7 Quick Takes (6/14/13)

— 1 —

Since I’ve had two posts this week (and two more scheduled for next week) on oath-keeping and rule-breaking, I have the perfect excuse to include the Tony Awards performance from Catch Me If You Can: Norman Leo Butz in “Breakin’ All the Rules”

— 2 —

Father’s Day is coming up this Sunday, so, if you’re planning to join me in giving the gift of stealth compliments to your friends’ fathers, you’ll need to set aside time, ASAP.  I’m not doing too many this first year, so the size of the task won’t stop me from starting the habit.   Over the next year, I’ll try to write one a month and just send half on Mother’s Day and half on Father’s Day.

— 3 —

And speaking of stealth anythingWired recently had a little feature on a browser extension that lets you use steganography to hide content inside images on Facebook.

Secretbook has to be subtle. It uses Google Chrome’s web extension platform, since Facebook’s in-house apps publicly list their users — which would defeat the purpose of a secrecy tool. Since the extension runs through a web browser without a server connection, the users can’t be detected by network analysis. It’s also hard for Facebook to block or remove permissions, as the extension doesn’t rely on a Facebook API key.

Steganography tools can benefit terrorists as much as they can protect privacy. Campbell-Moore believes steganography certainly can be used by terrorists in a general sense — but terrorists may avoid his method as it’s not entirely foolproof. Since the images contain a large number of changes, someone looking for them could conceivably write an algorithm that tracks down manipulated images. That could limit the extension to “hobbyists and researchers,” he says, rather than militants, or maybe not.

“A researcher could certainly build a simple system for detecting which images have secret messages hidden in them although they would first require access to all 300+ million photos being uploaded to Facebook every day,” Campbell-Moore says. “Which I suspect even the NSA doesn’t currently have, and performing detection on that scale would be very difficult.”

Um, that last line may be a little dated.

— 4 —

Christian H had two really great blog posts a little ways back that were also kinda sorta about how messages are changed when you change the medium they’re expressed in.  In “Other People’s Epics” he wrote:

What makes the epic so amusing to me, then, is that as a genre the epic is almost like a fill-in-the-blanks for ideology. You have all these empty fields which you fill in with content; once you’ve filled in the fields, you have an epic. What’s interesting, of course, is to see how the different features change based on what worldview is slotted in. For instance, in Paradise Lost, the katabasis is Satan’s flight into Hell after losing the War in Heaven. In The Faerie Queene, the talking tree is a man who was seduced by a witch (who signified the Catholic Church) and was turned into a tree when he discovered who she was, but in The Lord of the Rings, written by an environmentalist, the talking trees were Ents, early eco-warriors. In The Faerie Queene the hero is a gentleman-knight; inLord of the Rings he is a hobbit, an analogue for the simple rural men-at-arms in WWI’s trenches; in One River the hero is a revolutionary ethnobotanist who has what Davis calls a taxonomic eye, the innate ability to identify taxonomy at a glance. Good epics of course are not really just highly stylized Mad Libs; a skilled epic poet or writer will make creative use of the genre’s constraints rather than be a slave to them. So what I like to do is imagine what different kinds of epics would look like. What would an environmentalist epic look like? (Probably a lot like The Lord of the Rings.) What would a Canadian epic look like? What would an Anglican, or Catholic, or Mormon, or Muslim epic look like? What would a librarian’s epic hero’s virtues be, or an engineer’s, or a home-maker’s? What would be the Underworld in a Dutch-Canadian epic, an Asian-Canadian epic, an Inuit epic?

I also think about the sorts of world-views that make me uncomfortable. What would an Islamaphobic epic look like? A homophobic epic? A white supremist epic? An anti-feminist epic? This is less fun, but it might be a helpful exercise.

And then he wrote a follow-up about understanding the ideologies of others titled “Other People’s [Insert Genres]”

So if I’m thinking about a worldview or some other philosophical position, I not only think about what kind of epic a person could write for it or what kind of mystery a person could write for it, but also which genre would represent it best. If I’m a communist trying to improve my economic system’s aesthetics, should I make a communist mystery novel, or a communist epic, or a Marxploitation flick, or a comromcom (communist romantic comedy)? (I made up those last two designations.) This is a question about the content’s relation to form, but I mustn’t forget that it’s also a question about my audience. An exploitation flick might be insightful and critical to some but offensive to others; a romantic comedy might help one person understand but might alienate another. And so on.

And now, not only do I want to read material from the subgenres he invented, I’m sorely tempted to make the last question in this year’s Ideological Turing Test be “What literary genre best expresses your beliefs?”

— 5 —

And now, thinking about how the audience shapes our content, Calah has further thoughts on the harm done by many abstinence only programs:

These metaphors, as many of my commenters pointed out, are rooted in the Christian idea of sin. In Christianity, the concept of sin is inextricably linked to the promise of forgiveness. Not so for a secular kid. If there is no sin, there can be no forgiveness. So what happens when they are dirtied, or chewed and spat out, or when they lose their “stick”?

They’re ruined, that’s what. If there’s no one around to explain sin, forgiveness, and redemption, there’s no one to explain the ultimate reality that these metaphors are trying to disclose. If there’s no one around to explain sex to them at all, if all they’re getting is a necessarily limited sex ed class, who will be around to reassure them of their self-worth if they do have sex? Additionally, as many of my commenters pointed out, pre-marital sex (especially the first time)  is often accompanied by a sense of shame no matter what these kids have been taught. I think that’s evidence of an inborn moral conscience, others think it’s cultural conditioning, but whatever the case, these kids don’t have someone telling them about forgiveness.

She’s dead on.

— 6 —

Here’s a unexpected piece of analysis about the stories we tell: The Guardian reports that Lego faces have gotten angrier.

The first Lego figures were developed in 1978 and had a classic yellow face with a broad, simple smile, but from 1989 onwards facial expressions began to be more complex as new themes – such as the early Little Pirates – were added to the range. Now a range of expressions including happy, angry, surprised, scared and enigmatic are included in the range.

“It is our impression that the themes have been increasingly based on conflicts. Often a good force is struggling with a bad one,” said Bartneck. “The number of new faces that the Lego company introduces every year is increasing steadily. Lego started producing a greater variety of faces in the 1990s. Happiness and anger seem to be the most frequent emotional expressions.”

Bartneck added that both “good” and “bad” characters now carried a larger range of facial expressions – giving rise to speculation that the figures may just be more in touch with a greater range of emotions.

When I read this quote, I did think the explanation sounded reasonable.  How much fun could you have storytelling without conflict?  And it’s much nicer to implement this with Lego’s swappable heads than to have, say, a permanently sneering Barbie.

But then I remembered that I’m still in the middle of Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees as part of my ongoing bookclub with my gentleman caller and, given that I disagree with the author’s thesis that society can only flourish when competing sins and vices are active, but held in equipoise, I’m in no position to insist on the existence of villainous Lego figurines for the sake of flourishing fictional societies.

— 7 —

And, finally, on Monday, I’ll announce the theme and the questions for this year’s Ideological Turing Test, so hie thee hence to the brainstorming thread if you have suggestions.  I’ll admit I have an early favorite, but there’s time to change my mind.


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  • Slow Learner

    I think Calah did fairly well at exploring the problems with abstinence-only sex “education”, but didn’t go nearly far enough.

    There are many Christians or former Christians (relevantly, Christian when put through abstinence courses and thereafter at least until first sexual experience), who received the same effects Calah expects for the “secular”.

    Also of course the point that what young people who have had sex need is not someone telling them about how to get “forgiven”, but someone telling them about how to remain (or return to being) physically and mentally healthy.
    But hey, still good to see recognition from a Catholic, of all people, that proper sex education is important.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      Agreed, which is why I brought up my comment from the late 1980s STARS program in Oregon. Too bad it has been replaced by TOP, which encourages sterilization and “safe sex” rather than abstinence.

      That “return to being” physically and mentally healthy is something Planned Parenthood absolutely ignores- they’d rather use invasive techniques to interfere with fertility than actually promote physical well being that includes fertility and mental well being that is free from shame.

  • branemrys

    If you’re reading Fable of the Bees, you might enjoy George Berkeley’s satirical take-down of the argument in Dialogue 2 of the Alciphron. Very much worth looking up.

    In fairness, Berkeley aims not just at Mandeville but at a number of other positions, as well; and Mandeville’s last significant work, Letter to Dion, was a complaint that by associating him with such bad company, Berkeley was maliciously misrepresenting him, and attempts to correct misunderstandings of the argument by Berkeley and others. I would actually recommend reading the Letter, anyway; it’s a good way to doublecheck that your interpretations of Mandeville’s arguments were what he intended.

  • Randy Gritter

    I am surprised so many are impressed by Calah’s little rants. It is pure sentimentalism. Even the excerpt you quote is quite illogical. She says people feel shame regardless of what they have been taught because of of an inborn moral conscience. We need to tell them about forgiveness. Great. But that is not what she suggests. She actually suggests we should stop talking about why they feel shame. We still can’t talk about forgiveness. We can’t talk about unconditional love either. A love that allows you to come back to your father no matter how dirty you are. That is what they need. That is what we can’t give them.

    So what is the answer? To stop talking about the consequences of promiscuity? That way we don’t get the blame when someone feels bad. Calah seems determined to blame sex ed for all the bad feelings around sex regardless of what else has happened to the teens. So saying nothing would be safer. Would it be more loving? If it was me, I would prefer people try and warn me about the negative feelings that these behaviors might cause.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      ” That is what we can’t give them.”

      Funny, I saw her saying exactly the opposite- that is what we must give them. Where did you get the impression that Calah was against all forms of sex ed?

      • Randy Gritter

        She is against all forms that exist outside her own mind. I am OK with that. I am basically there as well. I just don’t agree that talking about the shame and dirtiness of promiscuity is such a problem. The actual shame and dirtiness is a big deal but she tends to shoot the messenger.

        • TheodoreSeeber

          I think she might just be from a different generation than you.

          Having said that, she’s a generation away from me as well; and I was already thinking like this when I went through the STARS program in high school.

          More and better INFORMATION yields better DECISIONS.

          What’s not to like about that? Well, other than the people who think the best decision is to just get sterilized?

          • SteveP

            Ted, I disagree about the correlation of information and
            decisions. My understanding is that nutrition
            is taught at grade level for many years as is physical education. Yet, the un-in-shape-ness of the current
            high-school cohort has been labeled a national security issue. If students are given even more information,
            will they discipline themselves into physical fitness?

          • TheodoreSeeber

            The main reason for American obesity *right now* is a lack of reading the label and a pricing structure that make calorie dense sugars cheaper than calorie light fibers.

            Both of these are *hiding* the majority of information you need to make good decisions about eating.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    “I’m sorely tempted to make the last question in this year’s Ideological Turing Test be “What literary genre best expresses your beliefs?”

    Doooo ittttt 🙂 That would be a fantastic question!

    • TheodoreSeeber

      Given Leah’s readership, on both sides of the equation, I’m afraid the answer would be Fantasy/SF, 100%.

      Which reminds me, is the new episode of HPMOR out yet?

      • Martha O’Keeffe

        Curses! You pre-empted my answer! 🙂

        • Randy Gritter

          I think Catholicism claims them all. It is a romance. It is a super hero story. It is a tragedy. It is a comedy. Catholicism can even be understood in the horror or sexual coming of age genres that tend to produce the worst movies. The truth is every story we like to tell is rooted in the ultimate story of God and man. So all epics are Catholic epics.

      • Not if they are paying attention to the question. No one is asking which literary genre you prefer. They are asking which literary genre would be the best vehicle for your beliefs. I doubt fantasy or sci-fi would be an accurate answer for all readers of this blog (or an interesting answer, anyway, since they are less structured as genres than, say, mystery novels).

        • TheodoreSeeber

          The Platform Sutra taught me to read the Parables of Christ as sci-fi paradoxes; and suddenly they made sense to me. I just thought many might be coming from the same perspective, or a similar perspective.

          • I was being a jerk, wasn’t I? I’m sorry.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            You were? I wouldn’t know. I am after all, a high functioning autistic. I tend not to pick up on that sort of thing until it is far too late.

          • Not intentionally, but I was at minimum taking a light comment too seriously. I suspected you would not notice–I am aware of your autism–but it is no excuse.

    • Roki

      What literary genre best expresses your beliefs?

      I found myself offended by this question. I realized, as I was examining why I took offense, that I assumed “literary genre” meant “genre of fiction or poetry.”

      I’m firmly in the camp that, if your goal as an author is to express a belief, your genre is the essay. Likewise, if you want to understand what someone believes, you should seek an essay on that topic by that person.

      But regarding fiction and poetry, as Tolkien put it, I “cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations,” and the use of fiction as steganography (on the part of either author or critic) is, at best, distasteful to me. If I’m offered a story, I’m cranky enough to expect a story: a real encounter with fictional persons and a vicarious experience of their actions and passions.

      Now, I’d never deny that a storyteller writes from his/her own worldview, and that this perspective shines through in the descriptions and value judgments of the story told. Moreover, I’d argue that some worldviews are better for telling stories than others – insofar as the worldview corresponds more closely to the real nature of the human person.

      But to reduce every literary genre to a vehicle for ideology ignores the real basis for creating poetry, for distinguishing genres, and for enjoying the poetry of those different genres – often despite the beliefs of the author.

      • Bloom made a complaint similar to your last one; he called those of us who read for ideology “The School of Resentment.” However, what he seems to be missing is that reading for ideology does not reduce literature to ideology any more than figuring out the cultural significance of Coca-Cola denies its chemistry (or vice versa, depending on which enchants you more/disgusts you less). Of course most people–even us analytical types–read for many more reasons than ideology-detection, including the pleasures you listed. I’m asking this particular question, the one about ideology, right now; later I’ll ask the other questions.
        As for the fiction/non-fiction distinction: I disagree that fiction is never a better vehicle than non-fiction, but that’s not the place where I disagree with you the most. The point of my post, and I presume Leah’s prompt, is not to encourage people to write poetry rather than essays, but instead is that if I try to figuring out which genre would be a better vehicle for your beliefs, it would help me better understand your beliefs. The task forces me to ask certain questions about your belief system I might otherwise forget to ask.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    On #4- I thought Lord of the Rings WAS a Catholic epic!

    • You’re absolutely right. But please read the whole post; it’s more than just a Catholic epic, and that point is made in the full version.

  • TheresaL

    I had a Barbie with swappable heads. My mom had saved it from the 50s or 60s. I found it creepy, so she always had the role of the villain.

    Also, plenty of storytelling happened with the Legos, even with their 100% smiling faces. My brother and I mostly had the space ones, which came with helmets and visors. The solid black visors covered the smiling face, so these were naturally the evil characters.

    • PK

      A doll with swappable heads just makes me think of Princess Langwidere from Oz.

  • Unhappy faces don’t necessitate conflict, of course. They could just be unhappy. And happy faces don’t preclude conflict, either. The villains could be gleefully villainous and the heroes could be ignorant of the villainy.

  • grok87

    Re #1- “oath-keeping and rule-breaking…”

    Oath-breaking features in Bernard Cornwell’s series “The Saxon Tales”. For example (one review):

    “there’s blood, betrayal, slavery, oath-breaking, Northmen (not Vikings Cornwell’s quick to point out, that means “pillagers and raiders” not Northmen)…”

    An Oath in those times specifically meant swearing fealty to a superior- a lord for example. If the novels are accurate these were taken very seriously and often sworn only for finite periods of time (to avoid over-committing oneself). Oath-breakers were despised and viewed as untrustworthy, ie as traitors. But just breaking a generic promise or testifying falsely in court (this happens in the novels) would not have been considered oath-breaking at the time.

    Today’s gospel also seems relevant:
    Jesus said to his disciples: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
    Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.
    But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne;
    nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the Evil One.”

    According to Wikipedia
    “The reference to Heaven as the Throne of God comes from Isaiah 66:1. Hill notes that while heaven in Matthew is often used as a periphrasis for God’s name it is quite clearly not so used in this verse. At the time of Christ oaths were a much debated issue in the Jewish community. One view, expressed in M. Shebuoth, was that while oaths to God were binding, oaths to other subjects, such as heaven, were not. Schweizer feels that Jesus is here indicating that swearing by heaven is swearing by God as heaven is God’s throne.”

    So the sense from Matthew seems akin to how the Saxons/Vikings viewed Oaths. Any oath, e.g. “cross my heart and hope to die”, is about our “fealty” to God, since e.g. our “hearts” and “death” are God’s not ours. Breaking any oath breaks our fealty to God- so the implication is one should not put our relationship with God in jeopardy, ie. one should not take oaths.