Saturday, September 26, 2009

Not A Coup After All

(via Jonathan Adler) A small follow-up to my previous Honduras post: The Law Library of Congress has issued a report on the recent events in Honduras. Their take is that it was all done by the book; not so coup-ish after all.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Vellum: Genius or Sheer Indolence?

I recently finished reading Vellum by Hal Duncan. Let me preface the remarks that follow by saying that, in total, it's an excellent book and definitely worth a read.

That said, I remain undecided as to what, exactly, to make of it. To say that it has a "non-linear plot" really doesn't do the phrase justice. The book jumps around in time and space frequently, sometimes multiple times in a single paragraph; to say that it has a single plotline isn't really accurate. Rather, it's composed of multiple, interrelated, storylines which (mostly) all point in the same general direction. Duncan has also done violence to the typical conception of what constitutes a "character"; his characters are really closer to something like a Jungian archetype which he reveals via the appearance of multiple incarnations thereof throughout the course of the novel. Some of these incarnations are more or less fully fleshed-out and some get only limited treatment, and on more than one occasion Duncan is deliberatley vague about which version of a character is actually being referred to in the text.

Here's the source of my indecision: part of me wants to say "My god, the guy's a frickin' genius!" and part of me wants to accuse him of being plain lazy. The careful interweaving of the various timelines and personages, the clever wordplay and generally powerful writing, the sheer, raw imagination necessary for some of his settings... all of it points to someone with immense talent. At the same time, however, the book feels like its composed of plotlets, none of which are necessarily strong enough to stand on their own. Freed of the tedium of traditional narrative Duncan is at liberty to paste these together as he sees fit without needing to be unduly worried about the overall coherence of the work. It's enough to suggest an overarching theme/direction and ask the reader to fill in the details. As my old AP English teacher might say, it's a work "rich in ambiguity".

As I said in the beginning Vellum is assuredly a worthwhile read, but I can't help wondering if Mr. Duncan isn't pulling a Pynchon on us to some degree.

That said, I'd like to pick a couple of nits as well. One of Duncan's archetypes/characters, Puck, is gay, and throughout the course of the book we watch Puck's incarnations pick up on a "straight jock" (also a recurring archetype) in a bar with varying outcomes each time. At one point Puck gets beaten, tied to a fence, and left for dead, at which point I thought "Oh, Matthew Shepard... I guess that's clever". Immediately after there's a digression which mentions Matthew Shepard by name which I found to be particularly jarring; it's not like the preceeding scene was particuarly subtle or needed further explanation. Matthew Shepard is the only non-fictional person mentioned in the entire book, so the passage is very obviously a public service announcement on Mr. Duncan's part.

The other item I'd like to touch on is the "Reynard" character. We first meet him as a young man (or young "Angelo-Satyr"... that's one of the areas of ambiguity) at the very beginning of the novel. Some things happen and he ends up getting sucked into a vast world devoid of people with a map of sorts leading him on a (very) long journey. We end up revisiting Reynard throughout the course of the novel and, at one point, the character intimates that he's been traveling this nearly infinite landscape for ten thousand years. But the tone of his narration changes not one iota over the entire course of the book. I'd expect that the 10,000-year-old Reynard would sound and feel qualitatively different from the Reynard we meet at the beginning of the book.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Can We Turn Down The Demonization Just A Little? Thanks.

I'd like to address something which Amanda posted yesterday about health care. Specifically

... good people don’t fight against expanding affordable health care coverage...
That's just wrong, both theoretically and as a matter of practical observation.

So let's tackle the theoretical angle first. I assume that Amanda isn't stating an axiom i.e. proposing that you're a good person if-and-only-if you support expanding affordable health care coverage. Rather, it appears that she's implying that good people will, as a byproduct of their goodness, naturally support expanded coverage. However, there are a number of plausible scenarios which might give a "good person" (however one would choose to define that phrase) pause. What if expanding affordable health care:

  • Turns out to be unsustainably expensive.
  • Involves undue intrusion of the government into peoples' private lives.
  • Is an improper expansion of the role of government.
And so on. All of these (and others) represent legitimate (hypothetical) concerns, any of which might lead a person to be against expanding healthcare. To judge someone holding one of these beliefs to be "not a good person" solely on that basis strikes me as unsupportable.

Now, on a practical note, what do we say about the 46% of the public who oppose the public option? Are they all "bad people"? Are they good people but sadly misinformed? Etc.

So, in the very least, it seems overly simplistic to assert that good people support expanded healthcare coverage.

Empty Deity

I was going to write something on the Dawkins/Armstrong throwdown in the WSJ this morning, but PZ beat me to it and was a lot more eloquent about it to boot.

I'm a little disappointed by Armstrong's article. I've read a couple of her books on the history of religion (A History of God and Holy War) and have generally found them to be balanced and insightful. It seems that when Ms. Armstrong ventures into the realm of apologetics she puts her usually sharp, analytic mind in a box and wanders off into spiritual la-la land. Her conception of god is so refined and so ineffable that the only way to get at em at all is via some sort of spiritual intuition. How does she even know that these "spiritual exercises" are actually putting her into contact with anything at all?1

Is this what apologetics has come to? We saw the same thing from Robert Wright in the NYT a couple of weeks ago. It seems that if those who've decided to reject a literal interpretation of scripture are charging headlong towards the logical conclusion thereof. Who's going to left for us to argue with once they're gone?

1 Or, for those of you with a literary bent: "You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato...”

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Beck Too Crazy For The Wall Street Journal?

There was a nice column by Thomas Frank in this morning's Wall Street Journal about some of the recent trends in discourse on the right. He's saying the same things that people on the left have been saying for several months now, but it's refreshing to see a sanity check in the WSJ. Now, admittedly, Mr. Frank isn't on the back page; they're still reserving that space for the likes of Sarah Palin1. But it's a start.

However, what caught my attention is that Frank took the time to specifically call out Glenn Beck's recent rant about the subliminal socialist messages in New York architecture. Beck's taken a turn for the worse in recent weeks; it looks like some of the less crazy people on the right are trying to distance themselves from him. Of course, that raises the question of who's left? With advertisers pulling their support and institutions such as the WSJ turning out to be fair weather friends you have to wonder how long Beck can keep up with his schtick before Fox finally decides to pull the plug. Anyhow, it'll be interesting to watch and see what happens.

1 And what, exactly, is up with that? I mean, they still let Karl Rove write columns even though he's been thouroughly discredited, but as my wife pointed out at least Rove is smart. Sarah, on the other hand... who cares what she thinks anymore?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Paternalism Run Amok: Djarum Edition

Please allow me to vent my spleen over the recent ban on clove cigarettes. The FDA has decided to ban them not because they're any more dangerous or unhealthy that typical cigarettes; nothing so rational as that. Rather, the Mrs. Lovejoys at the FDA have decided, evidence to the contrary, that clove cigarettes are targeted at children.

I mean... I don't even know where to start. Cloves are out but menthols are ok? How utterly arbitrary can you get?

You know, this is the kind of shit that snowballs. Most people don't care about smokers, just like most people don't care about partisans of trans fats or foie gras. But it sets a precedent... people get acclimatized to the idea that it's ok for the government to regulate personal behavior on the flimsiest of pretexts. It's for our protection, dontchyaknow? How would you feel if your little Bobby started smoking?

They come after your smokes and your donuts and it sets a precedent. It promotes the idea that protecting us from ourselves is a proper function of government. And so the regulations pile on and you ultimately end up with an infantilized populace which expects that Uncle Sam will keep bad things from ever happening to them.

No good will come of that.

Monday, September 07, 2009

To The Blogger Ethics Panel!!!

Here's a situation that's worthy of The Ethicist (or at least Social Q's):

  • Awhile ago some anonymous person left a spammish comment on my martial arts blog advertising a particular online MA supply store.
  • In response I wrote a post accusing them and/or their web design firm of being the scoundrels responsible for the desecration.
  • Later, I received a comment from the web design company I originally implicated indicating that they weren't responsible but that it was another web design company also employed by the store.
  • I updated the original post with a correction and wrote another post going after the newly-fingered culprit.
  • After that I received yet more comments:
    • One from the owner of the second web design firm denying any involvement at all.
    • Another, ~25 minutes later and presumably from the same person, indicating that there may have been some involvement via a third-party contractor.
    • Lastly, I received one from someone managerial at the third-party contractor claiming responsibility.

Everyone following so far? Good. Also, everyone who's chimed in wants all the associated pages to disappear. So, what's my duty in this situation?

So this is an interesting conundrum regarding Blogger specifically and the Intertubes as a whole. If I wanted to I could erase all of the related posts and, presuming the Wayback Machine or similar effort hasn't picked them up, effectively remove the conversation from the annals of Internet history. I think that does a disservice to society as a whole: it increases the malleability of history and absolves everyone involved (both myself and others) of any moral burden imposed by the episode. So the answer, for those who have requested that I make everything go down the memory hole, is "No".

However, and at the same time, I don't way to be spreading untruthful information about people. Is it sufficient for me to just issue corrections, or should I alter the existing text as well? And, if I do decide to alter the original text, how should I go about noting that it's been altered?

It strikes me that, first and foremost, I should look for anything that I might have said that's turned out to be blatantly untrue or has otherwise implicated people that haven't actually done anything. Apart from myself there are four players in this particular drama:

  • Myself
  • The Shop Owners
  • Web Design Firm 1
  • Web Design Firm 2
  • Third-Party Contractor
"Web Design Firm 1" turns out to have nothing to do with anything; I pulled them in because they'd done work on the shop in question and their website indicated that they did SEO work. I can remove all specific, identifying traces of them and note that the name was redacted without disturbing the overarching narrative. This I have done.

What about the shop owners? In my original post I played what was essentially a nasty SEO trick on them. I don't see that as contributing to the overall discussion in this situation and, given what I understand about the sequence of events now and their level of actual involvement, they probably don't merit the SEO knock. This material has been similarly redacted. But, as for making the thread disappear entirely, that seems to me to be out of the question. They hired someone who hired someone who had a worker who spammed my blog; the truth of that isn't being contested by anyone.

Now what about the final two? Regarding Web Design Firm 2: I one post I merely asserted that this firm was responsible for the drive-by spamming. In light of what's come out that seems to be an entirely realistic characterization. They hired a "3rd party link building company" (their words) to assist in their SEO. As far as my latter statement that the design firm engages in "questionable business practices", I feel that's an accurate characterization fully substantiated by the marketing materials provided by the third-party contractor. They're guaranteeing incoming links, something which is highly difficult to do without resorting to comment spamming, link exchanges, or other dubious sources. Anyone who claims to specialize in SEO is most certainly aware of this. Does that merit the ancillary commentary about the design firm and its clients? Absolutely; the shop owners in the original post weren't aware that this was going on, so presumably the design firm's other clients might benefit by having it brought to their attention as well. The gratuitous bits at the end I've redacted, again on the grounds that they're not really contributing to the discussion.

As for the third-party contractor, they basically outed themselves; I don't have any material to change.

One other thing I wanted to do before I sign off is to respond to something that was said in one of the comments:

If you had been mature enough to to highlight this in the beginning before leaving a ridiculous post like that on your blog then maybe we could of sorted it out.
When someone leaves an anonymous post on a public forum the only real place to respond is that same public forum. As far as immaturity goes... sure, guilty as charged, though I did note up front that I was being petty and vindictive.

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