Thursday, August 21, 2008

I'm looking at Anne Coulter's newest. In the cover flap it says something about this being her most devastatingly witty book. I noticed that it seems to be about 95% quotes.

I flipped through, looking for something to really piss me off. Unfortunately, the zolft is interfering with me getting a really good mad on. What I did notice was a lot of dorm room rhetoric, careful framing of issues, and straw men.

As a ferintance, she bitches about Hollywood memorializing the trivial effects of McCarthyism and racism, as if there were no serious repercussions, while bemoaning a single Polish Priest who was shot by communists. Which, you know, everyone is entitled to their opinion. And let's not trivialize the horrors of Soviet Communism.

I could note that by making that comparison she seems to weigh every lynching in the US against one Polish Priest and find the Polish Priest more tragic. But that would be kind of a straw man argument in itself.

But I will comment on her reflexive habit of guilt by association: as if the starlets and writers and counter culture types who dabbled with communism in the fifties also shot dissenter's in Stalin's USSR. As if disgust with McCarthy's fear mongering somehow caused the death of that Pole. It's a kind of argumentative photoshopping, sticking the black and white heads of disgraced B-List actors onto the bodies of 80's KGB.

In addition, she complains bitterly that she is not allowed to generalize about liberals, while bemoaning the generalizations liberals make about Conservatives. Does anybody yell more about being marginalized that a republican pundit?

Those of us who live in the real world have to make some concessions to live side by side with people we disagree with. We have to recognize our co-workers and neighbors who have differing opinions. Those who live in Ivory Towers manufactured by their own bloated opinions have to find some grist to feed the mill. Or at least re-hash their old grist.

I don't hate conservatives. I hate the hack pundits that fuel conservative paranoia to line their own pockets.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Transparent Society - a review

The Transparent Society, by David Brin

It used to be that I only had to worry about Santa Claus watching me.

When I was in London a couple of years ago, however, I noticed cameras everywhere. We're not just talking in the 7 Eleven... there were cameras on the street corners! This trend apparently began in a British Burg named King's Lynn, where sixty remote controlled cameras were installed to scan known trouble spots. In or near zones covered by surveillance in King's Lynn, crime dropped to 1/70th of the former rate. The success of this experiment has been greeted with much enthusiasm. There are plans for similar systems in NYC.

People are often less happy that cameras are being installed in their own workplaces. Or that their phone calls, coffee breaks, and bathroom trips are being timed. And their keystrokes measured to determine their efficiency. Or that their email is being read.

The proliferation of computers, cameras, and other surveillance devices ensures that you will be watched more and more closely as time goes by. They become more affordable, more portable, and less detectable each year. Sony already sells a digital color camcorder the size of a passport... and researchers have suggested air born cameras the size of gnats.

Sound scary yet? Is this the dawning of the age of Big Brother?

Although the cameras are sure to come (think of anyone trying to stop the spread of television), author David Brin suggests that the way to escape from drowning in cameras is to let them watch... and to watch back. To watch the watchmen.

Some hackers suggest legally enforced anonymity and unbreakable encryption as a way to save ourselves from ubiquitous electronic eyes. If we can block the electronic view of our government, then we should be safe from intrusion. But what about big business, such as the employers mentioned earlier? Ultimately, given the immense resources and often atrophied ethics of our own aristocracy, the average person's private lives will be open books to the mighty.

However, if we can watch back, those who can be caught may not be so eager to spy. Brin quotes a fellow writer as saying: "An armed society is a polite society." Only this time, we are arming ourselves with cameras and laws that make the rich and powerful as visible as we are.

He envisions citizen truth squads, tribes of interested amateurs who correct mistakes and foil mischief even as it occurs, on the internet, in public life, or even in your home.

Imagine a scene a few years into the future, say 2 AM on Saturday, as a cop pulls over a young man for a traffic violation. The cop worries about a potentially violent encounter. The youth has just been to a party.

The patrolman approaches the vehicle. A lens on his badge sends images straight to HQ.

"Would you please get out of the car, sir?"

Standing, the teen reveals the light of his lapel camera, winking away, transmitting the encounter home to his own inexpensive home computer/VCR.

Will either of them be likely to jump the gun?

Transparency is bigger than our future, though. Brin extrapolates the Transparent Society to global proportions. What will happen when personal computers become so cheap that citizens of the poorest Third World nations will have readier access to data than food or clean water?

The Transparent Society helps us see that future a little more clearly, so that we can plan for it.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

Monday, August 04, 2008

A Prayer for the Dying - a review

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan

"No blood on his filthy undershirt, no bullet holes, no bowie knife slipped between his ribs. His cuticles are purple, like he's dipped them in wine, and you wonder how long it's been. You'll have to talk to Doc, see what he says."

"You" are Jacob the constable, Jacob the preacher, Crazy Jacob the undertaker. The narrator of A Prayer For the Dying, by Stewart O'Nan. Jacob wears a lot of hats in friendship, but he doesn't mind. He loves friendship, loves the people, and sees each of his jobs as a way to take care of "his" town.

"It defines you, this willingness to hear all sides, love everyone. You've stopped believing in evil. Is that a sin? You know what your mother would say, but justice needs to be fair handed, the dead deserve your compassion. It's your job to understand, to forgive, not simply your custom."

Friendship, however, is about to be taken away from Jacob. Diphtheria has come to Friendship in the form of a nameless tramp. Austin Phillips, Millie and Elso Sullivan, Jim Brist, Hilma Tockstad, are all dead within the span of two days. Besides Diphtheria, a fire on the plains is eating up Wisconsin in big gulps. Devouring whole towns.

"Just outside of town, a swallow drops from the sky, plummets into the sere cornfield beside you. You turn in time to see a whole flock falling, bending the dead stalks, thumping into the dust like hail, a rain of stones. They come down around you, their soft bodies pelting your back. They cover the road, dead yet perfect. When you bend to touch one, its feathers are hot, it's eye boiled white."

A Prayer for the Dying
leaves you on the railroad tracks of causality, with the freight train of God's Will bearing down on you. Like the certainty of an anvil hammering Wiley Coyote into the desert floor in a Road Runner cartoon. Like poor Job, struck with boils, ruined financially, his family slain. All to prove the point of a bet. In both the Book of Job and the Warner Brothers cartoons, however, the protagonists get up after their punishment and dust themselves off.

There's no magic in Jacob's world. No wishes granted, no mistakes unmade. Jacob lives in a real world, lovingly rendered. There are more than four colors, but fewer than infinite choices. His world is circumscribed by mortality and fire and disease and weakness.

"Clytie reminds you of those horses you owe your life to, the ones your regiment ate raw from the inside out those long weeks, sleeping between their empty ribs while the Reb shells whined all night. Clytie makes you think of the nameless friends you had to load into wagons like sides of meat, of how small you are, how weak."

Is Jacob's faith made greater by this juxtaposition with harsh reality, or more barren for it's lack of fruit? Jacob can't afford Job's passive acceptance of God's will. Jacob has to make choices. Whether to quarantine the town, whether to send his wife and child away. Who to save when the sky is raining ash and par broiled birds. What to do when the town next over blocks him from doing so, standing in the road with guns and masks while the fire rages around them.

"You can't bargain with God, buy him with pieties. This is what you've found out-that even with the best intentions, even with all of your thoughtful sermons and deep feelings and good works, you can't save anyone, least of all yourself."

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.