Saturday, January 26, 2008


Robert Harris is the author of several successful novels, two of which ("Fatherland" and "Enigma") are available in movie versions as well. "Imperium" is his second novel that is set in ancient Rome. It follows Marcus Cicero in his efforts toward the consulship. The story is told by Cicero's secretary, Tiro who was indeed Cicero's biographer. Harris has thoroughly researched his topic - much of the novel's events are based on actual historical facts.
While "Imperium" is not a novel centered around glorious battles and the like, I never found myself getting bored. Harris writes in a very engaging manner and has a gift in presenting casual details in an interesting way. If I can find a flaw, it's that the book has a lot of secondary characters that would be a waste of time to develop of course, but you do find yourself wondering who's who from time to time. Tiro in his narration does try his best to keep the reader informed. In the end, there is a sense of completeness, as you really get to know an important historical figure like Marcus Cicero.
I hear that this is the first book in a trilogy about Cicero that I'm sure will be just as interesting!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Show Murder

The fall tv season is now almost over. There have been remarkable new shows, some disappointments (Heroes) and some continuation of standard quality (House MD). But the one show that does its thing only in the fall season, is the clear winner. Dexter killed them all dead.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Dexter Morgan (played by Michael C. Hall) is a blood spatter specialist working for the Miami police department. Not a job for the squeamish, and Dexter is anything but! He is also quite likable, even if slightly weird. What nobody suspects is that he's a methodical serial killer!
The show just delivered its second season finale, and I must say that I enjoyed it thoroughly. No episode, from first season premiere on, was below greatness but second season kept raising the bar and us at the edge of our seats. "Dexter"'s cast consists of talented actors but the strongest aspect of the show is the writing. Every plot point falls into place, the characters are consistent and the memorable lines are plenty. Maybe the fact that the show is based on a novel is the reason behind this. Whatever the case, the show has been a big success and a third season is ensured. Until then, you are advised to check on the first two for some bloody fun!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Enemies Of Democracy

Philosophy is sometimes accused of being void of content, nothing more than an indulgence at word-play and useless intellectual gymnastics. I don't think anyone is justified to hold such an opinion, especially after Karl Popper. After all, he set the standards of modern science by introducing the concept of falsifiability.
In the first part of his influential tome "The Open Society and its Enemies", Popper attacks a widely revered persona : Plato.
Plato lived at the very crucial time of the Peloponnesian War, the time when the ideas of individualism and democracy were introduced for the first time. It was a transition that Plato opposed, despite the influence Socrates had on him. Popper shows how the social model that Plato proposes is totalitarian, and how he manages to present it in a way that continues to appeal even to modern times. Plato's ideal society is one of rigid roles and no individuality. His theory of Forms (or Ideas) naturally supports such a model : perfection lies in the past because everything that exists is a degenerate copy of its ideal, primordial Form (this is a version of a concept that Popper calls "historicism"). Thus, any change away from the ancient, tribalistic societies is evil. An argument Plato uses is comparing society with the body of an organism. An organism cannot function if its parts seek roles that are different from their natural ones.
Plato manages to present his social model as just and good by clever philosophical tricks. One is to present the laws of tribalistic society as natural ones. In the same way that you cannot challenge gravity, Plato assumes that this applies for the laws of his ideal society. As these laws are part of the past, they are more perfect copies of their original Form. Another trick is to present concepts like individualism as inherently selfish and destructive for society. For Plato, being a free individual is not an option, it is not natural - it is egoistic and thus, evil. The reason why such clearly totalitarian ideas remain popular is because they prey on our natural urge to belong to a group.
Karl Popper has dug deep into the platonic texts and manages to elegantly explain and expose their origin and content. By doing so, Popper also offers us an important understanding of the democratic values that emerged when the tribalistic society collapsed. There is only one point that I think Popper gets wrong.
Popper briefly criticizes Plato's fame as "the nearest approach to Christianity before Christ" and it is here that I think he fails to make a case. Plato's fame is very much justified because Christianity opposes democracy with the same arguments and tricks that Plato uses. Popper argues that modern philosophers fail to see the connection between Plato and totalitarianism but he himself fails, in the same way, to see the connection with Christianity. It may be that Popper wanted to avoid insulting his religious readers. It's hard to believe he would have missed the similarities between Paul and Plato, as they both use the "body" comparison (1 Corinthians 12:12-26) for their proposed societal model. Inadvertently or not, Popper's criticism of Plato also reveals the totalitarian nature of Christianity.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Paramount's Heir

There are always bands that receive much more respect and recognition than actual sales, and this is very common in progressive circles. I would say that Germany's Sieges Even is a perfect example of this phenomenon. They started off as a very complex thrash metal band influenced by Watchtower, but by their second album it became obvious they are anything but ordinary. In 1991, "A Sense Of Change" combined an ethereal, lyrical style with the technical prowess of prog rock but the time was a bit too early for the audience. After a few more albums where the band tried to be more accessible and the resulting disappearance, Sieges Even were back two years ago with a new vocalist and an absolute masterpiece, called "The Art Of Navigating By The Stars". In this album, they worked from a new perspective and improved the already high level of "A Sense Of Change".
So, it is a very difficult job for the successor! "Paramount" doesn't stray far, it is clearly a heavier album, and Rush is a much more obvious influence. Everything we love about Sieges Even is present, the warm vocals, the lyricism, the discrete yet admirable technicality. The more prominent guitars will certainly please a lot of people, but as I said, it is difficult to repeat the perfection that was "The Art Of Navigating By The Stars". In any case, "Paramount" is still an album that you will proudly include in your collection.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Way To Constantinople

I am rarely impressed by new bands these days, but ok, wow! "The Varangian Way" by finnish metallers Turisas had me at first note and I was frozen for the rest of its duration. Epic, symphonic, folk or whatever you want to call it, I can't find a single flaw about it. Adding the fact of its wonderful concept, "The Varangian Way" completes a triad of what we should call "ethnographic" metal (yeah, I just made it up!!), the other two members being Orphaned Land's "Mabool" and Solefald's "Red For Fire".
The variety and richness of sounds is amazing. Vocal-wise you will listen to clean and brutal vocals, choirs, the dry and acidic Martin Walkyier-variety, Viking bards and more. Folk instruments, of course, like flute and accordeon. Keyboards that use both classical elements and the majestic brass sound that would put Bal-Sagoth to shame. The guitar work, while not something extraordinary, is exactly as it should sound. Heavy and groovy but also melodic and a guest player when needed. You will even be surprised to listen to a small part of progressive experimentation that manages to not seem out of place at all, in the masterpiece that closes the album "Miklagard Overture".
The story of the album involves the adventure of a group of Northmen as they travel the Varangian way, a river route from the North to Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. This reminds me an excellent novel I read, Stephen Lawhead's "Byzantium" , as such an adventure is central to it! Like the book, Turisas's album is an adventure in on the post's title to experience it in full!

Link found at

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Silver Voice

Lisa Gerrard's voice is an experience that is the closest I have come to what people describe as "spiritual". Sweetly haunting, it usually sings no words, but you feel it says so much.
Her career with Dead Can Dance offered us albums of unsurpassed quality. Her later collaborations, including quite a few Hollywood movie soundtracks, were both artistic and commercial successes, mostly due to her own presence.
"The Silver Tree" is her second official solo album and while I was pretty certain of its quality before listening, I wasn't prepared to be surprised. Yes, it seems we haven't heard everything from Lisa Gerrard just yet. "The Silver Tree" is a very dark album...not in the gothic way of "Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun", but touches ambient and trip hop territory. You will hear Gerrard sing in ways you haven't before. Of course, her trademarks are still present...the eerie chants, the heartbreaking incantations. You will not find the ethnic elements that dominated the last Dead Can Dance albums, but all the haunting creepiness is there.
"The Silver Tree" is not recommended for everyone or for's best enjoyed in the dark, with your eyes closed and your mind open.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Born For Language

Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist, but more importantly a very talented writer. "The Language Instinct" is one of the most interesting and well-written books I have read. It shouldn't be surprising for an author who writes about language to use it so masterfully.
In his book, Pinker attempts to show that the ability of the human species to speak and understand language can be explained with Darwin's powerful idea of natural selection. The experimental evidence suggests that there is a physical area in the human brain that underlies language. This area is responsible for the hard-wiring of the fundamental aspects of language in every human brain. Even though there are countless languages spoken (or signed) today, they all share a universal template of grammar (which resides in the brain) that is subsequently trained by baby experience to receive the form of a modern language.
Pinker brings forth a wealth of examples and experiments to support his ideas that are extremely convincing. For instance, there are diseases or instances of damage to specific areas of the brain (in the left hemisphere) that impair one's ability to speak or understand language. This clearly shows that language has a physical aspect. Pinker then goes to explain how such an aspect could evolve and does a great job at it.
Steven Pinker, and many others with him, probably closed with their research another gap in our knowledge of how the world works. What amazes me all the time is that the explanation is even more wonderful than the mystery itself, and Steven Pinker does well to convey this amazement to the reader.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Road To Hell paved with good intentions, or so the saying goes. This couldn't be more true for Light Yagami, main character of the Japanese anime series "Death Note". Light is a 17 year old student of an exceptional intellect and impeccable reputation whose life changes when he comes across a strange notebook. The notebook was dropped into the human world by one of the Death Gods, Ryuk, who was looking for some entertainment, and Light was quick to provide it. The Death Note has the power of killing any person whose name is written in it, provided its owner knows that person's face. Numerous rules also allow control over the time and the circumstances of someone's death. Light sees this as an opportunity to rid the world of evil; by disposing of criminals and people he judges as evil himself, he will create a better world. And Light, being the judge and creator of this world, will naturally be the world's God.
Things don't stay easy for long, though. The large number of deaths draw the attention of the mysterious detective known only as "L", while the media dubs Light as "Kira". L is as brilliant as he is eccentric and makes life very hard indeed for Kira. The two of them engage in an exciting chase as they try to outwit each other, L needing evidence, Kira needing just a name for his Death Note. Things get complicated when FBI agents, Kira's family and even more Death Gods get involved.
"Death Note" stands out for its unique story and the timeless questions it raises but also for the exciting plot lines that don't allow you to watch just one episode at a time. I read somewhere that it's the "Prison Break" of anime, and I can definitely understand the comparison. I am only half-way through the series so I can't give you a definitive opinion. So far, I am disturbed by Kira's emotionless sense of justice and intrigued by L's weirdness and powers of deduction. For now, I will speculate that L may have a connection with the Death Gods and I will get back on you later!