Month: May 2013

Location, Location, Location

I’ve been making a concerted effort to recenter my online life around a user name that makes more sense for me. For me, this user name is “emilyst”. It’s a pretty straightforward adaptation from my name. That’s usually how I sign things, in fact, just the first two letters of my last name there.

By this point, I’m using it on GitHub, Twitter, and on IRC, among other places.

I managed to register and have pointed it at the same server as my old domain I’ve moved my blog to the new URL under (now The old location will still mirror the blog with updates until I decide to let the domain expire, and then it won’t lead anywhere. Consider this your warning, if you’re trying to follow me at all.

Finally, I’ve decided not to bother with SSL for the time being. This means that the HTTPS version of my site no longer works for the new domain (the old domain will continue to work until next year with HTTPS).

Can I also just say how awesome it feels to have a vanity domain that feels like it makes sense and which I won’t get tired of after a few months? I feel pretty sure that I won’t waffle about this user name because it’s not actually some weird word or pun or inside joke on my part.

Tolkien’s Racist Geography: Reading with a Conscience

I’ve been rereading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings lately. I’m going to set aside all my other thoughts and feelings about the series and about Tolkien as a writer to talk about something that’s been bugging me.

First it started as this little tickle in the back of my mind, whenever Tolkien mentioned the West or the East. Cardinal directions play a huge role in Tolkien’s legendarium, along with geography in general. If you’ll indulge my elision of many of the subtleties in Tolkien’s plot, it suffices to say that the further West one goes, the more one ventures into peoples Tolkien characterizes as familiar, idyllic, and—even further west—a kind of heaven or paradisaical hinterland. On the other hand, every mention of the East is accompanied with shades of evil or mystery.

I had trouble getting into this world view because I grew up in the southeastern United States, and I subconsciously imprinted Tolkien’s geography on top of the US, the place I grew up in and learned about in school. I especially wanted to think of westness as a kind of frontier land, projecting my feelings from popular culture in the US. Adventure in the US is more often than not a journey from east to west.

That doesn’t accord with Middle-earth at all, and once it bugged me enough to provoke conscious examination on my part, it struck me as likely that Tolkien was projecting a Eurocentric tradition onto his own geography. The Shire, far flung up in the northwest of Middle-earth, embodies the English countryside—in terms of names, customs, and in a rough geographical reckoning.

It’s not hard to imagine then projecting the inhospitable desert lands in the south of Gondor and in Mordor onto regions with a similar geographic relationship to Europe—namely, the Arab regions of the Middle East and Africa. Beyond Tolkien’s eastern horizons lay cultures he didn’t understand, unfathomable distances, and alien climates. The same holds true for the inhabitants of Middle earth. For example, in The Two Towers, Gollum describes what’s south of Mordor:

And further still there are more lands, they say, but the Yellow Face [the sun] is very hot there, and there are seldom any clouds, and the men are fierce and have dark faces. We do not want to see that land.

A Eurocentric description of Saharan Africa is not a difficult stretch from that description, especially considering Gollum is speaking to the hobbits while they are situated directly outside of Mordor.

There are, of course, other similar references that have been noticed by other critics. Tolkien’s descriptions of Easterlings and more notably still the Haradrim (who are likely referenced by Gollum above) have obvious racial tinges that reflect a Eurocentric world. Later on in The Two Towers, Faramir encounters a group of Haradrim, and the leader is described a brown-skinned man leading soldiers with scimitars.

Placing these regions, I personally drew some conclusions about Tolkien’s European compass, as he projected it onto his legendarium. I guess this leads me to ask a few questions about the series and myself. First, I could ask myself, was Tolkien himself racist?

Well, probably so. It’s easy to search the web for critiques of racism in the series, while on the other hand, it’s equally easy to find a lot of sources (drawing from letters or other places in his writing) which apologize for Tolkien or even lionize him rather uncritically. It’s clear that most consider his views on race rather progressive. On the other hand, I read his series and find his geography undeniably influenced by a European perspective, and I personally find that aspect of his creative works problematic.

This leads, though, to a second question, one that’s probably a lot more relevant. Does this Eurocentrism detract from my enjoyment of his works? Well, when Tolkien writes something that draw my attention to the problem, I find it at least distracting on a superficial level. I can regard this work as being in a high fantasy context, but even high fantasy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I can’t ignore the problem or apologize for it.

On the contrary, I think I’d derive a lot less enjoyment and edification from The Lord of the Rings—or, really, any work of art—if I didn’t hold it in a critical light and explore its flaws. Finding racism in Tolkien’s writing doesn’t negate its artful qualities, ones worth experiencing. Rather than weighing the qualities of this work of art (or, again, any other) towards a single value judgment, in my mind, it’s likely more useful to bring a holistic examination of Tolkien’s writing to the conversation.

So I don’t bring this up to shed light on anything particularly novel about Tolkien. I’m not the first to point out racism in The Lord of the Rings. Instead, I bring it up to participate in that conversation—a conversation which serves a necessary role as a conscience and without which the community of art and literature doesn’t really work.

Change Your Cursor Shape on the Fly in Zsh’s “vi-mode”

I decided to switch to using something called “vi-mode” when using Zsh. If you’re into using the command line a lot, and you’re using Zsh, then you might find this interesting.

If you’re using “vi-mode” — and this entry isn’t really about using “vi-mode”, so I suggest you look elsewhere on what that is and how to use it — then you might desire to know offhand what mode you’re in when you look at your shell prompt. This is probably a natural desire, and it’s what occurred to me when I made the switch. I took a look at the vi-mode plugin that comes with oh-my-zsh. It has some nifty thing that can be inserted into the prompt.

I wanted something subtle, so I made it change the color of my lightning bolt. I wasn’t satisfied, though, because I remembered a Vim tip that let me change the cursor shape on the fly in exactly the same circumstances when using Vim proper. It uses a trick that works in iTerm2 (and evidently Konsole over on Linux), using a proprietary escape sequence.

I searched a little bit more, but I only ever saw information about this escape sequence in the context of Vim, so I’m evidently the first ever to want to use this escape sequence outside of Vim. I think it’s actually pretty useful, so I thought I’d jot down how I did it.

First, here’s what it looks like…


Now, as for how I did it. This is the relevant excerpt from my ~/.zshrc, omitting all the other things I have in there that accomplish the color change and other features I like.

function zle-keymap-select zle-line-init zle-line-finish {
  case $KEYMAP in
    vicmd)      print -n -- "\E]50;CursorShape=0\C-G";; # block cursor
    viins|main) print -n -- "\E]50;CursorShape=1\C-G";; # line cursor

  zle reset-prompt
  zle -R

zle -N zle-line-init
zle -N zle-line-finish
zle -N zle-keymap-select

That’s about it. Again, this only really works if you’re using iTerm 2 on a Mac.


I noticed one pernicious drawback of the methodology I outlined above. Whenever executing a command, it would use the line-style cursor just as a matter of course, since that’s what the shell had set earlier, and there was nothing to reset it when a command were issued.

For this reason, I split out the above Zsh widget functions so that the block cursor is always restored when the shell finishes reading a line of input. That is to say, I choose the line-style cursor when initializing a prompt to accept a new line of input (or when $KEYMAP changes), but as soon as I finish reading in input and move on to execute a command, I restore the block-style cursor. Here’s what that looks like:

function zle-keymap-select zle-line-init
    # change cursor shape in iTerm2
    case $KEYMAP in
        vicmd)      print -n -- "\E]50;CursorShape=0\C-G";;  # block cursor
        viins|main) print -n -- "\E]50;CursorShape=1\C-G";;  # line cursor

    zle reset-prompt
    zle -R

function zle-line-finish
    print -n -- "\E]50;CursorShape=0\C-G"  # block cursor

zle -N zle-line-init
zle -N zle-line-finish
zle -N zle-keymap-select

You can always find the most recent version of my settings in my .zshrc configuration script.

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