Eulogy for Donald Lewes Hings

by Morgan Burke, posted on Nov 6, 2007
Don Hings, 1907 - 2004
How to begin... perhaps in the same way that serious occasions are begun everywhere in the world these days.  By reminding everyone to turn off your portable 2-way radio signaling devices.

How amazing is it that these these things have become so mundane, that asking for a few minutes of radio silence isn't just a clever way to open a eulogy for a radio pioneer, but part of our common culture and etiquette, right around the world?

The walkie-talkie was described as "miraculous" when it appeared in the 1940s.  Miraculous - a word that refers to something seemingly so impossible, it would normally have to be written off as divine intervention.  If a 20 pound set that lets you talk to someone a few miles away was miraculous, then what kind of world is it that we have created today?

I use the word "we" figuratively, because most of us here did not have much to do with creating it.  But we have all been profoundly touched by one man who did.

*  *  *

Having a gifted inventor as a grandfather was... well, it was perfectly normal if that was the only grandfather you knew.  He did all the things that I thought grandfathers were supposed to do, like build Morse code toys out of cigar boxes and nine-volt batteries, and run antennas out of your bedroom window and up a tree in the backyard, so that your home-made short-wave set could pick up the Tokyo time signal.

When I was 13 I built an electrical circuit in high school shop.  It was a dinky little thing, and badly-built, frankly.  All it did was blink two lights on and off, so it was pretty darned useless, too.  But the lights actually did blink in the proscribed fashion when you connected the battery, so I got a good mark, and I was quite proud of it.  I was taking my first baby steps to being a mad scientist, which was a perfectly respectable choice of profession, as far as I could tell from grandpa's example. 

I took it up to grandpa's to show off my new-found electrical engineering prowess.  And believe it or not, he was wowed.  He was so impressed, in fact, that he had all sorts of great ideas for improving on it. 

I can't remember all of his ideas, but I'm sure that he suggested that by the addition of a rectifier and a few transistors it and one of grandma's pie-plates, it would probably make a workable satellite dish, and with a few wheels and a rocket engine, and we could probably turn it into a half-decent lunar rover.  I don't think we ever finished that project.

*  *  *

Pay television came to Vancouver some time in the early 80s.  I remember that grandpa was quite annoyed with the Cable TV companies.  The reason he was annoyed was because it was so darned easy to DE-scramble the Pay TV. 

He explained it to me once.  All you had to do was make a certain kind of electronic circuit, insert it between your cable outlet and your converter, and you just had to make sure the circuit would invert a certain signal in a certain part of the scan sequence, and... and... well, it was that easy.  I mean anybody could do it! 

I believed him, despite the fact that I had no idea how to do it even after he explained it to me.  And I was 13, so you can believe I would have done it if I could get free Pay TV.

But as far as grandpa was concerned, this stuff was child's play, and the fact that the cable companies hadn't even bothered to make the problem even slightly difficult for him was probably the most annoying thing of all.  I mean he didn't want Pay TV.  It was just more fat-heads. 

What he wanted was an interesting problem to solve.  What he was hoping is that the cable TV companies, with their billions of dollars would have been able to surpass him technically, so that he would be forced to spend an afternoon in the lab with his oscilloscopes and gadgets just to figure how they did it. 

After all, he had built his own signal scramblers onto his walkie-talkies in the 1940s -- surely they would have been able to do something really interesting in the scrambling field by now.  But they hadn't.  And it was NOT a source of pride for him that that the cable companies hadn't surpassed him in the state of the art.  It really bothered him.  He was quite sure they were capable of it, and he really and truly wanted them to do it. 

He didn't want to be rich or famous for inventing cool stuff.  He just wanted there to be more cool stuff.

And who wouldn't want that?

*  *  *

Today the English language has a word for that kind of person.  This word didn't exist in grandpa's day -- it took computers to bring it into the mainstream. 

At MIT in the 1950s, a "hack" was a prank.  In time, a hack became any project that wasn't really necessary, but was especially fun and interesting to engineer.  Great "hacks" were accomplished with style, innovation, and technical virtuosity, and the unique kind of talented engineers it took to pull this off became known as "hackers".

Now, some people think hackers are mischievous youths who like to take out other people's computer systems.  That's a misunderstanding... but on the other hand, grandpa did get into radio after taking out the local radio station with his homemade crystal set, so...

Clearly, grandpa was a hacker before computers had even been invented.  But of course he was ahead of his time in many ways.

*  *  *

In his later years, he deduced that plants talk to each other.  Kind of a crazy idea, but once you get a crazy idea like that in your head, it's kind of hard to stop thinking about it.  I mean, what on earth could they be talking about?

So grandpa took one of grandma's geraniums, and -- it's name was Gerry, by the way -- and he mounted it onto a tripod, using a special pot with certain conductive properties, and he had the poor little guy all wired up with electrodes in the soil, and attached to leaves, and cables running off to complicated instruments in the lab, and he put Gerry through the paces. 

He had a little static gun that he would aim at Gerry and pull the trigger, and boy would Gerry holler.  Not out loud of course, he was only a geranium, but the instruments that were connected to Gerry would go wild, and grandpa would provoke him more, and the instruments would go crazy again. 

Grandpa and Gerry had these little conversations for weeks, neither one fully understanding what the other was trying to say, but eventually they came to terms.  Grandpa decoded geranium-speak and they were finally able to have a real conversation.

It turns out that Gerry was asking for water, and after grandpa gave him some, Gerry really didn't have anything interesting left to say.

Now, this whole process may strike you as an exercise in futility, but it was intensely interesting for grandpa.  He had hacked a geranium, which is substantially more difficult than hacking Pay TV scramblers.  The fact that the geranium only had one thing on its mind was not surprising, especially for grandma who claimed that she knew all along what Gerry wanted, but that's beside the point.  Knowing what the geranium wanted, and being able to ask it directly to its face were two entirely different things.  To grandpa.

A number of years later I came across an article in a newspaper, describing how researchers working for the federal government had deduced that tomato plants talk to each other.  And the most amazing discovery, according to the article, was that they did it using tiny electrical currents. 

Crazy stuff, and it probably only cost a few million bucks to figure that out.  I told grandpa about this research, but he wasn't that impressed.  After all, he had already figured that out, with about 25 cents worth of spare parts.  And he didn't particularly care who got the credit for the discovery.

Plus he probably doubted that tomato plants were better conversationalists than geraniums.

*  *  *

In his last years, new ideas kept coming to him, but it got harder to tell which ones were the products of a weakening mind.  Sometimes I'd visit, and grandpa would begin rambling, and I'd think to myself that he can't quite hold onto his thoughts anymore.  And he'd ramble on for half an hour or more, and then all of a sudden, he'd reconnect this stream of consciousness back to where he had begun, and I'd realize that he wasn't lost at all -- he knew full well where he was going with this conversation.  He was just connecting the dots more freely than he ever had before, certainly more freely than anyone else could hope to follow.

But that's always how he worked.

And this made me wonder -- what if he could see patterns that were obvious to him, and invisible to us, and he simply couldn't explain it in terms we could understand?  What if everything that seemed impossible, were in fact possible... with a little tinkering, that is, and 50 cents worth of parts from Canadian Tire?  That would be an incredible, miraculous world.

That is the world grandpa lived in his entire life.  I hope it's the world he left behind for the rest of us, but it's going to be hard to tell with him gone.

Medieval Europe Survives in Transylvania

by Morgan Burke, posted on Jan 22, 2005

The darkness of the Transylvanian night is almost complete, except for the rich starscape that can be picked out through cracks in the clouds. Shepherds' dogs are baying, far off in the mountains, and the faces around me are barely visible in the glow of gas lamps. There is no electricity at this mountain cabana, a collection of tiny huts for travellers.

``Just like in the days of Ceaucescu," says Gaby, getting a chuckle from the proprietor. Gaby is twenty-two, a policeman from the Black Sea city of Constansa. For his vacation, he and his wife Monica are driving through Transylvania. On a salary of $100 per month, they don't have many other choices.

Romania is a poor country, but not desperate. The land is lush and beautiful, and the brown-skinned peasants carting hay in their horse-drawn carts are muscular and well-fed. I stop in street markets to buy my lunches, and gorge to the point of illness on watermelons and the most wonderful breads, for less than 50 cents a bellyfull.

It's easy to lose your sense of value in Romania. Having spent the previous two months in Western Europe, where so much as gazing wistfully through a baker's window can cause your wallet to spontaneously combust, I now found myself eating daily in fine restaurants, where a 3-course dinner with half a litre of beer adds up to $3.50. Gaby asks me as tactfully as he can with his poor English if I agree that the restaurants are overpriced. I try to explain that back home I could barely purchase the beer in a restaurant for that amount.

This initiates a discussion of prices. They want to know how much I paid for the Suzuki motorcycle that has managed to transport me here from Amsterdam. The ten-year old heap is leaking oil, the chain is stretched to the breaking point, the tires are bald, and the lights stopped working back in Germany. Still, it gets more attention than a Ferrari in these parts. The proprietor's young son is agog with the novelty of it. ``'Cicletta!" he keeps saying (as in bicicletta---bicycle), and I keep misunderstanding his two-year-old mind's intent. ``Chocolata?" I ask, miming the eating of bonbons, and the boy laughs and makes motor noises and bounces on his seat. ``'Cicletta! 'Cicletta!"

Four and a half million Romanian lei is what the Suzuki cost, and everyone sits back, stunned by the figure. It's a third of what it would cost to bring electricity to this cabana, and that's an impossibly large sum. I try to point out the flaws of the machine, eager to prove that I'm no Aristotle Onassis, but perhaps I unintentionally awe them even more. Imagine the price of a new Suzuki...

The roads here are full of rattling, smoking East German Trabants, and comparatively luxurious Romanian Dacias. Although few can muster enough firing cylinders to pass the transport trucks on mountain ascents, the drivers will leave no rule of the road unbroken in their efforts to pass in the flats.

Almost as common as the cars are the horse and donkey-drawn carts, full of farmworkers, gypsies, and swaddled children. The motorized traffic races around them, and then brakes for the strolling bulls and nervous flocks of sheep around the next bend in the road.

Such unspoiled scenes abound amongst the haystacks, chimney-top storks' nests, and silver church domes of rural Transylvania. Commercialism is still largely unknown to the Romanians. Yes, you can buy Coca Cola, but it is still served in slim glass bottles, and the billboards and neon hype of Budapest in neighbouring Hungary are mercifully absent.

Even what is one of the bigger tourist attractions in Transylvania---the castle of Count Vlad Tepes (ostensibly the inspiration for Dracula) in Bran---is remarkably low-key, with a small crafts market and some pensions scattered around. I turned up just as a thunderstorm descended on the village and shook the surrounding hills for an hour. In spite of its reputation and the monster-movie atmosphere, Vlad's little fortress with its whitewashed walls and red-tile roofs looked rather homey and inviting.

Warmth and charm defy a reputation of crime and corruption throughout Romania. I brought no small amount of trepidation with me, including a sackload of rumours about gas queues, gypsy thieves, and bent cops, none of which materialized. The gas stations were clean and efficient, staffed by skirted gas jockettes with fistsful of lei who pump the cheapest fuel in Europe. The gypsies I came across were characterized by the horse-drawn caravans on the roads, and by Mariana, a young beggar girl in the stunningly authentic medieval town of Sighisoara. Although I only gave her 100 lei (seven cents), she took my picture, and was happy to let me take hers, after which she shyly requested a copy. Unfortunately, the address she gave me (``74") was somewhat unspecific, but I lacked the Romanian to communicate this sad fact.

The police were nothing less than helpful, guiding me to inexpensive hotels in their unmarked Dacias full of assault rifles when I was lost, and never complaining about my less-than- fully-functional motorcycle. Gaby insists that there is little incentive for police to indulge in corruption. ``I have a good job," he explains, shrugging as if that is all one can ask for in the modern Romania. ``Why should I risk that?" There are some surprising perks for him, too. In the days of Ceaucescu, he explains, policemen could face severe punishment for firing their guns inappropriately. ``Now," he jokes, ``you make trouble---pow!"

He cautions me to steer clear of the black market money changers, who seem to mill about in the streets of every Eastern European city. In Romania they brazenly defy the law and mob you as you squirm your way into the exchange bureaus, flashing their calculators, sometimes offering a few percent higher than the official rate, sometimes misplacing a decimal point to their own benefit. It never seems to be worth the hassle or risk.

Besides, many western currencies will be accepted in leiu of Romanian cash, and prices are typically given in your choice of (US) dollars, marks, or lei. These prices don't always agree. In my first night in Romania, I was offered a four-room suite with Persian rugs and luxurious wooden furnishings for DM20, but it was only the equivalent of DM15 if I paid in Romanian currency. (Stupidly I passed, reasoning that I should be able to find a single room for much less still. Sundown forced me into a much less stylish hotel, for more money.)

But that was all several nights ago. Tonight my hut, nestled in the Carpathian mountains southeast of Brasov, is setting me back the princely sum of $4.50. There may be no electricity, but there are also no diesel fumes, nor the endless faceless apartment blocks of communist-era urbanity.

The proprietor of the cabana offers me a cupful of sugared wild berries that he picked earlier in the day. For making wine, he mimes. Gaby and Monica jump up and fetch a watermelon from their hut, and we noisily slurp up the sweet fruits and drink Cuicas beer until the deep Transylvanian mists chase us into our beds.

Motorcycling in Romania

by Morgan Burke, posted on Jan 22, 2005

"Chicletta!" says the little boy, giving me a big grin and bouncing on his seat.

"Chocolata?" I ask, misunderstanding his two-year-old mind's intent. I mime the eating of bonbons.

The boy laughs and make motor noises. "Chicletta! Chicletta!"

"Bicicletta," his father explains in Romanian, nodding at my Suzuki, parked beside this Transylvanian mountain cabana. The arrival of a Japanese motorcycle at this remote hovel is apparently an extraordinary event. Sometimes in Romania I feel like I'm driving a Ferrari, not a ten-year-old dirt bike with bald tires and no working lights.

It is my hope that the Suzuki will carry me all the way to Turkey, and if it does, then my hope will be that it carries me all the way back to Amsterdam, where I started. A motorcycle tour of Eastern Europe has long been a dream of mine. Unfortunately, the amount of motorcycle my money could buy in Western Europe turned out to be much less than expected. Not that anyone notices in Romania.

Gaby, a policeman on holiday from the Black Sea coast, wants to know how much the Suzuki cost. I inventory all the defective parts, eager to prove that I'm no Aristotle Onassis, but perhaps this has the opposite effect. It still comes to two and a half years worth of Gaby's salary.

It's easy to lose all sense of value in Romania. My bed tonight- --in a private hut---is costing me $4.50, and it's possible that that is an inflated rate for foreigners. Okay, there's no electricity, and shepherds keep leading their flocks through the yard, and the mountain dogs wake me up in the middle of the night barking at the Transylvanian moon (I chased one around in a groggy stupor last night, fully intending to kick it if I could). But that's all added value in the end. One mustn't expect dull silence in the land that gave birth to Dracula and Ceaucescu.

The riding is both rewarding and perilous. The main roads curve and roll through lush vales, dotted with haystacks, silver church domes, and tiled village roofs topped with storks' nests. But they are also little more than two-lane moonscapes, with a hodgepodge of competing traffic, including wandering cows, horse- drawn gypsy caravans, smoking East German Trabants, and great diesel-belching East Bloc transport trucks.

Although the occasional moped ventures out onto the roads, motorcycles are a rarity. Villagers and farm workers all stop and stare as the Suzuki rattles by. None of the drivers seem to know how to share the road with something of more than 50cc. More than once I am driven off the road by aggressive oncomers who decide that the presence of a motorcycle means the lane is empty and available for passing. Not that they are any more sensible in the presence of cars; no rule of the road will be left unbroken in an effort to pass in the flats. In the mountains, however, few cars seem to be able to muster enough firing cyclinders to get past the crawling trucks. Then my own aggression takes over, peaking one afternoon when I find myself splitting two lanes of opposing traffic on a mountain curve. Nobody honks, however, and while I'm marvelling at the stupidity of the move I've just pulled off, everyone else is probably wishing they could do the same.

Somehow the bike just rattles on, holding itself together through all this. I find myself using scotch tape to make sundry repairs, from reattaching the horn, which fell off in Hungary, to holding the license plate together, since it is cracking up from the continuous punishment dealt out by the Transylvanian roads. So far I haven't figured out how to use the tape to stop the oil leaks. But I'm working on it.

That morning the chain was threatening to jump the sprocket for the third time, so I pulled into a mechanic to see if I could get them to loosen the wheel nut (it was on too tight for me and my little spanner wrench). They not only do so, but insist on performing the entire chain adjustment themselves, and then try to charge me 5000 lei. I've noticed their rates, scrawled on a piece of paper taped to the wall: 4000 lei/hour. I tap my watch and complain in broken Romanian (frequently consulting my phrasebook) that it only took ten minutes, and they are charging me for more than an hour's work. No, they explain, 4000 lei per hour is the rate for domestic cars, the Romanian Dacias. Once again, my roach of a Suzuki is an exotic piece of foreign machinery, even when the work only consists of turning a couple of screws. I pay 4000 lei, only about $2.50, but I still feel stung.

The low prices are only a part of the time warp one experiences driving through Transylvania. The peasants with their giant hand-made scythes and hay rakes, the donkey carts full of swaddled children, the hand-made lace that old women try to sell you in the shadow of medieval castles; this is no longer the West. This is barely even the 20th century. Tire repairmen advertise their shops by nailing a tire to a utility pole, the same way blacksmiths of old would hang a horseshoe. Even the omnipresent icons of American culture are not of this time: the Coca Cola is still served in slim glass bottles, and the disco blaring from the bar across the road has an ancient Gypsy zing to it.

I'm a transient, however, and I must move on. The next morning I climb on the Suzuki and head for the Black Sea. The treadless wheel, coated in mud from the cabana access road, spins as it hits the pitted blacktop. I have to cross into the opposite lane to pass some goats, and then back to avoid a grumbling diesel behemoth. My hand signal must look like a wave to the truck driver, because he honks at me or perhaps at my infinitely exotic foreign machine. I would honk back if the horn worked.

The Best Books in History, and Why We Hate Them

by Morgan Burke, posted on Jan 22, 2005

It's official: "Don Quixote" has been named the Best Book in History, according to a survey of 100 noted writers. This was undoubtedly a great relief to professors and critics of literature everywhere, since the previous Greatest Book survey (Amazon's 1999 Book of the Millenium poll) selected "The Lord of the Rings" as the champ.

That the literati (by which I mean those involved in the production and criticism of literature) should be offended by the selection of Tolkien's epic as the greatest literary work of the past 1000 years is not entirely suprising, since it is pure escapism. Is is also not surprising that the common man should be perplexed by the selection of Cervantes' masterpiece as the greatest book of all time, since it is... well... boring.

What is a tiny bit surprising is that the literati and the common man are so far apart on this issue. After all, one might expect that the Book of the Millenium might at least appear somewhere in the Top 100 Books of History. Most of the books on the list had been penned in the last 1000 years, after all.

Can we blame the academic's well-known fondness for unreadable writers who don't have clue how to tell a good story? Apparently not; Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, and George Orwell were all present on the list of Best 100 Books of History, so popular authors certainly got their due. Can we believe the literary critics, when they opine that The Lord of the Rings is mere escapist fantasy? No; the Best 100 Books of History includes titles such as Homer's Odyssey, Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales, and Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking, so the writers who compiled the list were not completely averse to stories of the fantastic.

But then again, Homer's Odyssey has the distinguished patina of Classical Studies to give it legitimacy, while Fairy Tales and Pippi Longstocking are children's books, which it hardly seems fair to tar with the brush of escapism.

Why "escapist" fantasy should be worse than other fantasy is not immediately obvious: when the average reader devotes days, weeks, or months to the reading of a novel, they are invariably engaging in some kind of escapism. In fact, one might argue that is the whole point--if the poor reader did not desire or require some kind of escape, they would certainly prefer to do their taxes, or go to the dentist, or play with their thumbs on the bus, rather than get lost in a silly ol' book. But in fact, avid readers of fiction, whether child or adult, generally require that their books be at least halfway decent in their escapist qualities. Sometimes books will be recommended in these terms alone: "You should read this, it's a good escape."

Why then do the literati consider "escapism" to be a disparaging term? Do they think that readers ought to be attempting to solve the world's problems (or at least thinking deeply about them) instead of getting lost in a good book? Since they are supposedly promoting literature, that is doubtful, although it often seems to be the case. Many academics and authors do appear to labour under the mistaken impression that they are sociologists, instead of story tellers or critics of story tellers.

Perhaps there is a subconscious feeling that story-telling is ultimately a frivolous occupation, and that consuming stories is an even more frivolous pastime. By transforming story-telling into what seems to be a weightier and far more important pursuit--the documentation of one's society through fiction--the whole idea of literature somehow becomes more legitimized.

It also gets subverted, of course. To a chatty social species like ours, no endeavour is more important than story-telling. It is fundamental to how we behave and succeed--it allows us to learn by proxy from the experiences of others, or from entirely fictional experiences that nevertheless carry important emotional and practical lessons. An anthropologist might say that it allowed us learn about the hazards of mammoth hunting before we ever faced a mammoth in person. Those who had no patience for listening to the stories of experienced mammoth hunters, or of mythical mammoth-hunting heroes, generally got squashed right out of the gene pool. The need to hear a good story is hard-wired into our souls.

But in our modern, utilitarian culture it is easy to be convinced that story-telling (and worse, story-listening) is frivolous. After all, everybody knows that we should be doing something productive instead of watching so much TV. (What nobody ever pauses to think about is why the urge to watch TV is so strong in us.)

When the literati become subconsciously convinced that story-telling is frivolous, they get diverted from the path of literature, and embark on a program of socio-historical rationalization of literature. A story that strongly engages its readers ceases to be a great book, and becomes simply a time-waster. For a book to be properly great, it must make a contribution to the documentation of our society and the human condition. It must become a sort of present-day sociological text, interesting not for its story-telling qualities, but for what it will tell future generations about us.

Consider "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy. The cover of my copy proclaims it as the greatest novel ever written, and it does, in fact, appear on the Best 100 Books of History list. In all honesty, however, it is fairly marginal as a novel. Full of confused and purposeless characters, an unfocussed plot, and Tolstoy's rambling theories on the nature of history, it regularly derails in the course of its story-telling. Usually it manages to get back on course and become a good novel again for a hundred pages or so, before it loses another wheel and careens off into the fields for a while. The last 40 pages are perhaps the least readable of any novel in human history, which fact alone ought to prohibit its inclusion on any greatest books list.

Yet the literati all seem to agree that it is one of the greatest, if not the single greatest, novel of all time. This makes sense if you are under the delusion that literature only has merit when it coats the hard, bitter pill of history and sociology in a sweet layer of fiction. After all, as a fictionalized socio-historical commentary, "War and Peace" is definitely one of the most important works ever to see print. Not only does it describe in glorious detail the single most momentous event of the 19th Century, Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia, but it actually dabbles in textbook-like commentary on the nature of military command, love, and the role of the individual in determining the course of history.

In short, it may have a number of serious failures as a work of fiction, but as an encapsulation of an important sociological event, it is without parallel. For a literary critic who is hyper-sensitive to the fact that fiction isn't taken seriously enough in our serious society, what's not to like about that?

A distressingly high proportion of supposedly great novels are tied to important sociological or historical events in this way. Obviously these events make great fodder for story telling, and so we should expect some good novels to come out of them, but all too often we confuse the greatness of the event with the greatness of the fiction.

Thus we find that a book such as "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck is described in his Nobel Prize bio as "his best work", despite the fact that it may be the least readable and slowest-paced book he ever wrote. Considering that Steinbeck was a downright master at writing zippy, engaging prose, why should "The Grapes of Wrath" go down as the greatest masterpiece of a Nobel-prize worthy career? The answer is simply this: of all his works, "The Grapes of Wrath" is the one with the most sociological significance, encapsulating, as it did better than any other novel, the Dirty Thirties in America. In other words, the critics mistook the book's historical merits for literary ones.

Taken in this context, it becomes clearer why "Don Quixote" was selected in the most recent poll as Best Book of History. As a document of sociological change, it is even more important than "War and Peace" -- it comprises the most eloquent encapsulation of the most complex and momentous event in human history: the transition from the medieval to the modern world. And to put icing on the cake, it did this in an entirely original way: it was a satirical prose novel, what many consider to be the very first of its kind.

Yet, if we are to believe the literati, Miguel de Cervantes absolutely mastered the form of the modern novel on the very first attempt. After all, we are not honouring "Don Quixote" as the first modern novel, but as the Best Book. Ever. In other words, if the literati are correct, the very first modern novel ever written was so damn good that it was impossible to improve upon the form. It's as if by defining the novel, "Don Quixote" automatically relegated all others to the status of derivative mimicry. It's enough to make one wonder why novels ever became such an important form of expression in subsequent centuries, if the form itself had no potential for growth.

But in actual fact, the novel as a literary form has grown far beyond anything Cervantes dreamed, and there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of novels published since 1605 that eclipse "Don Quixote" in sheer story-telling prowess. It is certainly true that the superior qualities of these later novels owe much to "Don Quixote"-- that their authors have "stood upon the shoulders of giants", to quote Isaac Newton. But to follow with Sir Isaac's train of thought, when you stand on the shoulders of giants, you see further. And once Cervantes showed us how to write good novels, we could write better ones.

That doesn't make modern authors more brilliant than Cervantes, nor does it make their novels more important in any academic sense. But it does mean that their novels are better, just as a Boeing 767 is a better airplane than the Wright Brothers' Flyer.

The disparity between the opinions of the literati and the common man on the subject of Best Book Ever basically comes down to the difference between "important books" and "good books". Important books, the ones that draw the interest of academics and professionals, are those that cause or explain change; they leave the world perceptably different after they have been read, or else give us a better understanding of a change that has already overtaken us.

Good books, however, are those that effortlessly transport us into new situations, and tap into our fundamental urge to learn by proxy. The effortlessness of that transport is a function of the author's skill as a story-teller. When he or she succeeds, the reader is completely unaware that they are merely looking at a series of symbols printed on paper; they have in fact been wrapped up up in a fantastic spell, spiritually transposed into a bizarre out-of-body state, and utterly convinced us of what are, essentially, lies. And despite the fact that we know we're being lied to (it's printed right on the back cover: "Fiction") we remain utterly convinced of it, to the point that afterwards we'll rationalize the story as conveying some kind of great moral Truth.

It scarcely needs to be pointed out that important books and good books are not necessarily the same. The most-read book of the 20th Century is Mao Tse-Tung's Little Red Book, but considering that most of its readers were obligated by law to own it, authorities evidently didn't trust that readers would be convinced by the book's own merits. The Bible itself is the prototypical example of this type of book; while it is unquestionably one of the most important books in human history and required reading among practicing Christians, most biblical scholars agree that it is an editorial atrocity, with glaring inconsistencies in both facts and characterization. Christians spend countless hours in Bible Study attempting to make sense of it all. It may be the Good Book, but it's not a very good book.

Which brings us to another point: good books do not need to be explained. We, the readers, should not require intermediaries (be they priests or English professors) to decode the book for us, to tell us what it means, or what the author was trying to say. As a general rule, if it is ever unclear what the author is trying to say, it's not a very good book. It may have a higher than average chance of being an important book, however, and could very well end up in an English or Political Science curriculum somewhere.

Joseph Campbell said that "One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit. We're interested in the news of the day and the problems of the hour." By "literature of the spirit", Campbell was of course referring to Myth, those stories that encapsulate our most fundamental ideas about how we live. Interestingly, his comment can be applied to the modern literati's insistence that great literature somehow reflect the issues of the day. Meanwhile the common man is left starving for good stories that feed his spirit, stories that resonate with the power of Myth.

All of which brings us back to The Lord of the Rings, the putative Book of the Millenium. You don't have to be a rabid Tolkien fan to realize that The Lord of the Rings is a monumental work. You probably have to be a little bit rabid to get a grasp of how truly monumental that work really is. And the more rabid you get, the more staggering Tolkien's achievement becomes. He basically devoted his entire life, and his considerable academic abilities, to building a structure that would bear the weight of his one story. He didn't just write a popular novel, but created an entire mythology as a foundation for it, a mythology that rings with the sound of truth because it is not the mythology of an imaginary world, but an alternative mythology for our own world. Tolkien took his own knowledge of ancient languages and history, and gave us a better myth than Myth itself had endowed upon us.

And to our everlasting fortune, he happened to be a master story-teller, populating his creation with some of literature's most endearing and frightful characters. The end result of this herculean effort is quite possibly the greatest piece of escapism ever penned by a single human hand.

Tolkien-friendly critics are delighted to draw inferences to the social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution and the moral destruction of the World Wars in their efforts to give The Lord of the Rings some kind of sociological legitimacy, but Tolkien himself rejected any attempts to recast his work as allegory. "I cordially dislike allegory," he wrote, "in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence." In fact, he claims his only motive was to tell a "really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them."

And that he certainly did, if the Book of the Millenium poll is to be believed. But The Lord of the Rings is not a record of our times, or any other time for that matter. Its significance as a socio-historical document is virtually nil. It does not fit into the prescribed model of literature as a reflection of society in any satisfactory way, and so serious literary critics are obligated to disdain it. They know that in four hundred years, social historians seeking to understand the 20th Century will not turn to the Lord of the Rings for enlightenment.

Of course, they'll probably turn to it for a good story. But there is no accounting for taste.

Are Canadians ready for a homegrown monarch?

by Morgan Burke, posted on Jan 22, 2005

The recent debate over dumping the monarchy in Australia has highlighted the irrational fondness that many of us Commonwealth types have for our royals.

Everyone knows that republicans and separatists have a point when they remind us that it is a bit ridiculous -- if not downright unpatriotic -- to have a foreigner as our head of state. Buty the standard republican solution -- electing a president -- seems rather dull, if not suspiciously American.

After all, why should we bother with all the money, TV airtime, and political maneuvering to elect a ceremonial president when he or she will be as irrelevant and powerless as a king or queen, anyway? This whole debate is about image, not substance. If we insist on emasculating our heads of state, let us at least make them fun to keep around. And nothing beats Royalty for that.

Clearly what a nation like ours (and I'm talking about Canada now) needs is neither a president, nor a foreign queen, but our very own home-grown monarch. But how does one go about starting a new royal dynasty?

The English way has traditionally been to gather an army, proclaim yourself king, and then chop off the heads of everyone who disagrees. That seems distinctly un-Canadian, so we'd probably be better off just nicking a king or queen from the current line of succession to the English throne. Not only would it be more legitimate in the eyes of the legal purists, but it would also be substantially more polite, and therefore undeniably Canadian.

It would not do to pick a monarch who is directly in line for the British throne, otherwise we would just end up back where we started. Instead, we must begin with someone who could, but in all likelihood won't, ascend to the throne, thus creating an independent Canadian Royal lineage. There are quite a few princes and princesses languishing unused in England, and any one of them would make an excellent king or queen of Canada, if they decided the job interested them.

And why wouldn't it? They would get 40 times the country, with only half the annoying people. There is better skiing, fewer soccer hooligans, more TV stations, and less paparazzi. We in turn would get our very own head of state to entertain us when hockey is out of season.

Once we found an agreeable candidate for the position of king or queen, we could fly them over for a quick little tour of the country and a review of the job requirements, which basically amount to this: Look good, act sensitive to the problems of the people, and try not to say anything spectacularly stupid while out in public. Experience with cutting ribbons and endorsing charities is an asset, but on-the-job training can be provided if necessary. Constitutional obligations in the event of a hung parliament can be explained by advisors in the unlikely event that the powers of the throne actually need to be exercised.

Canada has no shortage of hobbies and pastimes to engage the pleasure centres of a royal's high-minded brain, while keeping his subjects reassured that he is acting in a properly Canadian way. By all accounts, royals love fishing, yachting, skiing, and criticizing architecture, all of which Canada provides boundless opportunities for.

We can expect it to take a few years before our monarch becomes thoroughly Canadianized, but by then we shouldn't be surprised to spot him or her screaming obscenities from the royal box at hockey games, patronizing our finer breweries, and sneaking across the border from time to time to pick up a bottle and fill the limo with gas.

Speaking of the border, a lesser-known benefit to having our own royals would be marketing them to Americans, who, after two centuries of being royalty-free, continue to suffer painful urges to associate with anything bearing the title of "princess". By endowing royal functions with sufficient pomp and ceremony, we would attract mounds of American tourist dollars, while paradoxically making our neighbours feel better about the silliness of their own political system.

Furthermore, a uniquely Canadian monarch might do wonders to soothe the frayed nerves of Canadian unity. Removing an old English dame from our money would certainly take the wind from the sails of a few separatists, and even calm the down the occasional die-hard federalist.

Naturally, we would expect a good Canadian monarch to be fluently bilingual, but as the English and French are uneasy neighbours over there as well as here, there may already be a few candidates who have some education in la belle langue. Since Rideau Hall is the obvious choice for a city residence for our Monarch, it would make sense to have the royal country estate just across the river in Quebec. Perhaps a modest palace in the Gatineaus... vive le roi! Of course, as a gesture of Western inclusion, the Royal family could also keep a winter home on the West Coast, both to escape the ice storms and to keep up with their skiing.

It goes without saying that our monarch would have to leave the utterly silly system of English peerage behind them. We Canadians might be inexplicably fond of our kings and queens, but we draw the line at a whole class of inbred wankers.

Any proper Canadian monarch would have to share his or her genes with a good son or daughter of the common folk. Not just any commoner, of course, but a Canadian with appropriate status and distinction, impeccable character, and most importantly, an amusing public persona. We have an extensive array of surly grunge musicians, depraved film-makers, and second-hand-smoke-imbibing athletes who enjoy the necessary level of celebrity and prestige to consort with, and eventually breed, with our beloved sovereign. In time, our transplanted Canadian monarch would beget truly Canadian heirs to the throne, and the Canadian dynasty would be off and running.

We subjects could then kick back and do what subjects do best: Admire our royals' fashion sense, while tut-tutting their social mores. Meanwhile the business of running this country would go on much the same as it always has... you didn't think that our head of state really anything to do with government, did you?

Touring Turkey on the Cheap

by Morgan Burke, posted on Jan 22, 2005

It wasn't long before I realized that my shortcut was going to be anything but. The road was twistier than a noodle, winding its way along the wall of a yawning canyon. Half of each lane was broken away, and the occasional vehicle straddled the center line as it careered haphazardly along to the next village.

Paralyzed with conflicting urges, I wanted to admire the vista and to keep intently focussed on what remained of the road. I wanted to stop and take pictures, and to keep moving to avoid getting punted off the cliff by the next rattling truck to come racing around the bend. I wanted to slow down and absorb the spectacle, and to race ahead to reach the next town before sundown. After all, the sun was getting very low in the sky, and my headlight (all of the lights, in fact) hadn't been working since Germany.

Germany was a long way away from here, the mountains of southern Turkey, both geographically and figuratively. I might have had a chance of getting the lights fixed in Western Europe, if I'd had the patience for the shops to order the parts for my leaky, squeaky 10-year-old Suzuki dirt bike, purchased in Amsterdam for way too much money. But I was eager to keep moving, and kept telling myself that I'd find a shop in the next city I stayed in. No time in Vienna. No luck in Budapest. Not a chance in Romania or Bulgaria.

It wasn't until the Suzuki creaked into Istanbul, held together with pieces of string and scotch tape (literally), that I forced myself to locate a shop to replace the bald rear tire and seriously overstretched chain. They couldn't manage the lights, however, so the Suzuki was still flying blind.

And this mountain road was getting steadily hairier. Soon the pavement petered out altogether, and I found myself lurching along a rocky track, dodging potholes and goat herds. I congratulated myself on having the foresight to buy a dirt bike (although it was really just a lack of cash for anything else), all the while cursing the lack of lights in the approaching dusk.

Not all Turkish roads are like this. An hour after arriving in the country, I found myself on the most perfect piece of pavement on Earth, the Autobahn leading east into Istanbul. Six glassy smooth lanes with a 130 km/h (81 mph) speed limit arcing past mathematically perfect rolling farmlands and the occasional nuclear cooling tower. It was simply too much for my battered Suzuki, and I turned off for the pitted, chaotic secondary roads first chance I got. But that's Turkey for you, an ever-shifting balance between the 20th Century and the 14th.

At the moment I was rolling headlong towards the latter. Thumping through mountain villages, I passed peasant farmers in donkey-drawn carts, brown-skinned children playing soccer on the road, puny roadside cantinas constructed of sticks and hay, and the occasional fellow motorcyclist, buzzing along on a two-stroke MZ or Jawa, with three and sometimes four people aboard.

How do you get four Turks on a 250cc motorcycle? Dad drives, junior sits on the tank, and Mom in her skirts and scarves rides side-saddle on the back, cradling the baby in her arms. Not a helmet in the bunch, of course. One enterprising motorcyclist I passed figured out how to get five people on his bike, by the simple expedient of adding a sidecar. Everybody rides.

On the previous day, a toothless old man with a cane came up to me as I was stopped at the side of the road taking pictures. He managed to communicate that he was looking for a ride to the next town, where I happened to be going, thirty kilometers away. I looked at him, bent and frail, like he was a madman. ``No helmet," I said, pointing at my own brain bucket, trying to find a reason to turn him down. That's not a good excuse in Turkey, and he persisted, so I acquiesced. I had him place his cane across my stomach and hold on to both ends, and we blasted off through canyons and desert for the next town. He would shout cheerfully at me from the back, and I would shout something back, and neither of us had a clue what the other was saying.

Most Turks drive cars, however, although it is rumoured that Turkish vehicles only have two controls, accelerator and horn. An acquaintance in Budapest warned me of this when I informed him of my plans to tour as far as Turkey. ``Craziest drivers in the world," he said, recommending that I park as soon as I arrive and take the bus.

But after five minutes of getting acquainted with Istanbul's estimated 17 million residents in that city's perpetual rush hour, the sheer genius of the Turkish system of driving becomes apparent. First, you must ignore all lane and traffic control markings, since you can easily fit another two or three lanes of traffic into the available space if everybody just squeezes up a little. Second, you should honk more or less continuously so that everybody around is aware that you are currently executing a hazardous and paralegal manoever and they won't be caught by surprise.

And the system works! I was actually thankful for the incessant honking, which relieved much of the burden of constantly checking my blind spots (``toot, here I am in your blind spot", ``beep, here I go, leaving your blind spot") and let me focus more on the chaos directly in front of me. Unfortunately, my own horn had fallen off in Hungary, so I wasn't able to participate as fully as I might have.

On the more open highways, the drivers did't relax all that much, constantly trying to muscle past me and share my lane position, even when I was already directly behind someone else and there was nowhere for them to go. The thought of those few feet of unused lane on either side of my motorcycle just drove them crazy, and more than once I had to aggressively defend my position against encroaching cars.

But up here in the mountains there is little traffic, and fending off aggressive drivers is the least of my concerns. I'm starting to toy with the idea of pulling off to the roadside and unrolling my sleeping bag in one of the many caves that pock the rocks and cliffs in this part of Turkey.

After all, I wasn't too far from the region of Cappadocia, famous for the monasteries, palaces, and often entire cities that were tunneled into its mountains and badlands in the previous millennium. One gets the haunting feeling that the entire land is hollow, the ancient tunnels and chambers beneath your feet echoing with the bustle of the world above, their dark windows and doorways looking out at you from every rock face.

Only that morning, I had decided to stretch my legs at the Selime monastery, a subterranean maze of ancient churches, apartments, kitchens, and stables. Leaving the bike at the side of the road, I trudged up the worn rock paths towards some of the more sinister-looking openings into the ancient Christian underworld. Two young Turkish lads bounced along beside me, attracted by the motorcycle and eager to show me around. Ishmail, no more than 13, spoke reasonable English, and without any prompting, proceeded to give me the most throrough and professional tour of an ancient site I had yet had in Turkey. Diligently pointing out all the key chambers, rock carvings, and remains of ancient frescoes, he even led me on a perilous rock climb up a vertical shaft that rose to other rooms and lookouts hundreds of feet above. His younger sidekick followed us with a rolled-up bundle of cardboard that he picked up at the side of the road, and which he lit on fire to use as a torch when we came to particularly dark passages. Though they never asked for it, I tipped the lads 40,000 Turkish lira (about 80 cents), and turned down their persistent appeals for a ride on the Suzuki.

There are times the Turks can be almost pushy in their friendliness. Everyone wants to know where you are from, and it is always the most wonderful place, and if you are dealing with someone who has something to sell, he always has a friend from there. But once you escape the bazaars and kilim (carpet) sellers of Istanbul, Turkish hospitality becomes much more genuine.

Almost daily, I am invited to join the gas jockeys for tea at various filling stations, where they want to know about me and my wreck of a Suzuki (which was usually revered as an exotic and highly desirable machine). We rarely have a common language, but sign language can fill a lot of gaps, and a suprising amount of information gets communicated in the end.

One gas station owner invited me into his office over tea to tell me all about his time in Germany, where he worked for two years to save the money to buy his business, upon which he now sits pretty. He went on and on about a Suzuki GS1000 that he bought in Germany for 3000DM and sold in Turkey for 7000DM, and recommended that I do the same with mine. And yet he only spoke Turkish and German, and me only English and a bit of French.

Finally the mountain road started downwards, and I thought that I must be getting somewhere. Looking out from a viewpoint, I could see the neurotic road winding and winding and winding in every direction during its descent, except, it seems, for south, the direction I wanted to go. It appeared that it would take 30 miles of driving to cover the last 5 miles on the map.

The sun was gone, and I pressed doggedly on. A policeman driving the other way politely flashed his headlights at me, chiding me for my invisibility. And then, suddenly, I reached the Mediterranean coast---and the 20th century---just as darkness hit.

I parked beside the first hotel I saw, which had rooms for 200,000 Turkish lira (four U.S. dollars---it's easy to be a millionaire in this country), including an actual private toilet and shower. Perfect. The tavern next door was empty, and the teenage-looking bartenders were far too curious about my travels and motorcycle to let me make the day's notes in my journal. They were full of advice on places to visit along the south coast, places with good bars and discotheques, and perfect beaches full of tourists. What about history, I ask. I like ancient cultures, old towns, historic sites, and traditional lifestyles. You know, Turkey. They shrugged and shook their heads, obviously too jaded by the impossibly rich history of their own country to care. Instead they asked about American bands and poured me free beers for my troubles. And I had to remind myself that this was 1995, and this was Turkey, too.


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