Harvard Classics, Volume 17: Fables

Volume Seventeen of the Harvard Classics covered the biggest names in Western storytelling. Beginning with Aesop and continuing through The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. Pretty much every fairy tale you’ve heard of comes from one of these three sources. After reading these, its pretty easy to see why these are such important parts of the Western Canon, and why they are good for people of all ages to engage with.

Aesop’s Fables is a collection of short parables which were added to over the course of two millennia from a variety of sources. In Crito, Socrates makes reference to Aesop and his animal-based parables, but some of the parables are of biblical origin, like “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”, and some come from Indian stories as well. Together, these form a collection of stories that not only communicate the moral conclusions of western people over the course of its development and history, but have been etched into the minds of European & American children to this day. “The Tortoise and the Hare” is easily the most famous, but “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse”, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, and plenty of others are instantly familiar parables that have been recycled, repackaged and reused in a variety of formats over the years. Aesop’s Fables represent the collective decision making of dozens of generations on what it means to be a moral and productive individual and is worth the read.

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SJW’s Always Double Down Review

While his enemies would tell you he’s a dilettante Caracalla, who Gibbon dubbed “the common enemy of mankind”, and his proponents would present him as a right-wing polymath, Vox Day is at his best when he sets himself to long form writing, and this week marked the release of his latest book on contemporary politics,  SJW’s Always Double Down.

In the follow-up to the widely praised, SJW’s Always Lie, Vox Day is faced with the same challenges sequels face: how to stay relevant to the original audience without recycling material and treading over the same ground. There’s no need to worry about this problem with this sequel, the subject, social justice warriors, remains constant, but the focus has changed from the personal to the organizational level.

The first book focused on the commonly seen attacks on people coming from howling leftists where someone is suddenly forced to apologize and resign from their position for saying or doing something fairly innocuous. This new book focuses on how organizations become the types of places where these types of attacks become acceptable, tolerated and normal. From a broad perspective, this book is trying to answer the question: “How do institutions become taken over by the left, turned away from their supposed function, and made to spend ever more time and effort enforcing the latest Papal bull from the local Victim’s Studies department?”

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The Impossibility of Unbiased Media

No matter what happens, no matter changes in society, and no matter how people try, no unbiased media outlet will ever exist, and we shouldn’t try to pretend otherwise.

The problem with the concept of an unbiased media is a simple: there’s too much information in the world so it has to be filtered. Every person is going to have a distinct set of filters, so the filter applied by an ideal journalist will differ from the filter of any member of their audience.

The ideal journalist must look at a story and determine what facts to investigate to understand it. The ideal journalist must decide which lines of inquiry are potentially relevant and how much effort it will take obtain them. The ideal journalist must also consider the time and monetary restraints they face as a part of their job.

Once the ideal journalist has assembled the potentially relevant facts, the ideal journalist must then determine which of the facts are relevant facts before synthesizing them into a report.

There are two distinct layers at which the ideal journalist must act as a filter: determining which facts to procure and determining which facts to pass on to their audience.

The fact of the matter is that those filters, which are absolutely required for the ideal journalist to do their job, are necessarily biased. Prioritizing valuable information over non-valuable information is an inherently biased action. The way in which the ideal journalist assigns value to information is their bias.

The other important thing to recognize here, is that there is no one-true way of prioritizing information. Even though it should go without saying I feel the need to add that not all information prioritization schemes are equally good either. A good information prioritization is, ideally, aimed at the truth. Scott Adams would point out that a human’s information prioritization filter is geared towards self-preservation. With all our human foillables of not being able to create ideal information prioritization filters and having filters which aren’t necessarily tuned in the direction of the truth, we cannot assume that any particular information filter possessed by a person is the correct one.

With all that said, an ideal journalist, who endeavors to seek and report the truth of the matter without favor towards any of the parties involved, simply cannot accomplish their goal. The ideal journalist is beset with imperfect means of valuing information in both the gathering and reporting phases.

Another, similar problem which prevents unbiased journalism is the process of story selection. Much like the ideal jorinalist, the ideal editor must consider all possible stories and decide which are worth the effort to investigate and publish. The ideal editor is faced with an even more subjective task than the ideal journalist: determining which stories deserve his team’s limited attention and prioritizing them within the publication. Which stories deserve attention is simply not something that can be accomplished without imposing bias. The ideal editor might bias themselves towards the majority, or their readership, but that is a bias nevertheless.

One might suggest the solution to the problem of journalists with imperfect information filters is to get a pool of journalists with lots of different information filters and hope they balance each other out over time. That’s been done, but it doesn’t eliminate bias from stories, nor does it negate the influence of editors. It does not go near the weight applied by the people hiring the journalists and editors in the first place, who have their own set of impossible problems to deal with.

An unbiased media or media organzation is simply impossible. Many people would like to think otherwise because a truly unbiased institution would be indisputable because it, tautologically, only delivered truth. That’s why this fiction of an unbiased media needs to be buried, even if the media were full of people relentlessly seeking the journalistic ideal, it would still suffer from bias.

Harvard Classics, Volume 16: Stories from One-Thousand and One Nights

One of the nice things about a long, relaxing vacation is the chance to read books quickly. This helps the intricacies of the story stay organized in my mind and makes it easier to see the major themes of the work in question.

Arabian Nights or The One-Thousand and One Nights is the most important work of literature to come out of the Islamic world. Drawing on Arab and Persian sources, this collection of stories is an important source for understanding the culture and world of the Islamic Golden Age.

This particular collection included in the Harvard Classics is both abridged and taken from an early English translation. Each volume of the Harvard Classics is limited to 450 pages, so oftentimes, longer works are abridged, as I always try to mention.

In the case of the One Thousand and One Nights, we are treated to the introduction to the overarching narrative along with 6 distinct stories plus Aladdin and Ali Baba as later additions. The stories escalate in their strangeness and wonder as the nights progress.

For those who are unaware, the overarching plotline is the story of a King, who, along with his brother, discover their households are full of sin and their wives and harems are totally unfaithful the moment the Kings leave their respective castles. As a result, one of the brothers decides to start marrying brides and killing them in the morning, so that they can never commit adultery against him. Needless to say, the pool of available brides in the Kingdom quickly disappears until finally the only eligible maids left in the kingdom are the daughters of the Grand Vizir. The elder daughter marries the King and proceeds to tell him stories at night, and each of the successive thousand nights, in order to keep herself alive.

The bulk of the text is twisting interlaced narrative as we receive stories within stories within stories to ensure that the King finishes stories infrequently. We’re treated to instances where a barber tells the stories of all six of his brothers and the increasingly odd ways they became dependent on him. As time goes on, the stories become more adventurous, wonderous and heroic.

An example of these later stories are the seven voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, in which an elderly Sindbad recounts his seven voyages, which each time lead to successively worse disasters. Sinbad luckily recovers from these and is able to retire as a rich man in luxury. Sinbad journeys out the Persian Gulf and down the coasts of India and Africa encountering strange kingdoms, strange animals and strange people.

These later stories, which are much less convoluted but much more interesting become highly entertaining and start to become reminiscent of sword and sorcery stories, “The City of Brass” in particular reminding me of the Conan adventures, where Emir Musa is sent on a mission by Caliph Abd Al-Malik to find the genies imprisoned by King Solomon.

The best story in the collection, although not a part of the original nights, is “Aladdin and his Magical Lamp”. The story covers Aladdin’s ascent from a lazy ne’er-do-well into a heroic figure. The story is pretty close to the Disney movie, but ultimately different enough to still be something new to a contemporary reader.

The next volume continues the trend of fables and stories with three collections of European tales: Aesop’s Fables, The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. I am looking forward to these stories with particular interest. Looking farther forward, English theater and Goethe comprise the volumes following folklore.

Harvard Classics, Volume 15: Pilgrim’s Progress, Lives of Donne & Herbert

This volume of the Harvard Classics was dedicated to 17th century English religious writing. This is a period of great importance for British religious life, as a major axis in the conflicts that broke out in the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution were the religious friction between the Puritans, Anglicans, Catholics and Presbyterians.

Starting with the second author in this volume, Izaak Walton wrote short biographies of spiritual leaders and poets John Donne and George Herbert. These two men crossed paths in their own lives and were influential on the development of the Anglican Church coming in the century following the beginning of the English Reformation. Their life stories as presented by Walton are somewhat like Plutarch’s Lives in terms of length and pace. The main difference is the actual events of their lives were somewhat less exciting than the grand brushstrokes of history. Their lives are interesting as a window into the times, but overall I found myself wondering why they were included in the Harvard Classics. My main thought is they were progenitors of the theological movement that was still playing out in New England seminaries, like Harvard, at the time the Classics were assembled.

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