Tag Archives: essay

Review: Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species DivideBeing a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide by Charles Foster
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I started off greatly intrigued by the premise, but my expectations for what the book was going to be ended up not panning out. From the author’s forward, what I imagined I would be reading was a series of narrative nonfiction essays told from the perspective of the various beasts. Each beast would be a different character and various things would happen to them; all approximated, of course, because of the whole subjective nature of individual minds, especially human minds trying to approximate nonhuman minds. However, none of those expectations panned out.

Ultimately, we have musings that wander back and forth through various topics while making commentary on eating earthworms, tasting slugs (seriously, don’t ever do that), and rolling around in the woods for a while. While it started out interesting enough, the essay on otters started to lose me, as the author begins to create an emotional understanding of different animals that feels painfully antiquarian. And then, of course, there’s his opinion on cats (he hates them) and that was where I found myself in the weeds with regards to “Being a Beast.” I finished it out of a sense of obligation, having come so far (also I never allow myself to review books that I have not read in their entirety.)

Final verdict: a weird book that starts off with an interesting premise, but meanders and chases its own tail. There are a few interesting anecdotes along the way (such as the discussion with a police officer about how the author is “trying to be a fox”), but they are few and far between. It becomes increasingly difficult to determine when the author is being sincere and when he is being hyperbolic. I came away from the book feeling mostly disappointed by my misunderstanding of the premise. Which might say more about me than the book (it does), but that’s what you get when you read reviews from nonprofessional dilettantes such as myself.

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Review: And Yet . . .

And Yet ...And Yet … by Christopher Hitchens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t always agree with Hitchens’ views. In fact, I don’t think I even often agree with them. Despite a brief flirtation with the New Atheists a few years ago, I’m unwilling to consider myself more than a spiritual agnostic. I disagree with his embrace of war and military intervenionism. And yet. And yet.

Hitchens was one of the best goddamned writers of . . . possibly ever. Even when I completely disagree with his thesis, he’s delightfully readable. And I don’t disagree on everything. His more wry observations of life and culture and literature are a true delight and one comes away from a good Hitchens essay with the feeling of shared a drink with a brilliant and eloquent intellectual.

Of this final collection of essays, book reviews, and other short pieces, I will say this; I’m going to miss that voice. His thoughts on quitting smoking, getting healthy, and doing the physical makeover are bittersweet and poignant, the words given an unintended emotional gravitas when you consider how closely they were written before his own death.

This is more of a ‘completionist’ work of Hitchens writing than a ode to ‘the best of the best.’ Book reviews from books that are ten or more years old tend to feel dated, even for books that are remarkable. There isn’t really a true standout piece here and if you were new to Hitchens, this isn’t where I’d start. Despite that, there also isn’t anything that falls flat and nothing that isn’t interesting. It was nice to spend a little more time with a voice that I have missed and will miss. Overall, a very solid collection.

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Review: In the Beginning…Was the Command Line

In the Beginning...Was the Command Line
In the Beginning…Was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s entirely possible that “Neal Stephenson thinking about stuff” might be one of my favorite genres of non-fiction.

This little book is an oddity. It’s a seventeen-year-old look at the state of computer operating systems, but it’s also essays, musings, and other thoughts. Hence my earlier point: it’s Stephenson thinking about stuff.

And for anyone else, that would be a criticism. But Stephenson is fascinating. You can tell by his work that when he becomes interested in a topic, he throws himself headfirst into it with the velocity of a BASE jumper. He does his homework. And his research. And his dissertation. He tends to know what he’s talking about.

Even so, what’s the value of a book that, in timeline terminology relative to the speed of computers, is somewhere between cave paintings and the emergence of cuneiform tablets? Certainly, these observations have no bearing on the state of computers and operating systems today. Google doesn’t exist at the time of these writings. Apple hadn’t yet made its triumphant return under Steve Jobs. Microsoft was the evil empire with an antitrust case to fend off. It was a different time.

And that’s why I enjoyed this book so much. It’s a little time machine, a look back at the heady days of the late nineties, just as this whole “computer thing” was starting its ascent into the stratosphere. It was written about a year after I received my first computer, which caused me to reflect on how things were back then. More than once, I marveled at Stephenson’s observations as I read his book on a tablet in ebook format, with that strange little thrill that yes, sometimes these gadgets really do feel like the future has arrived.

This book, more than anything, is a glimpse at the digital zeitgeist from those bygone days. Apple fans can remember the dark times while Linux fans can enjoy Stephenson’s musing on how it really is the superior tool for superior minds. Windows fans . . . well, get ready to endure some light griefing. Hey, it was the 90s. Early versions of Windows really were pretty bad. The blue screen of death and the three fingered salute (ctrl-alt-delete) didn’t become early memes for no reason. If you’re interested in the pop side of computer history, here’s a book that will take you down memory lane (assuming you were alive in the 90s). Stephenson’s a masterful storyteller, so you know that it’ll be worth it.

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In Defense Of True Neutral

I saw an article on IO9 about the best D&D alignments and even though it’s almost a year old, I wanted to respond. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of alignment in D&D, the basic idea is that there is are two axes that govern your character’s behavior: good and evil is the first, and law and chaos is the second. This forms a 3 x 3 grid (neutral options exist between each extreme) and thus, all characters will fall into one of nine different alignments. Think of it like a personality test, but for sorcerers and paladins.

Like with anything, it’s common to discuss and argue the merits of these different alignments and the value of the alignment system itself. Some feel that it’s too limited to describe all fantasy characters in just nine categories, while others think that it’s a useful abstraction. For what it’s worth, I fall into the latter camp.

IO9 ranks the nine alignments as follows, from best to worst:

  1. Chaotic Neutral
  2. Neutral Good
  3. Lawful Evil
  4. Neutral Evil
  5. Lawful Neutral
  6. Lawful Good
  7. Chaotic Evil
  8. Chaotic Good
  9. True Neutral

The placement of Chaotic Neutral as the “best” alignment strikes me as fairly dubious, due to the number of players who use it as an excuse to be evil in games where the game master does not allow evil characters. This tendency is so common, in fact, that it’s a recurring joke in the movie Gamers: Dorkness Rising as one of the characters constantly exclaims “I’m not evil, I’m Chaotic Neutral” after doing something like setting a peasant on fire for no reason.

However, the low placement of True Neutral on the list is what really raises my eyebrow. Here’s what the author has to say about the True Neutral alignment:

There are only two alignments that cannot be trusted: Chaotic Evil and True Neutral. Chaotic Evil characters are crazy evil, so what’s True Neutral’s excuse? Only the dumb would be so invested in the balance between good, evil, law and chaos that they feel they have to maintain it, which is why True Neutral is the preferred alignment of Druids, a.k.a. dipshits. Look, if there’s a chance you may decide that letting bugbears kill everyone in the party is necessary in the natural order of things, then there’s a chance I’m going to slit your character’s throat in his sleep. Hell, at least with Chaotic Evil characters you know where you stand.

Let’s ignore the slur against druids for a moment. I’m going to assume it’s a comment made by a player who either prefers wizards or clerics, the druid’s main rivals for the title of “most powerful class ever” or comes from a player who prefers fighters or rogues and is still bitter about the fact that the 3.5 D&D druid has special abilities more powerful than the entire fighter and rogue classes.

And to be fair, let’s look at the D&D second edition for True Neutral (referred to as just Neutral here):

Some Neutral characters, rather than feeling undecided, are committed to a balance between the alignments. They may see good, evil, law and chaos as simply prejudices and dangerous extremes.

Druids frequently follow this True Neutral dedication to balance, and under Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules were required to be this alignment. In an example given in the 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook, a typical druid might fight against a band of marauding gnolls, only to switch sides to save the gnolls’ clan from being totally exterminated.

Later editions steered away from this depiction of the True Neutral alignment, on the basis that it’s absolutely insane. Of course, Second Edition also described Chaotic Neutral as being the alignment of “lunatics and mad men” and that a Chaotic Neutral character was just as likely to jump off a bridge as cross it. If we’re going to laud Chaotic Neutral as the best alignment, we should do so under the same edition as we disparage True Neutral as the worst.

With that said, I’d like to argue for why I think True Neutral is one of the best alignments and it has nothing to do with some abstract “keeping the balance” or “not getting involved” justification.

Before going further, it’s important to point out that understanding of the alignments is necessarily subjective. What’s Evil in one game or story might be Neutral in another. It all depends on the morality of the storyteller, since we’re talking about fictional worlds. In a fictional roleplaying world, God is literally available to make moral judgments.

With that in mind, I’m basing my argument on the alignment depictions put forth by the core D&D 3.5 rulebooks. For a more detailed analysis of what these alignments represent and the ethics implied by them, visit this page and get ready for an in-depth, scholarly discussion of some D&D ethics. It could be argued that some of the examples here don’t fall into the particular moral classifications I’ve attributed them, but keep in mind that, in the core D&D setting, torture is considered an Evil act, in all instances. Real world morality doesn’t apply here.

To me, there are three types of True Neutral characters. “Undecided” are those that don’t commit to a side. They don’t feel strongly about law vs. chaos or good vs. evil. These characters are generally less interesting as protagonists in a fantasy game due to their overall lack of motivation. Characters of this alignment tend to be villagers or townsfolk, those more interested in living out their lives than getting involved.

The second kind of True Neutral is the aforementioned “Balanced” individual, which we’ve already described. With a few exceptions, I’m not overly fond of this character.

The third True Neutral type is the Pragmatist. This is where the alignment has the most interesting opportunities. Before describing how the Pragmatist True Neutral operates, we have to look at how other alignments operate and what it means to be Good or Evil.

Generally speaking, Good aligned characters will never commit evil acts. A Good character will not torture a villain. They won’t betray others. They try to keep their word (except to villains). Generally, however, they’re idealistic in their motivations and actions. A Good character who does something like murder a villain who has surrendered has stopped being Good.

Consequently, although Evil characters might seem like the ultimate pragmatists who are willing to do anything, my general feeling is that this is not true. An Evil character will never commit Good actions. They might appear to do so as part of a ploy or gambit, but their motivations are still ultimately for some Evil cause and even then, there are limits on the Good they’re willing to do. They won’t sacrifice themselves for a goal or another person, for instance. They’re incapable of actual Good, even when Good would lead to a preferable outcome. In fiction, we see this often: a villain who betrays the protagonist even though it’s ultimately counterproductive to do so.

While Evil characters are willing to stop at nothing to achieve their goals, that’s not quite the same as “being willing to do anything.” There might be no limit to the depths an Evil character might sink, but there are absolutely limits on how high an Evil character might climb in terms of Good. If they do, they stop being Evil.

Enter the True Neutral, who is the ultimate pragmatist. This is the character who is willing to walk in a world of grey. The character who can’t be considered Good, because he or she is willing to do things Good can’t or won’t. Here’s a powerful example from an episode of Castle.

That is what True Neutral looks like to me. It’s the willingness to do what needs to be done. Tell the truth, tell a lie, show mercy, torture, obey the law, break the law. Whatever needs to be done. A Good character can’t go to this length. A Good character is the one for whom torture will always be wrong, no matter the circumstances. “We have to find another way” is the mantra of the Good character.

True Neutrals have one foot in the dark, one in the light, and not because it’s important to remain “balanced” between the two, but because sometimes, the ends do justify the means. Not always; a character for whom the ends always justify the means is probably going to be Evil.

But isn’t this “at any costs” mentality a powerful narrative motivation to justify Evil? The difference between this kind of Neutral and Evil is that “whatever it takes” goes both ways. What separates the Neutral Pragmatist from an Evil Villain is that the villain won’t self-sacrifice for his goal. The Neutral will, just as a Good character will.

And that is why True Neutral characters can be awesome. Not because of some “balance” or because of some wishy-washy non-commitment. Because True Neutral is the expression on Castle’s face. It’s this exchange, in all its spine chilling menace:

Stevens[Castle closes and locks the door to the room] I just said I don’t wanna talk, so you can’t question me. I have rights. I’m not going to say anything without a lawyer.

Castle: I’m not a cop.

Stevens: Then who are you?

Castle: You remember the girl with the red hair? I’m her father. Please know, I will do whatever it takes to get her back. The police outside are my friends… my daughters’ friends too. So it’s just you and me.

Stevens: If you touch me, I’ll press charges…

Castle: I don’t care.

Hackers And Librarians

Grad school has been keeping me pretty busy which means I haven’t had as much time for free writing as I’d like. I don’t want to let my blog go neglected, however, so I thought rather than have several days of silence, I’d post the essay that I’m working on for my information technology course. I’m not certain this thing will be interesting to anybody who isn’t a librarian, but then, I’m not certain that most of what I talk about is going to be interesting to anybody other than me.

Anyway, my short essay was about about the similarities and differences between hackers and librarians. For reference, I’ll first post the ethical outlines I was working off of; you may or may not agree with the points made in those statements, which is fair. Afterwards, I’ll post what I wrote for my essay. I do apologize for the writing style; I tend to get a bit more stilted when doing academic writing due to perceptions that too much casual language creates a feeling of informality and sloppiness. Nevertheless, feel free to discuss, critique, or whatever. Here’s the essay:

The Hacker Ethic, as described by Steven Levy:

  • Access to computers and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
  • All information should be free.
  • Mistrust Authority Promote Decentralization.
  • Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
  • You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  • Computers can change your life for the better.
  • Like Aladdin’s lamp, you could get it to do your bidding.’

The Library Bill of Rights, as described by the American Library Association:

  1. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
  2. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
  3. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.
  4. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.
  5. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.
  6. Libraries that make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.

When looking at the Hacker’s Ethic and the Library Bill of Rights, we can quickly see that these are two credos that embrace the same core ideal but advocate the attainment of that ideal through almost diametrically opposed methodology. For the purpose of discussion, I will refer to these respective principles through their beholders: Hackers and Librarians. I make this distinction while noting that I am speaking of both groups in a somewhat broad and generalized fashion while also noting that there is always the potential for overlap: some hackers may also be librarians. Nevertheless, this will be the structure for my discussion.

Both the Hacker and the Librarian value information as an ideal. This distinction is necessary, because it creates a different standard than one might find among the general public. Clearly, information is valuable; there is no one who can rationally argue against that fact, but for the average user, information is only measured by its value. Its relative worth is purely practical.

For both the Hacker and the Librarian, information, and more importantly, information access has a value that extends beyond its practical application. Hackers and Librarians maintain that access to information is a basic human right and that denial of access constitutes a breach of ethical responsibility. Censorship is anathema for both, whether that censorship comes through the suppression of materials or restricting access to computers. In either instance, information should be freely open and available to all. Neither the Hacker nor the Librarian makes a judgment upon the value of the information itself. A user who desires information on a new video game is equally as important as one who needs information about Federal Income Tax codes. Hackers and Librarians are united in a sense of egalitarianism, although Librarians tend to operate in a true egalitarian fashion while Hackers are generally more of a meritocracy. In either group, however, one’s race, sex, income, or other factors are inconsequential when it comes to the execution of the ideal of information access.

Where Hackers and Librarians diverge, however, is in their execution of serving this ideal. For the Hacker, authority is a form of restriction. Centralization of information is merely another form of restriction. In this way, Hackers are very comparable to anarchists in that they promote open access for all. Any control is to be rejected. Any restriction is to be opposed. The only consideration that truly matters is the access. Everything else is secondary. Authority in any form should be disregarded due to the fact that authority means rules and rules by their very nature restrict access in one form or another.

Librarians, on the other hand, promote both authority and centralization. They do so in the belief that centralization of information actually promotes access rather than restricts it. Information that is not readily and easily accessible to the user often cannot be located when it is needed and is thus subject to what is called “soft censorship.” Thus, by organizing and collating information and bringing it to a central point of reference, Librarians ensure access.

Librarians, while opponents of censorship, also recognize that certain filters need to be in place due to needing to be open and accessible to patrons of all ages and temperaments. The anarchist mentality of the Hacker cannot serve the needs of the public librarian who needs to be concerned with children accessing adult images; in such an instance, a measure of control must be maintained. Librarians must balance the needs of informing and enlightening their patrons while also realizing that not all information is created equally and some information can be very hurtful, deleterious, or even dangerous. The act of maintaining such a distinction while not sliding into censorship due to doctrinal or partisan consideration is a very delicate balancing act. This balancing act serves as another contrast to the Hacker, who is unburdened by such considerations.

In conclusion, the Hacker and the Librarian approach the same ideal of information access through very different means. The Hacker is more chaotic, more libertarian, believing that authority of any sort is a negative presence and that individuals will be responsible for the content they experience. The Librarian, on the other hand, must balance information access with the other considerations necessary to properly serve her community. A book that is banned due to political pressure is just as much a moral loss as is a parent who does not bring his child to the library because the library does not take appropriate steps to keep adult materials out of the hands of children, for example. In both cases, censorship occurs, albeit in different forms.