Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda is George Eliot’s last novel. Middlemarch, also by Eliot, is a strong candidate for my favourite novel, and it’s certainly in the top five. It’s generally agreed to be the best of her works, and I think I agree. Nevertheless, Daniel Deronda was very good.

There are two main stories, both concerned primarily with the aristocracy of nineteenth century England. This is a world in which “poverty” means “might not always be able to afford a servant”, or even “needs to work for a living”. Most nineteenth century novelists seem to have written about this world, even Dickens, although he spent rather more time dipping into the life of the poor than most of his contemporaries. It makes for a slightly strange reading experience from a modern perspective.

One story concerns a beautiful girl who has just reached the age at which she is expected to marry, and her misadventures in that direction. The other concerns an attractive young man, the eponymous Daniel Deronda, and the process by which he finds his purpose in life.

This book is set apart from the other novels of the period I’ve read by the involvement of Jewish characters. They are sympathetic, and Deronda spends some time deeply involved with them. The first thing I noticed was that anti-semitism is much less serious now than it was then; Eliot is on the pro-semitic side, but some of her comments would count as anti-semitic these days, and the opinions of some of the characters, even sympathetic ones, are positively shocking by modern standards. This, in fact, is something I notice a lot in reading nineteenth century literature. Racism, sexism, and anti-semitism are all far, far less serious now than they were a century and half ago. That doesn’t mean that there are no problems, but anyone claiming that there has been no progress is completely lacking in historical perspective.

The other thing is that the Holocaust shadows everything, particularly the Jew Deronda goes to meet in Mainz, talking contentedly of how integrated they are into German society, and how much they enjoy their freedom. I don’t think it would be possible to write that scene now; knowing that the author knew what was coming would freight it with too much meaning.

According to the introduction, the critical consensus is that the storyline about the girl, Gwendolen Harleth, is a success, while the Deronda’s storyline is not. I disagree; I think that they are both successful. However, they are somewhat different types of story. The Deronda storyline is touched with the numinous, while a large part of the point of Gwendolen’s story, I think, is that it is not. For critics for whom any touch of the fantastic, of, indeed, any thing that goes outside the circle of their own experience, is a blemish in a novel to be gently deplored, this may be enough, but I feel that is a rather narrow way to assess literature. There is also the fact that Gwendolen’s story has its share of tragedy, while the tragedies that threaten Deronda’s story are not, in the end, quite as tragic as might be expected. Many critics seem to believe that books that are positive must be shallow, a belief that is quite shallow itself.

I may be slightly biased in that I very much liked the character of Deronda; from comments reported in the introduction, I gather that this is not a universal reaction. I can understand why he would react in the way that he does, because he struck me as very similar to me. That doesn’t mean that anyone else would agree, of course, but it did put me in sympathy with him, and thus dispose me to enjoy his half of the story.

At any rate, I would definitely recommend this book, probably to be read after Middlemarch. I think it is my second favourite of the Eliot novels I’ve read.

Passport

Yesterday I went to the British Embassy to renew my passport. I’m pretty sure that trying to live in Japan without a valid passport would be asking for trouble, and I might need to go abroad on short notice, so I decided to get it done before it expired.

The countersignatory ended up being less trouble than anticipated. First, I’m not sure it was necessary, looking at the instructions online at the passport agency; the form I had said it was necessary, however, so I got one. The more important point, however, was that although the form says it needs to be a British citizen in a position of responsibility, the embassy can choose to accept local signatories, and they did. Given how quickly the response came, I suspect it’s standard policy. Fortunately, one of my English students is a professor at a local university, and I’ve been teaching him for just over two years, so he qualified. Even if it wasn’t necessary for me, it will be necessary when I apply for Mayuki’s British passport, so it’s good to know how to do it.

But applying for a passport from Japan is expensive; 26,180 yen, or over 100GBP. Not that I have much choice; going to the UK to apply there is even more expensive.

Anyway, I have to pick the new passport up in a couple of weeks, and then go to Japanese immigration to get my visas moved across. What with my taxes last week and passports now, there’s a lot of essential paperwork just at the moment. I’ll be glad when it’s all done and I can concentrate on work again.

Changeling: The Lost

Changeling was the 2007 game for White Wolf’s World of Darkness. It was, I gather, a rather larger hit than the publishers expected, which is always nice when it happens. This is a contrast to their last attempt at Changelings. Changeling: The Dreaming could be (slightly unfairly) described as “hippies fight librarians”. Changeling: The Lost is, rather, “abuse survivors try to rebuild some kind of life”. Rather darker, and much more effective as a game.

The player characters are people who were abducted by the fairies, and then managed to escape. Fairies are not nice, so their experiences in Arcadia were dreadful, and transformed them into something no longer entirely human. What’s worse, in most cases their abductors left fetches behind in their places, so that their family and friends do not even realise that they were gone. They normally find themselves near the place from which they were abducted, as it is their desire for home, family, or a particular person that allows them to get out of Arcadia. However, home is no longer their home, so they have to create a new life.

The background is good, and there are a lot of nice mechanical touches. For example, the supernatural powers of the Changelings are based on contracts made with the world, and each contract has a catch, which allows the Changeling to use it at no cost if she performs some appropriate action. This is a good way to get players to have their characters do suitable things, as well as reinforcing the mood. In all, this is a very good game, with flashes of inspiration setting off the solid work around them.

It seems to be best suited to fairly long, open-ended campaigns, unlike Promethean, which would work best in a chronicle with a fixed goal (becoming human). This is why I’ll probably never play it; I don’t have time for multiple long-term campaigns, and I’d rather play Mage, or Ars Magica. However, if I was playing a WoD chronicle, I’d definitely want to work the Changelings in. The ideas are too good to waste.

Busy With Work

Sorry about not keeping the blog up to date; work has been busy. Actually, what’s happened is that I’ve had a bad couple of days for getting writing done, so work has piled up. Today I finally got a decent amount written, but I think I’m going to have to work over the weekend anyway. The fact that I’ve had to do my income tax and now need to get my passport renewed is not helping; I’m losing a day or so every week to that sort of administration. Still, at least that should be over relatively soon.

Mayuki is fine. She’s still healthy and smiley, and generally seems to enjoy her bath. She’s getting better at reaching out and grabbing things, and is showing an intense interest in her books. She even turns the pages herself. She’s sleeping a lot less during the day on average, and isn’t waking up too many times during the night. She practices making strange noises a lot, which is also good. In short, everything seems to be going fine. She doesn’t roll over yet, so that’s a bit later than average, but nothing to be concerned about. Yuriko seems to be fine, too. In fact, I seem to be the one in the worst way, what with work pressures. And since I’m not that bad, I’d say the whole family is doing well.

Mood Swings

OK, so “mood swings” may be a bit over the top, but there have been very noticeable changes in Mayuki’s mood over the last few days. From Wednesday to Friday she was in a bad mood, not sleeping during the day, complaining when left alone, and even complaining when we were there are playing with her. Still smiles in among them, but much more complaining than normal.

From yesterday, however, she’s been smiley and happy, playing by herself and with us, waving the rabbit with a bell in that Yuriko’s parents gave her, and, in the bath last night, laughing and playing after I’d finished washing her.

Naturally, we have no idea at all what might have caused the change; there’s nothing obviously different in her physical appearance, and she isn’t even sleeping much more in the day. We did wonder whether her BCG injection was irritating her; it’s at the red and crusty stage. But it’s still at that stage now, and she’s being happy again. My non-testable hypothesis is that it’s due to her mental development. Over the last few days, she became able to notice and respond to something to which she’d previously been oblivious, and it made her nervous and unsettled. Now, either she’s got used to it, or her brain has developed a bit more, and it’s no longer bothering her.

Either way, she was very good during the video chat with the USA this morning, smiling and making noises, and waving her limbs around; doing all the typical baby things, in fact. One of Yuriko’s friends is visiting this afternoon; I hope she’s going to be equally friendly then.

The Happiness Hypothesis

This book is about happiness. It’s based in psychology, and draws on both ancient philosophies and modern empirical findings to discuss what makes people happy. Most of what the author comes up with are things I already do, which might explain why I’m happy. It’s a very interesting book, with a couple of things that were new to me.

The evidence currently suggests that everyone has a happiness range, and that this varies considerably from person to person. Events and circumstances move you up and down in the range, but how happy a particular event makes you depends on your natural range. There are two ways to make people happier within this. The first is to move them up in their natural range. This is what meditation, cognitive therapy, and changes to lifestyle do. The second is to move the range up. This is what Prozac does.

If this is right, then Prozac isn’t a crutch, it’s a treatment for a disability. My range seems to be fairly high, so I don’t need it, but that makes it very easy for me to say that no-one does. That’s wrong, of course. If you have perfect eyesight you don’t need glasses, but that doesn’t mean that, if I just tried harder, I could function without them. On the other hand, Prozac isn’t the whole solution, either. It might move the range up, but if you’re still functioning at the bottom of the range, that might not make you terribly happy. (Of course, if you had a very low range and functioned near the top of it, Prozac would make you very happy all of a sudden.)

The things you should do to be happy are fairly easy to explain. Relationships with other people are important, as is having something that you really enjoy doing, something that involves a good amount of skill and concentration. Involvement in something larger than yourself is also a major positive factor; religious belief tends to make people happy (and that’s the bit I hadn’t come across before).

Money is a bit more complex. Broadly, money doesn’t make you happy, but lack of money does make you miserable. The level at which increasing income stops making you happier varies from one society to another; as I recall it was about $40,000/year in the USA. On the other hand, if you use money to buy experiences, particularly with friends or family, then that can make you happier. Spending money on a holiday probably will make you happier, assuming that you have fairly good relationships with the people you go with. What’s more, the happiness tends to last, unlike money spent on things.

That raises an obvious question: is a book a thing or an experience? (It’s obvious to me.) Obviously, it is a thing, but the physical object is not what you buy. Rather, you buy the experience of reading it. In these terms, books might be experiences, but only if you read them. Similar considerations presumably apply to DVDs and CDs, and they should apply to RPGs in spades.

These results suggest that contemporary Western society is set up badly wrong. People try to get things, rather than building relationships or skills, and are surprised when it doesn’t make them happy. Japanese society may be slightly better off; Japanese consumerism is rather more focused on experiences, such as holidays and trips to famous hot springs, which are, apparently, better at making you happy. Still, the tendency towards individualism is visible here, and bad from a general perspective.

However, the nice thing about the results is that they suggest that making people happy could be good for society. If most people were involved in several deep, positive relationships with others, involved in a skillful activity and some projects aiming at larger things than personal goals, and were not constantly trying to get new toys, I think you’d have a fairly pleasant place to live. A bit of conscious design would be needed, but you should be able to be completely upfront about that. In short, I think that there may be the makings of a political program here, in addition to the recommendations for personal life. Definitely an interesting and useful read.

Computer Irritations

Yesterday was a national holiday, so a couple of Yuriko’s friends from work came round, to see Mayuki and Mayuki’s Hina dolls. One of them brought her daughter, who is a couple of months older than Mayuki. It gives us some idea of what Mayuki will be like in April. While they were there, I took a bit of video of the two babies together. The other one kept trying to hit Mayuki, clearly not working out that she wasn’t just another toy, so we have video of her mother holding her back.

Except that I can’t watch it.

A recent update to QuickTime broke the plugin that allows me to view the video, so, although I have the files, I can’t actually play them. I have to wait for JVC to produce an updated plugin that I can download and use. Fortunately, if that takes too long, I think I can install another copy of MacOS X on another partition on my hard drive, leave that at the old version of QuickTime, and use it to convert all the files to something that I can play on the main system. However, that would be a hassle, and messing about with partitions on an active system is always prone to causing issues (it’s something you do after backing everything up), so I’m going to wait a bit for JVC to get its act together first.

Rather irritating.

Another Long Gap

Sorry about that, I’ve been busy with work. On the bright side, I’ve now got most of my work up to the point I wanted it to be; I’ve caught up with all the editing that was left over from last year, and dealt with what arrived this year, and got my reading up to the right level. Teaching is also going pretty well; at least, I’ve not let it slide to any extent. Writing has been rather neglected, but with everything else caught up I’m planning to get on with that from next week.

The people who are bothered about me not posting probably want to know how Mayuki is. She’s fine, still a happy, healthy baby. She’s grabbing things around her much more than she was a little while ago, and we’ve had to start being careful where we put her down; she is capable of pulling things over on top of herself, now. If we leave her on her back on the floor, she can scoot herself along, although I don’t know whether that’s deliberate, or just a side effect. She’s also looked to see where we’re pointing on a couple of occasions.

The most interesting reaching out she did was for her own image in the mirror, a couple of days ago. I don’t think she quite realises that it’s her, but that will come in time. Particularly if she keeps trying to play with it.

I’ll try not to neglect the blog quite so much next week, but I suspect I’m still going to be busy. I have to start catching up on writing, after all.

Mayuki Miscellany

A few of the brilliant things that Mayuki has been up to recently, apart from complaining loudly when at least one of us won’t come to play with her. Oh, she’s doing it again; Yuriko must be cooking.

A couple of days ago she was playing with Yuriko, sitting in her lap and looking at the computer, and I was standing behind her. Every time I said something, Mayuki looked up and back, and smiled at me. So no doubts about her ability to hear and locate sounds, which is good. I’m also pretty sure that she imitates the sounds I make when I talk to her. It’s not always completely clear, but getting there.

We’ve also changed the bathing strategy, as of a couple of days ago. Balancing Mayuki on one hand while I washed her back was getting a bit dangerous, so I’ve started getting in the bath with her, and holding her against my chest while I wash her back. She seems to like this; getting her used to the big bath first was clearly a good move. She’s also discovered that she can grab me, so I had Yuriko cut her (Mayuki’s) fingernails today. Hopefully tonight’s bath will be a little less painful for me. Mayuki isn’t quite up to playing in the bath yet (well, beyond trying pull chunks of flesh from my chest with her bare hands), but I don’t think it will be long before she is.

Oh yes, a couple of days ago one of Yuriko’s friends came round to visit, and told us that Mayuki is very cute. We know this, of course, but it’s always nice to have it confirmed by entirely neutral and unbiased third parties, who can tell us the unvarnished truth without any fear of repercussions. Having our friends say it is good, too.

Mayuki likes songs with actions, and stares at our hands as we do the actions. Sometimes she makes motions that might be the beginning of an imitation, but only the beginning. She seems to be becoming more aware of her own hands at the moment. She’s not tried singing along yet; maybe that will come soon.

Very miscellaneous, I fear.