The Opening and Closing of European Borders

December 23, 2007

Lost under all the speculation about American shoppers and the failing U.S. economy in the weekend before Christmas is the news that Europe has finally reunited.

German/Polish Border

You are probably thinking back to a night almost two decades ago, when the Berlin Wall fell, Communism collapsed, and Europe, you thought, had already reunited? November 9, 1989, was most certainly a night to remember — the night the process of European unification began. [For the sticklers among you, it *really* began decades earlier with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950.] It took another step forward in 2004 when 10 countries, eight of them from the “East,” joined the European Union. This process neared further completion Friday when the Schengen zone expanded to include nine of those ten countries (Cyprus the lone holdout).

The photo above shows the German/Polish border at Frankfurt (Oder)/Slubice, the cities where I lived and filled my passport with crossing stamps for over two years. As of Friday, there are no longer guards stationed at that checkpoint, no one keeping you from (stereotypically) filling your shopping cart with low-priced cigarettes and heading West or riding back to the East on someone else’s bike.

If you’re like me with a U.S. passport and penchant for peace and travel, this news is cause for celebration. Once you enter the vast continent of Europe, you can travel around freely almost everywhere, crossing borders without ever needing to show your passport again until you leave. This is doubly good for Europeans who can leave home with nothing more than the equivalent of a driver’s license before flying off to France, Estonia or Hungary for the weekend. But if you’re Russian or Chinese, Indian or Kenyan, you can expect visits to Europe to become that much more difficult. It all comes back to that largely unknown and poorly understood Schengen Agreement.

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Discworld Profile: The Witches and Tiffany Aching

December 21, 2007

Another major set of recurring characters throughout the Discworld novels are the witches. Though there are quite a few witches mentioned in the books, there are really just a few who become true characters, the most notable of which are Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. They are based in the mountain kingdom of Lancre. As characters from some of the earliest of Pratchett’s books, they were originally intended as vehicles for parody, which set them up with some amusing traditional boundaries that the characters have more or less demolished as they, and the system of witchcraft as practiced on the Disc, developed more fully. (It is for this reason that the first witches book, Equal Rites, doesn’t seem to fit with the details mentioned in later books, as Pratchett changed his conception of their characters afterward. For the better, I might add.)

Granny Weatherwax is one of the best recognized Discworld characters in the series, both amongst readers and denizens of the Disc. Grumpy, stern, and completely no-nonsense, most of the people of Lancre fear her, but definitely know to go to her if they’ve got a real problem. She often fixes their problems by giving them what they actually need, though, as opposed to what they think they want, which does not serve to make her popular. She is quite powerful, but rarely bothers to use “real” magic when simply using headology (not to be confused with psychology) will work just as well, if not better. When the situation calls for it, though, she has been known to stop a sword with her bare hands and reverse the bite of a vampire by making him take on her attributes rather than the other way around. The vampire ended up with a fierce craving for a decent cup of tea. One of her main witching talents is Borrowing, in which she lays her mind over that of an animal to go out and have a look around. She is seen as filling the role of The Crone in the Three Goddesses coven model, though no one would ever say so to her face.

Nanny Ogg is Granny Weatherwax’s best friend, or at least most constant companion. She could be seen as a foil for Granny Weatherwax, except her own character is so well developed. Where Granny Weatherwax is tall, thin, and snappish, Nanny Ogg is short, round, ribald, and (to those who don’t know her well) kindly. She is very popular with the people of Lancre, and is perhaps related to more than half of them, given her prodigious numbers of husbands, children, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. She is an extremely accomplished midwife, to such an extent that she is called on for her services when the female personification of Time is giving birth. She is seen as the Mother figure of the coven, for obvious reasons.

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Discworld Profile: The Librarian

December 18, 2007

The Librarian is one of Discworld’s more popular characters, having been turned into an orangutan thanks to a magical accident. He only ever says “ook” (or occasionally “eek”) and is partial to bananas, but don’t even think of calling him a monkey. (Orangutans are apes, remember?)

The Librarian works at the Unseen University, and though the wizards there have offered to change him back to a human, he has refused, finding the physical capabilities of an orangutan quite useful for navigating the shelves and wrestling recalcitrant magical tomes into place. No one seems to know who he was prior to becoming an orangutan, which is perhaps the way he wants it.

In addition to enforcing due dates and silence in the library, the Librarian has been known to aid the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork in times of crisis, and is the chief organist for the Unseen University. His most intriguing skill however, is his ability to travel through L-Space, the extra-dimensional space connecting all libraries. L-Space allows travel through both space and time, though the few librarians skilled enough to travel through L-Space are supposed to follow very strict rules about not changing the course of events. The Librarian doesn’t always follow the rules however, and in Small Gods he uses L-Space to save books from a burning library.

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Discworld Profile: Rincewind and the Wizards

December 16, 2007

Before becoming a world of its own, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series was a straightforward parody of such fantasy staples as Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders and Robert Howard’s barbarian. The first two books, The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, comprise one story about Rincewind, the world’s worst wizard, as he takes the Discworld’s first tourist, Two-Flower, through various fantasy parodies. Sourcery (as with “Colour,” a British spelling) reveals why Rincewind is such a terrible wizard as he attempts to run away from Discworld’s first sorcerer since they killed themselves off centuries before.

Running away is a recurring theme in the Rincewind books. He’s cowardly, lacks any real skills, and expects the worst (because it often happens, usually to him). Somehow, he manages to survive and save the world, even though nobody believes it.

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Discworld Profile: Death and His Granddaughter

December 14, 2007

As a tribute to Terry Pratchett, I’m going to kick off a set of posts about favorite Discworld books. Technically, every book that Pratchett has written that is set in the Discworld is part of the overall series, (36 so far,) but in reality, there are subsets of books within the whole that star specific sets of characters. These characters sometimes meet and overlap, but there are still several streams of narrative that readers can follow through the Discworld. Some of the main subsets include books about these characters: the Night Watch, the wizards, the witches, and the anthropomorphic representation of Death. (You can see a nice categorical and chronological breakdown here.) I have a particular fondness for the Death books, particularly the later ones starring his granddaughter, Susan Death.

Back in the beginning, Death was just your basic anthropomorphic being, thinking only Deathly thoughts, doing just what people expected Death to do. But then he started to wonder. What was it like to be human? Why did humans want to be human so badly? So he built a house, and planted a garden, and got a servant, and adopted a daughter, Ysabell, to whom he gave frilly pink clothes with skeletal bunny rabbits on them, because as far as he could figure out, that’s what girls liked. Years later, he also decided to get an apprentice, Mort. As you might imagine, Death’s apprentice and his daughter, as the only real humans in Death’s realm, find themselves drawn together, after the obligatory failed adolescent attempts at flirting via cruel put-downs, sarcasm, and general awkwardness. They get married, produce a daughter, Susan, and die while she is away at boarding school as a teenager.

Ysabell and Mort decided to raise Susan without a lot of contact with her grandfather, so when her parents die and Death goes missing, it comes as something of a shock when she is tapped to take his place until he can be found. This revelation does explain some of her unusual traits and abilities, though, like the white hair with one streak of black, and the ability to turn invisible. When performing Death’s duties, she also finds that she can walk through walls, function outside time, and use the Death VOICE. She is quite smart, and extremely practical. Upon graduation from school, she pursues a career as a governess and then a schoolteacher, though she does keep finding herself in the position of needing to save the world, or at least right it before it all goes wrong, on a regular basis.

Here’s a rundown of the Death arc books, in chronological order:

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Horrifying Literary News: Terry Pratchett Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s

December 12, 2007

British author Terry Pratchett has announced that he has been diagnosed with a rare form of early Alzheimer’s. From the BBC article:

“All other things being equal, I expect to meet most current and, as far as possible, future commitments but will discuss things with the various organisers,” he said.

“Frankly, I would prefer it if people kept things cheerful, because I think there’s time for at least a few more books yet.”

He told fans the statement should be interpreted as “I am not dead”.

“I will, of course, be dead at some future point, as will everybody else,” he said.

“For me, this may be further off than you think. It’s too soon to tell.

“I know it’s a very human thing to say ‘is there anything I can do’, but in this case I would only entertain offers from very high-end experts in brain chemistry.”

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The Important Role of Subtlety in Outright Fraud

December 7, 2007

A huge quantity of hot air has been expended arguing the details of the most recent Russian elections process. A host of groups, notably including several European elections monitoring groups, have reported widespread irregularities in the elections process and have called for investigations. The Russian elections board, for their own part, has ruled that any irregularities were minor and were neither severe or wide-spread enough to call into question the outcome of the election.

Any number of people could continue to argue this issue until they were quite blue in the face. Sometimes, though, all it really takes is a picture. It’s just a simple graph, showing the relationship between the number of people who voted in the Russian election (the reported percentage of voters who participated in each jurisdiction) with the party their vote favored (the reported percentage of voters who cast their ballot for each party in the jurisdiction).

Although the graph doesn’t reveal any great insights into the mechanics, it does serve as a compelling argument for the validity of claims that there were huge irregularities in the election. This distribution of data does not represent a fair and free election. Even worse, in my mind, is that it seems to show a situation in which the people perpetrating the fraud couldn’t even be bothered to hide it.

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