With the right creatures – i.e. any creatures – this thing is good. Within a dedicated evolve deck, it’s a lot better.

#1: Debt to the Deathless. The art is nightmarishly cool, and its ability to bias an entire EDH game in your favour is also very awesome.

Runners-up: Biovisionary, Azor’s Elocutors, Assemble the Legion

 

Most Awesome Legendary Multicoloured Rare

#3: Varolz, the Scar-Striped. Interacts really well with not only his own guild, but also the Gruul and even Simic. (I should probably Cockatrice up one of those decks sometime.)

#2: Melek, Izzet Paragon. Copying is fun. Copying for free is even more fun. If only his final ability was broader.

#1: Vorel of the Hull Clave. Really, the question isn’t what UG deck he goes in, it’s what UG deck he doesn’t.

Runners-up: Tajic, Exava, Mirko Vosk.

 

Most Awesome Shark

#3: Battering Krasis.

#2: Shambleshark.

#1: That Shark Bug Creature On “Give”.

Runners-Up: Jaws, The Hypothetical Bloodthirst Shark We Nearly Got In M12, The Mafia Don Shark From That Movie With The Creepy Will Smith Fish

 

The next set of Awesome Awards will be awarded on the official date of “sometime between M14 and Theros”.

– OSM out

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FH: Strawman Recognition Guide


The Fountainhead, p11-16

I hate to open on a boring bit, but what the hell, everything in this book that isn’t a boring bit is a strawman, a fundamentally flawed argument, or occasionally a strawman who gets shut down with a fundamentally flawed argument.

We get a scene where Howard Roark gets sidetracked by fixing a flaw in one of his earliest designs and Mrs. Keating has to remind him to see the Dean.

“He turned and looked at her, trying to remember who she was.”

Gee, I wonder why she doesn’t like him?

Once again: trying to present someone as the kind of genius who draws the instinctual revulsion of ignorant mundanes doesn’t work when that character is established to be a massive tool within his opening scene.

Roark sets off in his normal clothes, and I will admit that he does get a good bit here:

“‘But it’s your Dean!’

‘Not any more, Mrs. Keating.’”

Okay, yeah, that’s pretty cool. If Roark was actually likeable, it might even serve to make him badass.

Naturally, the Hidebound Institute™ is designed to resemble a hybrid of a medieval fortress and a Gothic cathedral. Why? Because it wouldn’t be hidebound if it didn’t look ridiculous. I think that’s the lesson that we’re supposed to take here. (Mind you, I’ve always believed that ridiculous is better than dull, and that’s where “Shoebox” Roark does rather tend to fall down.)

Why does the Stanton Institute of Technology have functional ramparts, arrow slits, and corner turrets? No, seriously. Why the hell would anyone put a university with “of Technology” in its name in a perfectly functional medieval castle? Did no-one think it might be a little absurd?

(I might just be biased by my place of residence here – Australia’s existence wasn’t known to Europeans until the age of the castle was well and truly dead. As a result, the university I went to was mainly housed in buildings that looked like buildings, rather than the designer coming back hammered from a Renfaire and putting pencil to paper. How many American universities are or ever have been housed in such a thing as the Institute here? I’m honestly curious.)

Now. There’s a long tradition among people who want to make an argument without getting any of that icky “doubt” stuff on their hands. It consists of making up someone with a dumb argument against your conclusion, so that your avatar can KO the idiot in one round. At this point, you claim to have won the challenge legitimately, despite it not actually being a victory for anyone, least of all yourself.

Naturally, because Rand never met a hugely offensive and stupid argument technique she didn’t like, idiots mouthing transparent horsecrap about traditionalism and quote-unquote “altruism*” make up a truly agonising amount of this book.

The Dean is just such an idiot.

This was around the point when I realised this book was going to be absolute torture.

We mess about for a page and a half describing Roark’s habit of totally ignoring the instructions in any given task and handing in his preferred “shoebox” design whether he was asked for a Tudor chapel or a Renaissance villa.

Can you imagine Roark as a doctor? He’d respond to every challenge with penicillin.

 

“I’m prescribing penicillin.”

“She has a virus.”

“I am still prescribing penicillin.”

 

“I’m prescribing penicillin.”

“He’s allergic to penicillin.”

“I am still prescribing penicillin.”

 

“I’m prescribing penicillin.”

“The patient presented with a broken leg.”

“Which part of ‘I’m prescribing penicillin’ did you not understand?”

 

The Dean then tells Roark that he’s managed to finagle the expulsion so that if Roark takes a year off and comes back actually serious about learning about architecture rather than rubbing his entirely theoretical brilliance in everyone’s faces, he may be able to come back. Roark, being a colossal ass, responds by chewing the Dean out for thinking he would want to come back to the Hidebound Institution™.

Okay, no. The guy tried to do something nice for Roark, and got it flung back in his face for his trouble. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen: an opinionated, self-righteous twerp with serious sociopathic tendencies, who either ignores or belittles the generosity of others, and is convinced the sun shines out of his own backside and that he is always right. Why are we supposed to root for this guy? Why are we supposed to want to emulate him? These traits are in no way positive. Even traits that are usually good, like confidence and determination, come out horrible when Roark displays them – artistic integrity is good, but trying to maintain it over the broken bodies of your victims is a hideous display of egomania. (That is not hyperbole. You just wait.)

Okay, yeah, the Dean is kind of an idiot who looks down on the practical side of the discipline. Guess what? He’s only that way to make Roark look better. He fails. That character doesn’t turn up for quite some time, and contains even higher levels of obnoxiously bad arguments.

“‘I came here to learn about building. When I was given a project, its only value to me was to learn to solve it as I would solve a real one in the future. I did them the way I’ll build them.’”

I was like that when I was 17, offering criticisms of postmodernism in essays where I was supposed to pretend to like it. But here’s the thing: I’m not like that now, and I’m only 23.

Roark’s mental process of “screw playing the game, I might as well deliberately waste everyone’s time” is exactly the same as mine was six years ago.

I think part of the reason I hate Roark so very much is that he’s what I could have been if I did not possess the ability to learn from my mistakes. I learned that being a huge asshole was not a good thing. Roark, apparently, did not. (It’s a similar thing to my problems with objectivism in general – I can agree with many, although not all, of its starting points, but I don’t think that the conclusions it reaches are correct or sustainable.)

Hang on, I’m starting to like the Dean. He’s done one nice thing in the three pages he’s been here, when Roark has had significantly more screentime and has generally come across as a jackass. Rand really doesn’t want us to like the Dean. So obviously it’s time for stupid arguments that no-one could ever parrot with a straight face. I haven’t seen the movie, but if they included this scene, I suspect the actor playing the Dean had to do 25 takes because he kept corpsing.

“‘You must learn to understand – and it has been proved by all authorities – that everything beautiful in architecture has been done already. There is a treasure-mine in every style of the past. We can only choose from the great masters. Who are we to improve upon them? We can only attempt, respectfully, to repeat.’”

Oh, Dean. You were doing so well. You were smart, competent, and likeable. You had your faults, but you tried to be a good person, even to the asshole known as Roark. And now we find you parroting this total bullshit because Rand wanted Roark to win an argument to establish, in the face of all evidence, that he is awesome. (That this fails really badly is mainly because, well, killing five immobile scarecrows does not make you an awesome swordsman.)

Following this, the Dean then never gets any actual arguments. He just gets assertions. He asserts that the sacred tradition of architecture is to be a hack. He asserts that all the good ideas having already been taken is self-evident. His sole response to Roark asking why the Parthenon should be considered great architecture is to remind us that it’s the Parthenon. (I can’t fault him there, though. Given the question, it’s surprising that the Dean was able to form coherent words at all.)

Roark then gets a bit of a speech which has the Dean dumbfounded despite most of it being a collection of bad Modernist assertions to counter the Dean’s bad traditionalist assertions.

The high point has to be:

“‘Rules?’ said Roark. ‘Here are my rules: what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape. Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it’s made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail. A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, in one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose. A man doesn’t borrow pieces of his body. A building doesn’t borrow hunks of its soul.’”

Okay, in order:

#1 is simply “my way is better than your way, neener neener” whining. What makes your way better than everyone else’s? Could you actually address that question at some point, rather than just calling all your critics idiots?

#2 and #3 are true but irrelevant.

#4 is just kind of straightforwardly wrong and dumb and ludicrous. Every house has the same purpose: to be a house. Train stations have the purpose of being train stations. Shopping malls have the purpose of holding shops.

#5 is again true but irrelevant.

#6 doesn’t really mean anything, and even if it’s accurate, it doesn’t automatically mean that you can’t represent part of that idea with, say, Doric columns.

#7 is kind of a daft metaphor.

#8 just means nothing to me.

#9 is a bit awkward in an age of transplants, and #10 brings us right back into the Daft Metaphor Zone.

I know that I’m supposed to view Roark as being the Lone Hero With Integrity, but here’s the thing: if Classical architecture is still selling, then the capitalist thing to do is to gear up to do Classical architecture. One would think that a die-hard anti-Communist like Rand would recognise this point somewhere, but no, it gets ignored in favour of People I Like Should Stand Up For Their Beliefs, People I Don’t Like Can Just Die In A Fire Somewhere (see also: Rand’s views on homosexuality, which are just kind of horrifying).

The Dean then gets another bad argument, in which he argues that the proper creative process is based on not being creative and in attempting to blur the artists into a kind of homogenous mush.

I cannot imagine any architect ever saying that.

I literally cannot fit that definition of creativity to anyone in any creative job ever.

I cannot imagine an architect saying it. I cannot imagine it from an artist. I cannot envision a writer or musician agreeing. It doesn’t matter if you’re into comic books or web reviews. Nobody would ever say this.

Humans act like humans. As a refinement, artists act like artists. The Dean is here acting like neither an artist nor any other sort of human.

I did mention that this book is terrible, right?

Roark’s response is also terrible in its own special way.

“‘I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards – and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.’”

Unfortunately, you do. You stand at the beginning of a tradition of seventy years of naked elitism, open disdain for those traits of humanity that allow us to function as societies, sociopathic behaviour, hideous cruelty, enthusiastic support for wrong-headed economic policies, absolutist extremism, anti-historical nonsense and so very much hypocrisy, ignorance, arrogance and stupidity.

Well, okay, you and John Galt.

The Dean responds with a condescending comment along the lines of Roark hopefully outgrowing it. Sadly, given the climax, I doubt any character development so interesting is likely to happen.

We then get some background details involving the “fallen creator” Henry Cameron, who will be The Mentor and a sign that not all modernists are huge assholes, only the ones who haven’t felt the sting of failure, learned compassion through shared suffering, or otherwise had reality rubbed in their faces. (so, Roark).

Then we get more background details in which Roark’s mathematics professor praises him as a “great man”, before we’re told that Roark not only has no known relatives, but doesn’t care whether he has any or not, and makes no effort to find out. He has no friends. He joined no fraternities. He had no interests outside architecture.

No wonder he’s so boring. He seems to have gone out of his way to avoid anything that might make him interesting, relatable, or likeable.

In Roark’s defence (three words I will probably not be able to pull out very often), he has made an effort to learn the skills of labouring and building, but that he still seems to have no regard for builders as human beings at any point makes me suspect that he didn’t make all that many friends at work either.

Next up, the Dean points out to Roark that he can’t build without a client, and Roark responds with something that will probably end up in my eventual list of the top ten most hypocritical lines in this book:

“‘I don’t intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build.’”

Remember those words. They will be relevant later.

Finally, we get close to the end of the argument, as it turns out that Roark has no interest in convincing the Dean that he’s right. That would neatly explain why he is so, well, unconvincing.

“‘You don’t care what others think – which might be understandable. But you don’t care even to make them think as you do?’

‘No.’

‘But that…that’s monstrous.’”

Have to say…yeah, it kind of is. The total indifference towards others Roark shows throughout this part is pretty chilling. I’ve called him a sociopath before, and I stand by that, and this is why.

It’s also kind of belied by Rand’s own words later in this book, in which failing to agree with her is treated as a guarantee of bringing down society. Real subtle way of not caring whether others agree with you.

Finally, the Dean ends the interview.

“‘Now I agree with the Board. You are a man not to be encouraged. You are dangerous.’

‘To whom?’ asked Roark.”

Try…I dunno, everyone? Very few of the traits you display in this book are the kind of thing that makes a man safe for society.

“He knew the source of his actions; he could not discover theirs. He did not care. He had never learned the process of thinking about other people.”

Okay, see, in psychology, they consider that a warning sign.

We wrap up the chapter with Roark forgetting the Dean and humanity entirely in order to envision how he would have designed the school. The description we get consists of bare grey walls with long bands of windows.

Dammit, Roark. Please stop making my mockery of your design style less dull than your actual design style.

I’ll see you on Monday, when I will hopefully have something to say that is not “Ayn Rand sucks”.

– OSM out

 

* I’m just going to address this here. I am aware that Rand is arguing mainly against Auguste Comte’s definition of “altruism”. Which is okay, the idea of practicing it unchecked and at gunpoint is a bad one, and I would certainly resent it if it was done to me. But here’s the thing: I don’t believe anyone has genuinely attempted to practice it with force. Most examples that used it as rhetoric were less about “sharing is good so share everything” and more about “I’m fed up with you exploiting me, give me your stuff or I’ll kill you”. Rand’s tendency to leap to the absolute screaming extremes, I think, left her with difficulties when dealing with people who did not exhibit that kind of absolutism, such as most of humanity.

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Angry books


Everyone should have a book that makes them angry.

I mean it. Everyone should own one book they hate. One book that reaches conclusions you can’t agree with from premises that aren’t accurate. One that is terribly written, terribly planned, with terrible people engaging in terribly stupid things.

(Substitute a movie or something if that works better for you.)

Then, when you feel worn down and exhausted, take a look. Find the part you hate the most. And rejoice as pure, sweet rage burns away the fog. Remind yourself who you are and what you stand for, by reminding yourself what you oppose.

Hopefully next Monday I will have something to say that is not at Ayn Rand’s expense.

– OSM out

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FH: Hominem iniocusum non diffidite


The Fountainhead, p8-11

Okay, let’s see. We just established that our hero has an exaggerated opinion of his own awesomeness. This would not be a problem had Rand not shared that opinion.

Speaking of which, our least favourite sociopathic architect is at last doing something other than fantasizing about how the entire world exists solely so he can do things with it. Let’s get going.

We learn that Roark has been expelled from the Stanton Institute of Technology. I’m sure we’re supposed to view this as the Hidebound Establishment Suppresses Individuality thing that you usually get when the hero is an unappreciated genius, usually with a flowery name, purple eyes and as many traits of the author as she can fit in, but let’s look at the facts here: we shortly learn that he is deliberately trying to insult them, dismissing everything they say because of course he is Right and they are Wrong.

The point of university, indeed of education as a whole, is to teach you that you do not know everything. Since Roark is…well, Roark, this probably makes him the worst student in the entire world.

We get an extensive description of the town of Stanton, the clothes Roark wears, the structure of the houses.

It’s going to have to be addressed now. (It’s probably going to end up being addressed time and again.) Rand had fundamental issues with other people. Most notably, she believed they did not matter, had no purpose beyond chanting her praises, and that their opinions were of no merit because they didn’t correspond to her own. Nowhere is that more evident than when she turns to aesthetics.

“Behind the lawns stood wooden piles tortured out of all shape: twisted into gables, turrets, dormers; bulging with porches; crushed under huge, sloping roofs.”

Rand was never satisfied with merely disliking things; they couldn’t be not right for her, there was no choice but to state they were not right for anyone and thus anyone who disagreed with her had to be wrong, wrong, wrong. If she disapproved of a house’s design, it was “tortured out of all shape”. If she disapproved of an architecture style, it was (and this is a direct quote) a “structural crime”. I am informed that at the time, architecture was stuck in a Classical rut; my knowledge of architecture is somewhat microscopic, especially given that very little information is available on Randworld’s SCV-based building system that has no direct correspondence in real life, so that might be the case. Whether it was or wasn’t, however, that did not mean that Classical architecture was totally illegitimate and anyone who liked it was wrong. Yet Rand set exactly that to paper. Rand has literally stated that having a positive opinion of the style of the Ancient Greeks makes you a worse person. Apparently you’re only allowed to stand up for your beliefs and your uniqueness if you think like Ayn Rand.

Digression. In Homestuck, there is a character named Doc Scratch, who is a) omniscient, b) very creepy, and c) the owner of a twisted sense of humour. When he makes a creepy joke, the person he is talking to tells him it isn’t funny, and he says no, my jokes are objectively funny.

Doc Scratch is here making the same error as Ayn Rand: just starting from the argument that there is a reality is objective does not mean that every single trait of everything in that reality can be ranked.

Take food. You probably like to eat different things from me. That doesn’t mean that I am right and you are wrong. It means we differ in opinion. Rand’s philosophy didn’t let her respect that difference. To her, everything was objective, and she was more objective than anyone else, so if she didn’t like something that obviously meant it was Wrong and that anyone who disagreed with her was therefore an idiot.

And that’s why she wrote this book to belabour us with how monstrous it was that we don’t fly into a killing rage upon seeing a Doric column, and would later go on to form a cult of personality and kick people out for disagreeing with her taste in music.

Anyway. Roark.

“People turned to look at Howard Roark as he passed. Some remained staring after him with sudden resentment. They could give no reason for it; it was an instinct his presence awakened in most people. Howard Roark saw no-one. For him, the streets were empty. He could have walked naked without concern.”

Rand, being…well, Rand, would probably put this down to jealousy. For some reason, it’s always tempting to believe one is an incredibly special snowflake who is resented by ignorant mundanes who either don’t realise or don’t care how special you are. Goodness knows I indulged in it often enough in high school. But it’s important to remember that it’s mainly immature ego-tripping rather than an accurate statement of the world, and immature ego-tripping is something Rand considered a fun hobby.

Me, I think it’s based on his body language. He doesn’t seem to care enough about most other human beings even to put on a false front of consideration for them, as will be proven in excruciating detail later, so I’m betting that even his body language conveys “you are beneath me” to the surly Untermenschen who Roark did not even deign, mentally, to share the streets with.

Either that, or everyone in town is fitted with a full-spectrum psychopath detection unit. Which would actually explain a lot.

And now finally we come to a character who is not Howard Roark. This already means she has one point in her favour, namely, not being Howard Roark. Trying this simple trick makes virtually anyone more likeable. Scrappy-Doo? Not Howard Roark. Jar-Jar Binks? Not Howard Roark. Eridan Ampora, Neelix, Pauly Shore’s character in BioDome? Not Howard Roark. See how much more palatable they just became?

We reach the Keating house, where Roark has boarded for three years.

“Mrs. Keating was out on the porch. She was feeding a couple of canaries in a cage suspended over the railing. Her pudgy little hand stopped in mid-air when she saw him. She watched him with curiosity. She tried to pull her mouth into a proper expression of sympathy; she succeeded only in betraying that the process was an effort.”

Fred Clark’s criticism of Left Behind at one point had a very eloquent argument about creation as an act of love in which he pointed out that when an author creates a character solely to despise, it tends to make the author look worse than the character. Now is when we begin to see some evidence for that. Because make no mistake, Rand does not like people like Mrs. Keating.

Certainly, Mrs. Keating is the kind of character it is hard to like. She goes on and on about her son while making his life a misery, kind of a My Beloved Smother type (which we’ll get to later on). But on another level, there is at least something praiseworthy there. Her son is one of the best architects in the current class at one of the best architecture schools in the country. It’d be surprising if she wasn’t at least a bit proud of him. Also, she may be hell on her son but at least she genuinely cares about him. That’s one human being apart from herself she cares for, meaning she’s doing better than Roark by this point.

When your hero comes across as less likeable than the characters you create explicitly to dislike, something has gone wrong.

She rains vague pleasantries and not particularly impressive fortune-cookie philosophy on Roark’s head for several paragraphs, and then we get this, when she tells him the Dean phoned while he was out.

“For once, she expected some emotion from him; and an emotion would be the equivalent of seeing him broken. She did not know what it was about him that had always made her want to see him broken.”

Admittedly, this isn’t a particularly pleasant trait, but let’s look at the facts here. She has been putting up with Howard Roark for three years. She has spent three years with the bastard offspring of Frank Lloyd Wright and Lore Soong under her roof. If someone spent three years in my house without at any point even pretending to care whether I lived or died, I would be annoyed at him too.

It’s a bit hard to present your hero as unjustly put upon when he seemingly goes out of his way to offend everyone he meets.

Naturally, because Roark is totally inhuman, he doesn’t react. He doesn’t care that the Dean is calling. I hate to say nice things about Roark, but this actually does make sense. He’s already been expelled, and he clearly thinks he’s learned all they can teach him, although given how unlikely it is that he will thrash himself within an inch of his life, I don’t believe this is true. This is consistent with the massive disrespect he shows to virtually everyone.

…okay, that wasn’t actually all that nice. Moving on.

After a moment, Mrs. Keating moves on to talking about Peter. Again, I hate to be nice to this book, but this is actually a very believable section. Usually, having characters talk about how awesome a different character is ends up as grating and pointless, but in this case we’re not expected to share the character’s opinion, so it nearly works, apart from the bit where we’re clearly supposed to sneer at her for being so overbearing.

After what feels like hours, we get a look at Roark’s room.

“Mrs. Keating had never had the feeling that Roark really lived there. He had not added a single object to the bare necessities of furniture which she had provided; no pictures, no pennants, no cheering human touch. He had brought nothing to the room but his clothes and his drawings; there were too few clothes and too many drawings; they were stacked high in one corner; sometimes she thought that the drawings lived there, not the man.”

There’s a great scene in The Long Dark Teatime Of The Soul where a psychiatrist who keeps his desk totally bare admits the importance of ornaments in nourishing the human spirit, fishes a decorative paperweight out of a desk drawer, leaves it out in the open for a second, then puts it away again. This strikes me as a joke that Howard Roark would not get. Mind you, every joke is a joke Howard Roark would not get – he’s not what we might call an aficionado of comedy – but this one strikes me as the most appropriate one for him to fail to understand.

(The motto at the top of the page is the unofficial creed of Billy Connolly and his wife Pamela Stephenson. It translates as “Never trust a man without a sense of humour.”)

I know Rand probably wants us to view this in terms of focus and dedication, but what it says to me is that Roark really, really needs to get a life. Find some interests besides girders and sandstone. I’d say he should get a girlfriend, but, um, that scene is later in the book and if anything it makes him worse.

Honestly, if Howard Roark had only taken up skating or origami or playing the flute, this whole mess could have been avoided.

For our finale this week, we get fourteen lines that describe how awesome Roark’s work is without at any point actually describing Roark’s work. I’m serious here. The only hints we get are that they’re “austere and simple”, and that they are not Classical, Gothic or Renaissance. So, basically shoeboxes with windows then. That explains a lot. Really, it explains more than is necessary.

There are also a few bits that don’t make sense.

“They were as the first houses built by the first man born, who had never heard of others building before him.”

So apparently when he starts building skyscrapers, they will be made entirely from mud bricks, and the windows will be holes punched in the walls, without glass. I mean, that’s the first houses, assuming you don’t count a tent.

So what did we learn this week? That’s right. “Don’t hire a man who doesn’t even decorate his own living quarters to sketch out a skyscraper – you will end up with a completely soulless exercise in shoebox-inspired design which terrible writers will insist are in fact artistically brilliant because blah blah blah self-infatuated nonsense.”

I wish I was kidding, but if you’ve ever read even a page of Roark’s big speech, you’ve seen how bad this gets.

Next up, Roark battles a ludicrously clumsy and unconvincing strawman. Will he be able to emerge with his parasitic nonsense unharmed? Will he be expelled? Does he deserve it?

(The answers, in case you were curious, are “yes”, “yes” and “forget expulsion, the fucker deserves execution”. Believe me, after some of the stuff he gets up to, it’s genuinely amazing he manages to evade the chair.)

– OSM out

(PS. I’m sorry about the delay.)

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