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Monthly Archives: September, 2014

The Book of Judges and writing about violence

The Old Testament is at best a questionable guide to morality. In particular, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy are among the vilest books, at least in their prescriptions, in any religion – which is notable, considering that both Exodus and Deuteronomy contain versions of the Ten Commandments.

But as much as I disagree with the genocide, unusual restrictions (e.g., Leviticus is the source of much of the homophobia in Christianity, as well as less-adhered-to “rules” such as not wearing mixed fabrics), and literal heavy-handedness of the God of Moses, the Old Testament is an endless, endless gold mine for turns of phrase and poetry. God may have been a bastard, but his interpreters/creators were committed writers.

In 2006, I decided I would read the entire King James Bible cover to cover, since it is one of the most influential documents in English, having been the source of every phrase from “the sun also rises” to “stranger in a strange land.” I didn’t accomplish my goal; I skipped a few books and only skimmed the New Testament, which I had heard again and again through years of Mass.

The Book of Judges, an Old Testament book between Joshua and Ruth, made one of the deepest impressions on me. It doesn’t have the poetry of Isaiah or the epic mythos of Exodus, but it definitely has crazy, proto-Tarantino violence.

When I was writing a short story recently (“The Lightning, which I mentioned in the last entry; I will publish it to my Tumblr soon), I was looking for how violence was described in older literature. Recent texts and films err on the super-gory side (in writing) or the blurry-who-knows-what’s-going-on side (in film). How did writers from 5,000 approach the fight scene or murder, though?

Judges has some ideas:

“Then Jael Heber’s wife took a nail of the test, and took an hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote him the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died.” (Judges 4:21).

“They chose new gods; then was war in the gates: was there shield or spear seen among forty thousand in Israel?” (Judges 5:8).

“She put her hand to the nail, and her right hand to the workmen’s hammer; and with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote off his he’d, when she had pierced and stricken through his temples (Judges 5:26).”

“At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet he bowed, he fell: where he bowed, there he fell down dead” (Judges 5:27).

The Book of Judges is also the source of the “evil in the sight of the Lord” phrase, which is evocative for its ambiguities. Is it more terrifying that they committed “evil” actions knowing that an omniscient god was watching, or that they acted without knowing that they were being, well, judged?

The passages above are grotesque. Yet, they maintain a “just the facts” nonchalance.

When writing about violence, this approach is useful if the author is trying to set a scene in which cruelty is normal and even banal. Getting hung up on details quickly leads to moralizing or expression of a viewpoint of some sort, which is ok for certain projects. For dystopian and sci-fi novels, though, I think this sort of commoditization of violence – oh, here’s someone getting a nail driving through his head, moving on now, Israel, etc. – is what makes them work.

I recently read H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon and, like the other Wells I’ve read, it is visionary, but underrated for its dark side. It isn’t long after the titular duo land on the moon that they’re punching through Selenites – easier than they thought – and bleeding. In the context of the moon’s novel wonders though – mooncalves! a solid atmosphere! aliens! – the violence is passé.

The Book of Judges is similar in that the immense violence is secondary to the active, jealous god who is such a magnet for the readers’ attention (even more so than for the characters transfixed by him) that we often end up hopping around the violent sequences like islands in a relentless literary stream. The nonchalance is fitting – the violence is window-dressing, a bunch of incidental effects in a story about Yahweh. The writers saved the energies they could have spent on description and reflection and moved on to keep developing the central thread. Not a bad creative writing tack/hack, from 4,000 years ago.

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The delight of Will Self’s “Umbrella”

Will Self; what a name, I thought, almost like will I be myself. I went into the bookshop – and the only book left on the back shelf was his Umbrella. The shopkeeper sitting there, sipping a latte, I’ma ask ya to put ya da bag down, the words were louder than a speakerphone. Kerchunnng! The cup fell through the air, filled with book dust … shattered in dark fragments.

Imitating Self’s stye isn’t just fun, it’s instructive. I felt slightly winded after writing the above paragraph. Self makes Umbrella seem like it’s several times its own length, yet he doesn’t seem to labor at it – which of course is an illusion (I love the italics for emphasis; there’s a good sentence where, after going through all the permutations of a character’s surname – Death, De’ath, Dearth – the speaker says “or whatever the fuck her name was“). The book has a relentlessness all its own – like the best novels, going through its pages is a self-contained experience, during which it’s unappetizing to think about anything else and the reader tries to match the author’s ceaseless one-idea-after-another inspiration with similarly flash-bang page-turning. Yes, it’s against all odds a page turner – a chapterless, suspensless, endless page turner.

One of the innovations about Umbrella – probably unintentional, but critics aren’t really in the business of determining intent, are we – is that it can be read right to left. I don’t mean backward, only that I’ve opened the book a few times oh I think I’ll read a few pages while’I’m on da blue line and forgot where I left off, bookmark notwithstanding. Starting on the right page rather than the left, then ADDing my WAY BACK ACROSS the dividing line and seeing oh I didn’t read the left after all because I forgot. Opening up to almost any page of Umbrella yields an italic, ellipsis, or dog-biscuit of thrown-aside poetry (“Emerging blinking and wanton in the daylight”).

It’s a book, running left-to-right or right-to-left or what difference does it make. Like checking my phone or godforbid my watch I can go in even without meaning to and find something to knead the brain’s dough. The best thing about the book, I recalled, is that it made me feel justified, oh yes, confident even in free-flow creativity. The short story I’m working on, The Lightning, draws a lot upon Self, and myself. Once it is finished I will do a postmortem, writing it to pieces in a mirror-reflection review.

Blame Uber

Ben Thompson’s Stratechery is one of the best technology blogs. I don’t subscribe to the Daily Update portion of it, but the main site entries are more than enough to keep my FeedWrangler inbox full of stuff to read. He’s remarkably good at forecasting trends (his “Two Bears” entry about Apple is a classic) and revisiting his old opinions. However, I have been generally disappointed in his take on Uber, the ride sharing company that Peter Thiel recently called “ethically challenged.” Thompson’s entry on the subject – “Don’t Blame Uber” – is ambitious, in that it veers into politics, but it devolves into cognitive dissonance as he goes after left wing and right wing alike.

Let’s step back: Discussions of technology’s impact beyond technology – its politics – are essentially taboo in the tech press, from publications (TechCrunch, Recode, Pando et al) to sole proprietor blogs. Just think about how almost all news, and every “smart take,” takes as given that neoliberalism is the only economic framework in which the Internet can exist. For tech journalists, the ideological battle between Thatcherism, free markets etc. and its alternatives is settled in favor of the former.

So, the many authors of entries about technology’s effects on serendipity or the Internet’s reliance on advertising rarely stop to question the intentions of the companies that now handle so much of our data. They don’t propose that the communicative power of the Internet be instead managed publicly or by a government – ironic, considering the hysteria over “Internet balkanization” that belies a concern that the centralized, globalized infrastructure of the Internet could be shattered – they don’t see it is a public library or a utility – despite likening it to electricity – and they’re ultimately anti-competition even as they whine about net neutrality.

The latter may seem counterintuitive. Still, just think of all the free press given to Google, Facebook, et al, the seldom questioning of their political – rather than technological – effects, and you can begin to see the outlines of a neoliberalist ideology in which monopolies are good for the consumer and questions about the diminution of perspective, privacy, and happiness can be discarded by saying that enormous corporations are simply giving consumers what they want – which brings me back to Thompson’s piece.

He opens by saying that “much of the opposition to changes wrought by the Internet undervalue the positive impact said changes have on normal people.” This is code; “the Internet” is not a reference to raw IP connectivity in the way that “radio” is a reference to actual equipment. It is instead a narrow reference to for-profit Web companies, which he makes clear when he moves on to talk about Google and Facebook. He doesn’t question what they have accomplished but seems to take for granted that the effects have been positive. I’m not so sure, but then I’m not a proponent of this narrow construct of “the Internet” in which “the Internet” can do no wrong and is pushed as a post-political solution to all problems (“God,” anyone)?

To his credit, he acknowledges that Uber is more of a lightning-rod than Google or Facebook. Yet he defends it as being superior to taxis in every way, listing off the purely consumerist advantages such as ease of paying, getting in and not having to wrangle with car ownership. What about Uber’s treatment of the disabled or the less tech-savvy? These are political issues that are hard to address from the current neoliberal mindset surrounding tech. Sure enough, Thompson cuts through Avi Asher-Schapiro’s scathing critique of Uber by observing that “actual consumers were not mentioned once in the article.” The ensuing list of consequences that would attend Uber actually hiring its drivers is filled with drawbacks that would put Uber out of business, but not wreck society. The concern is for business, not social welfare – which is fine, but it’s a limited perspective.

The latter half of the entry, about health insurance, is difficult to parse and likely beyond my scope here. Yes, healthcare is too expensive in the U.S., and the current system somehow manages to punish both patient, employer, and physician simultaneously. Uber didn’t create the system, and one could – as Thompson does – make a good case that its business model makes the best of being constrained by it. How did we get this employer-based system in the first place, though?

The Truman Administration wanted to set up a national healthcare system, but it and the labor unions folded under intense pressure from the Chamber of Commerce and American Medical Association, among others, which labeled the initiative “socialism.” If you’re not American, then understand that “socialism” never has a positive connotation in American politics, and has been used a cudgel in every battle against universal coverage. But surely, it’s just a stupid boogeyman that can be dispelled with logic, right?

Wrong, and the troubled history of healthcare reform – even Obama couldn’t implement single-payer! – speaks to it. There are superficial political issues that have kept reform from happening, but there’s also a long-term mindset – glimpsed in the occasional remarks about “socialism” – that shows deep-rooted commitment to the types of low government spending, low taxes, deregulation, consumer satisfaction above else, and general private sector strength that continue to drive up inequality in the U.S. There’s a useful umbrella term for such beliefs, and I’ve already mentioned it – neoliberalism.

There’s significant cognitive dissonance in praising the consumer-first benefits of Uber et al while bemoaning the healthcare system, which is a relic of anti-socialist hysteria that remains in place due to similarly singular commitment to markets, now best seen in the ruthless competition between Uber and taxis. You can’t provide amenities to workers – benefits, livable wages – without regarding them as citizens first and consumers second. Uber and the rest of Silicon Valley, despite all their resources, don’t seem to be pushing for such perspective.

How to read RSS and listen to podcasts on Android

RSS isn’t dead. The demise of Google Reader last year inspired pearl-clutching about the demise of the standards-based Web and the rise of Google+ and other proprietary content filters. But here we are in late 2014 and podcasts (audio RSS) are thriving and there are multiple sustainable RSS engines available for subscription, from Feed Wrangler to Fever. Making a podcast client is the new making a Twitter client.

Meanwhile, Google+ has lost its mastermind and services such as SoundCloud, through their increasingly onerous EULAs, show the perils ahead for insular networks. RSS, email, et al will outlive Facebook. In my own ridiculously small slice of the Web, I have proposed that blogging will survive because it’s the foil to the artifice of social media and “solutions.”

Android is less a playground for RSS and podcast clients than iOS. It makes sense, given the Android clientele. Android lacks a built-in pod catcher like iOS’s Podcasts, though it can do RSS reading via Google Play Newsstand. For less than $25, an Android user can get a top-notch RSS and podcasting experience.

For RSS reading (news):

1. Subscribe to an RSS service

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The Feed Wrangler web interface

Feed Wrangler is my pick here. It’s got a simple, barebones Web interface that makes adding feeds easy. It only costs $18 for a one-year subscription.

2. Buy Press and log-in with Feed Wrangler or another account

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Press for Android

Press is the best RSS client for Android. It has a sleek interface that nicely weaves-in Pocket, Instapaper, and Readability, support for DashClock Widget, and its own large widget. You can log into it with Feed Wrangler, Feedly, Fever, and Feedbin

For podcasts:

1. Buy Pocket Casts

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Pocket Casts for Android

Podcasts are having a moment, for at least as long as Squarespace is willing to keep sponsoring episodes. Shifty Jelly have made an outstanding, Android-optimized podcatcher called Pocket Casts that offers variable playback speeds, easy navigation, lock screen controls, and a handy widget.