Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Not your great-great-great-grandfather's Inferno

Dave and I discussing a modern Dante over MSN:
-Do you know who is on the lowest circle of Hell?
-Judas Iscariot
-The three great traitors who are being ever devoured by Satan? Right...
-I forget the other 2...Brutus
-Brutus, and another betrayer of Ceasar. Caius I think
-That's it
-Satan's crying in Hell? I didn't know that
-I would
-If I was surrounded by allusions to 13th century Italian politics for eternity, I guess I would too
-Heh. "And here is Iolo! We all know why *he's* here!"...Wha...?
-"No, I don't"
-"And who else do we find in the garden of liars? Why, it's old Rigato Belinni! Remember him?"
-"who the fuck are these people?"
-Hah! Priceless
-Maybe someone should write a modern Inferno..."And look around the Food Court of Liars--look, it's Jean Chretien, having a big bowl of 'I will eliminate the GST' poutine!"
-Maybe someone *should*
-"George W. Bush is still looking for WMDs and Al-Qaeda operatives in that Iraq souffle"
-Hah! You're killing me!
-"Stephen Harper serving us Conservative Cake. What beautiful frosting. Oh, but scrape those empty calories off and there's a whole load of homophobic, racist Alliance fruitcake underneath!"
-Dude. You should write this down.
-I'll put it in my blog

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Getting all Google-eyed

Well, it's been an interesting couple of weeks to be a librarian, that's for sure. First, the obvious: CNN notes how today's students avoid using print sources in their essays and assignments. What a shock. We librarians have known this for quite some time. When I was working at an academic library, the "Google mentality" was evident when students would search the databases. If they were writing an essay on "feminist perspectives of Shakespeare's plays" you can bet they would type "feminist perspectives of shakesperes plays" into the database. To be fair, it would be nice if all the database publishers would adopt a standard search interface, but I'll save that digression for a future post.

Anyway, the average student's lack of familiarity with books is quite clear to me. At the library, we get the desparate students who've been told they "need a book" and ask where the books on X are. "X" is usually some broad topic that they know nothing about, thus they have no clue how to narrow it down. Say, "marijuana." "Where are the books on marijuana?" they'll ask. And we'll say, "what about marijuana? The medical effects, the physiological effects, the sociological effects, the legalities of it, how to grow it, what?" Because, if you'll indulge me a moment, the intricacies of the Dewey Decimal system spread these things around. Marijuana as a drug will be in the 610s, while the social effects will be in the 300s or 330s. Growing? Probably 630s or 640s (641 is cookbooks--look for your hash brownie recipes there). Legal aspects? The 340s. I don't remember the Library of Congress system (used in most academic libraries in North America) but it would be just as messy.

But these students (who, of course, have left this to the last minute and need their book tonight), having done no preliminary research, have no clue where to begin and thus say "give me everything!"--or rather, what's left after their classmates have stripped our shelves. Hey, I wrote essays the night before they were due all through high school and undergrad (I wrote my 25-page paper on the Second World War planning of the invasion of Italy in 2 sleepless days). But unlike other procrastinators, I did my research weeks in advance. I'd go to the library one afternoon, find and grab about two dozen books on the subject, and pile them in a corner at home somewhere. A day or two before, I skimmed them, found 4 or 5 that were useful, and threw together an essay from that. Of course, most students with a topic like "compare and contrast these two plays" will try and find a book that compares and contrasts the two plays. If the book doesn't exist, they'll complain vocally, not understanding the purpose of research and the assignment is to compare and contrast the two plays, not regurgitate someone else's comparison of the two plays.

Well, tomorrow's students are more likely to never have to set foot in a library again, thanks to Google and its initiative to digitize and index the complete collections of five university libraries.

Several opinions have been voiced on this development--is it good, is it bad, etc. Scott Rosenberg warns us that though Google is crewed by some extremely cool and innovative grad-student types now, it is a publicly-traded company now. Larry Page and Sergey Brin are two cool dudes who've given us this incredibly powerful search tool, while managing to not be sucked into the downward-spiral-life of corporate shills. But that might not be the case tomorrow. Right now, Google intends to offer this archive of knowledge for free. Will that be the case tomorrow?

Andrew Leonard at (you need to be a subscriber or watch ads) talks about the possibility of Information Overload:

But where will it end? Certainly not with the inclusion of every book in the world that already exists. On the Internet, there will also be every critique of every book, every alternative history, every conspiracy theory, and all the real facts and fake facts to back every story up. You think we suffer from information overload now? Just wait until the sum total of all human knowledge is one click away. We are doomed! In a good way!
He begins this essay by referring to Jorges Luis Borges's short story, "The Library of Babel," an amusing read. Now, how do I feel about all this? Well, Rosenberg makes some good points--I would like to see this repository of knowledge owned by the public as well, but in today's economic and political climate, it will never fly. I don't fear too much for the future of my profession, because one thing I've learned as a librarian is you can make a fancier search tool, but someone has to learn how to use it. Until they make a search interface that reads minds and works instantly, most people will need to turn to their information specialists.

Plus, we're a long ways away from getting all information into a digital format. Read what happened to Mark LeVine when he mentioned a historical event that didn't exist on Google (in English, anyway). LeVine has also written on the dangers of using Google as a historical record. So the Ultimate Digital Repository of All Human Knowledge is not upon us just yet. I mark every milestone on the journey with enthusiasm, however. I remember when Pages from the Past, a searchable digital archive of every issue of the Toronto Star newspaper since 1894, was released. Created by scanning the old microfilm reels of The Star (which you had to view on one of these babies), Micromedia-Proquest ensured us of a future where we wouldn't have to look at microfilm and microfiche again. And as someone who spent 5 days straight reading the Collected Minutes of the Meetings of the Combined Chiefs of Staff from World War II, I was extremely grateful.

UPDATE (12-22-o4): I've just been informed that Blogger, the system through which I can post these thoughts to the web, is owned by Google. And I for one welcome our search-engine overlords...

Saturday, December 18, 2004

If he's Director of Intelligence, I'd hate to see the Director of Stupidity

Outgoing CIA director George "Slam Dunk" Tenet, best known for his utter incompetence at his job in recent years, recently told a conference that the free and open nature of the Internet might have to be curtailed to uphold national security.

I would like to suggest to George that he look into what the Internet actually is, before making broad, sweeping statements about it (Besides, George, wouldn't policing the Internet fall under the National Security Agency's jurisdiction?). This essay is one of the best I've read on the nature of the Internet. Also, I haven't read it, but Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet has been recommended to me as an excellent history of the global computer network.

Curious, George, why are you so concerned with threats that are likely to be outside your purview, and which you know so little about? I mean, let's look at an obvious failure of the US intelligence community: 9/11.

Many people stood motionless, looking up -- at American fighter planes streaking overhead. Few things conveyed a changed world as vividly as U.S. Air Force jets engaged in high alert air defense of Manhattan Island. As I spoke to one man he paused, waiting for the aircraft's noise to subside, then looked at me and said: ""Sort of like locking the barn door after the horse is stolen, huh?"" He was angry. He wanted to talk politics. He reminded me that the unchallenged US Air Force had conducted massive air operations over Yugoslavia two years ago without suffering a single casualty. But the same US Air Force had failed utterly to defend American air space a few hours earlier.
And why was this? The answer is here:

The really scary fact is that at any given time, the continental United States is protected by only eight F-15s and F-16s, and these aircraft sit alert at the four corners of the country. That is why when the hijacked airliners deviated from their flight plans and honed in on their final targets, no air defense fighters were in position to intercept and prevent them from making those devastating attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
What about the Global Positioning System (GPS), George? You know, the system the US Military put into place but later allowed the private sector to use and exploit (kind of like the Internet, now that I think about it). The same GPS that US aircraft use for targeting and US soldiers use to navigate is also used by recreational hunters in the woods, and by oil tankers piloted by automation (interesting aside: the word 'cybernetics' comes from the Greek word kubernetes, meaning 'steersman' or 'helmsman'). In the UK, a blind septagenarian and his team built a remote-controlled model plane and used the GPS to fly it over the Atlantic Ocean. But I wouldn't worry, George. It's not like terrorists could use the same idea to deliver biological or chemical weapons, right?

Friday, December 17, 2004

"I'm all for fetal rights--until they interfere with mine."

Interesting bit of hypocrasy here:

Among them is Van Golden, a Christian, anti-abortion Texan who has sold his house so that he can travel to communist, atheist China and have Huang inject a million cells from the nasal area of a foetus into his spine. According to Golden's doctors, his spine was damaged beyond repair in a car crash last Christmas. The damage to his nervous system was so bad that he has been in a wheelchair and racked by spasms ever since. But Golden refused to give up, even if it meant having to compromise his values. "This is the only place that offered us any hope," he says. "Everyone else offered only to help make me sufficient in that chair. But the chair is not my destiny. It is not ordained."

Monday, December 06, 2004

Beware of Greeks bearing litigation

The Greeks are angry because the new Oliver Stone film on Alexander the Great portrays the Macedonian conqueror as bisexual. And the rest of the world tries very hard to keep from laughing. Come on, guys! Do you read about your own history? Plato, the teacher of Aristotle (who was Alexander the Great's tutor for a time), wrote a whole freakin' dialogue on gay love called the Symposium. It was an accepted practice of the time, and should be accepted in our time as well. I recommend William Percy Armstrong III's Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece for a far more convincing argument than I could ever express here.

I had high hopes for this film. Stone's primary inspiration for the film is Robin Lane Fox's seminal biography of the conqueror, and he secured Fox's services as consultant on set. I did a book report on Fox's Alexander the Great in my first-year classics class and really enjoyed it.

Fox's book takes the form of a historical narrative that will have you turning pages. Right from the first chapter, Fox draws you in with the mystery of Philip II of Macedon's assassination? Who killed the king at the celebration of his wedding to his seventh wife? Was it his jealous first wife, Olympias? Was it his wrathful half-brother, pushed aside in his quest for the throne? Was his son Alexander involved at all? And that's just the murder mystery at the beginning, folks! Wait until he gets to the war...

...unfortunately, the
film was not nearly as compelling as Fox's book. It had potential, but ultimately was laid low by four things:
  1. It was too freakin' long.
  2. The dialogue was extremely clunky.
  3. The action sequences in the film suffer from "Braveheart syndrome," i.e. big battles are filmed as blurs of colour and action, with lots of shaky-cam work and motion-blurring. While this might be a realistic depiction of pre-modern warfare, it sure as hell isn't compelling from a dramatic standpoint.
  4. It was too freakin' long.

Someone remarked to me that, recently anyway, period dramas are very good at doing their research and making everything historically accurate, every costume and set checked and rechecked down to the last detail. But they emphasize the superficial elements so much, the filmmakers forget we're there to watch a movie. An accurate depiction of an historical setting does not absolve you of the task of writing a compelling story.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

A match made in Heaven--not the courtroom

I largely agree with Juan Cole on the issue of marriage (DailyKos argues in a similar vein). Basically, there is no such thing as a "traditional" definition of marriage. I mean, many cultures--some in antiquity, some in the present-day--permitted a man to have several wives. In many cultures, it was (or is) permissible for a man to physically beat his wife, which we rightfully consider inexcusable today. The etymology of the word "marriage" is difficult to trace, but some equate it to the Latin term for "married man" i.e., husband. If this is the case, then the "dictionary definition" of marriage does not exclude gay men from the institution. Arguing from a dictionary definition is asinine anyway. The dictionary editors don't dictate the meaning of words; they assign definitions based on how the word is actually used. As far as the state is concerned, the only definition that matters is the legal definition.

Putting aside the various cultural and historical definitions of marriage (many of which could be deemed "traditional"), let's work out the legal definition of marriage. Now, as Sir Edmund Burke noted, the law is common sense. The law seeks to define and codify what the society and the people in it are already doing. Gays and lesbians have had conjugal, cohabitating relationships for decades, and many of them have raised children as well. There is no empirical evidence that homosexual parents do worse than their heterosexual counterparts. Thus, "common sense" dictates that the state recognize gay and lesbian unions.

What is the purpose of recognizing marriage, from the point of view of the state?

Is it to provide a stable and secure social institution so that children can be brought up in a positive environment? Obviously, it is proper for the state to concern itself with the quality of its future citizens, and would like the majority of them to become stable and productive members of society. But if this is the purpose of marriage, should not marriage licenses and certificates only be issued to those couples who actually have children? Again, because the law is "common sense," it must recognize that couples can have children through means other than vaginal intercourse. Adoption, in vitro fertilization, and surrogate motherhood are some of these ways. These are, for the most part, not outlawed by the state and thus any couple, gay or straight, who has children by any method, should be recognized as "married" under this interpretation of the institution. Likewise, couples without children would not be considered married.

The other possible purpose of marriage from the state's point of view is recognition of the fact that intimate relationships--especially of the romantic and erotic kind--help to perpetuate a society of contented and balanced individuals. Civil order and contentment is largely in the state's self-interest--it means less crime, less apathy, and more productivity (read: better and more effective workers with higher wages spending more money = more taxes collected). "Common-law" marriage already reflects this to an extent--in Ontario, after a year of conjugal cohabitation (i.e., "shacking up") , the law considers a couple to be married in all legal and financial senses of the term.

Rather than engage in a pointless debate about the "definition" of marriage, the state should proceed thusly:
  • No longer recognize the legal term "marriage".
  • Recognize only "civil unions" or "civil contracts", which can be between any two consenting adults regardless of sexual orientation.
  • Empower members of the clergy to recognize civil unions (much as they can perform marriages now).
Because the state enshrines the freedom of religion, clergy can refuse to perform marriages for whomever they choose. If rejected by their clergyperson, a couple can find a clergyperson more sympathetic to their union, be recognized by the state directly (e.g., getting "married" at City Hall), or just wait a year and the state will recognize their union anyway.

This way, gay and lesbian couples who wish to legitimize their union (for purposes of parental, spousal and survivor/next-of-kin benefits) can do so. Churches that oppose gay unions are not required to perform them, while churches accepting of gay unions are free to do so.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

When the nation-state becomes the nursery

Steve Gilliard gives voice to some of my greatest fears.

I'm opposed to legal paternalism, or what Gilliard calls the "nanny state." Adults should be responsible for their own actions. They do not require the intervention of the state or other actors to tell them what to do or what not to do. They can make their own decisions and suffer the consequences of those decisions.

This is where Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is prophetic. Unlike other dystopian novels (1984, The Handmaid's Tale, etc.), the fascist state in Bradbury's novel was the result of people's conscious choice. Culture became bland, vapid and boring because it was illegal to offend anyone.

I might have to reread it soon.