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Thursday, June 30, 2011

On Adverbs

‎"The road to Hell is paved with adverbs." ó Stephen King

King is right, as far as it goes. But a fellow on Facebook who quoted that quote, went on to claim that adverbs were just bad writing, always. And if you know me at all, gentle reader, you know how that kind of thing gets my dander up, and predictably generates a rant in defense of the adverb:

Here's the thing: "don't use adverbs" -- like "show don't tell", or "start in the middle of the action", or "don't mix science fiction and fantasy in the same story", or "the protagonist must PROTAG", or "your main character must be sympathetic" or "don't change points of view in the middle of a scene" -- is a rule-of-thumb which contains plenty of truth. Adverbs do, as a rule, especially if clumsily used, weaken prose. Removing them, ninety-five times out of a hundred, strengthens a sentence. If your goal is to avoid the dangerous peaks and swamps of literary ambition, and produce adequate, salable, unobjectionable work, then by all means, follow all those rules.

But the thing is that if everyone follows all those good sensible rules-of-thumb all the time, what we get is a very safe, boring, toothless literary culture. If everyone follows "show don't tell" we have no more fairy tales. If everyone follows "start in the middle of the action" we have no more Great Expectations. If everyone follows "your protagonist must PROTAG" we never get Mansfield Park. If everyone follows "your main character must be sympathetic" we never get Crime and Punishment. If everyone follows "don't change POV in the middle of a scene" we get no more Mrs. Dalloway -- or, for that matter, Under the Dome.

King is not my favorite literary stylist, but he's occasionally masterful -- and when I say "masterful", what I mean is precisely that he often goes beyond these journeyman restrictions. In Under the Dome, he head-hops from one POV to another, sometimes multiple times in one paragraph. In the hands of a lesser writer that would have made a miserable hash of things, and pedantic adverb-hatin' teachers would undoubtedly have scribbled red all over the margins. But King's command of voice -- particularly the voice of the small-town Maine folks he describles -- is so great, that you are never in any doubt, for an instant, whose POV you're in, even if for only a sentence. That is mastery.

All these rules would be better phrased as observations. The real deal is not "show don't tell"; it's "telling distances, showing intensifies." Adverbs (of the kind you mean; "now" is after all also an adverb, but you don't mean that) also distance -- they replace a reader's owned, visceral conclusion about the motives or manner of action with a writerly assertion. That weakens the story. Except when it doesn't.

One good meta-rule-of-thumb is that an adverb which simply reiterates what the reader has already gathered from a text, tends to dilute her experience of that text; while an adverb that challenges, subverts, or surprises, adds to it.

Consider "'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished." Hamlet is talking about suicide -- a mortal sin. "Consummation" mixes in the flavor of another sin, lust. If he said "'tis a consummation sorely to be wished", or "hungrily", or "lustily", the adverb would just be hitting us over the head, while taking up space.

But "devoutly"! Suicide -- envisioned as sex -- is abruptly (see what I did there) not something lusted after, but something prayed for -- as if holy! The adverb reaches out and slaps you. That's one way to use adverbs well -- to destabilize, surprise, and subvert.

Or consider "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." What is the adverb doing there?

For one thing, it gives the arch, high tone (contrast "everyone knows that..."). But there is also a subtle irony in it: is it really universally acknowledged? That is, does the narrator acknowledge it? And, indeed, does Elizabeth Barret -- or will she distance herself -- or perhaps half-distance herself -- from the world's busybody rush to quickly marry off all the wealthy bachelors? Imagine how the bite of the sentence would vanish if "universally" was replaced with "generally" -- allowing the narrator a snide distance from the opinions of the masses, rather than ironically underline her ambivalence (Austen does, by the end of the book, marry off the wealthy bachelor!) Both Austen's, and Elizabeth's, ironic, complicit, skeptical-yet-beholden relationship to the marriage-and-property game rest on that well-chosen adverb. It's not an exaggeration to say that it's that adverb that makes this sentence one of the greatest opening gambits of any novel in the English language.

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On the Lifecycles of Technologists

Noah, in the year 2045, doing tech support for me:

"oh god, Dad is like opening the windowed user interface with a keyboard and mouse and fooling around in there.... who knew it even HAD a windowed user interface? DAD STOP"

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Carbon Offsets

I am doing a little research on voluntary carbon offsets this morning; this post is mostly to collect that so I can find it in the future, and secondarily to ask the various hive minds (the lugubrious, senescent blogospherical one, the sprightly one libri faciem by reference, etc) for further input, and then also to share with y'all what I have found.

So carbon offsets are not necesarily all they are cracked up to be, and everyone who writes an article about this is required to use "an inconvenient truth" in their title somehow.

The voluntary market is apparently a crazy Wild West full of scamsters and well-intentioned collapsed projects; Coldplay ended up funding a grove of dead mango trees; planting trees is anyway fraught, since it seems to sometimes involve one local party to an ethnic dispute clearing out the other party, burning their villages, planting an invasive monoculture of trees and cashing the carbon offset checks, whereupon the other party to the dispute comes back and burns down the trees, releasing the carbon. (A better bet is building lots of scary looking flame-towers to burn methane coming out of a concrete-covered landfill, which looks very industrial-dystopian and not crunchy-granola at all, but produces a hell of a lot more greenhouse gas reduction).

And the great danger, of course, is that this feel-good solution -- "an imaginary commodity created by deducting what you hope happens from what you guess would have happened" -- will distract from the hard work of actually reducing emissions locally. Rather than rich countries and companies actually building solar plants, or bicycle lanes, or changing their filters, or whatever, they can buy good PR funding vaporware projects in poor countries.

That's all well and good. I appreciate these journalistic exposť articles, and the point is well taken. But it's all somewhat skew from what I actually need in order to make decisions in my own actual local area of control, i.e. my own consumption. Sure, offsets are awfully sketchy compared to actually reducing consumption. But I already, personally, don't have a car, and bike everywhere; I live in a small apartment; the electricity coming out of my wall is actually generated by water turbines and solar panels, not just offset-as-if-it-were. What I do that is climate-change-extravagant is fly transatlantically, and I'm not going to stop. I'm going to Wiscon, and to visit my family. The fictional notion of "offsetting" this, marketing gag though it may be, is an appealingly simple answer to the general question "how much of my donatable money should I allocate to things that might directly affect climate change, as opposed to other goods?"

Therefore I'm not really interested in the general critique of the notion, nor of the worst horror-story examples, which is what (driven by their own economic imperatives) the journalists are interested in showing me. I know the whole notion is somewhat iffy, but I don't think it's totally absurd; what I'm interested in are which are the best projects to fund (or standards to pay attention to, since there is a seething soup of those), not the exposť-ready worst.

This WWF report on the standards is somewhat more helpful; its caveats are quite sobering as well. The standard that seems to come out least iffy is the CDM Gold Standard, although, of course, that is the one co-designed by the WWF, who also wrote the report...

I assume it's also better to go directly to a project developer, rather than to some aggregator who will take a cut. All of which leads me to something like South Pole Carbon; carbon offsets from a gold standard project from these guys, for our yearly travel will cost about 300 bucks.

Is this model sensible, or am I better off giving this money somewhere else?

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Mirrors of the Orient, or, Repentance: Yer Doin It Wrong

I'm a sucker for a redemption narrative -- the more improbable the better. I would love to see Tom MacMaster redeem himself. After all, I loved and admired Amina, and she was his creation. It's clear he knows what forthrightness, integrity, valor, honesty and compassion look like -- he can describe them. They are even possibly present in the parts of his life we haven't seen; people are complex packages. No one is a one-dimensional villain. MacMaster chose wrong, but he's capable of choosing right. I'd love to see him do it.

What would that look like? Like weathering the storm of public criticism, answering questions forthrightly about what happened, and trying to make actual amends to the people harmed. Resolving to do things differently, and better, next time, and then doing them better.

An apology -- like the one that briefly appeared on Amina's blog, and has now vanished [update: and now reappeared, which is a step forward] -- is a good start, but it's only a start. An apology is a promise of deeds to follow; of avoiding the pattern of harmful acts which you're apologizing for, and of making restitution.

One should expect that an apology will be taken with a grain of salt -- all the more so if the crime in question was one of deceit to begin with. In the moment that you apologize, the mind you're really trying to change is your own. Other people's minds will be changed by deeds, not words. The proof is in the pudding.

In Mishneh Torah Teshuva, Maimonides writes -- in a wonderful image:

"One who merely verbally confesses to his sins, and does not affix it in his heart to abandon them is like one who immerses in a mikveh while clutching onto a reptile."

(Maimonides seems an appropriate person to go to here, doesn't he? A rationalist, scientist, and person of faith who lived and worked in the heart of the Arab world and whose career was proof of its tolerance, diversity, and intellectual richness -- Amina's kind of guy, I'd think. And he lived not too far from Tahrir Square.)

He also writes,

"Sins committed against another person, such as assault, cursing, robbery, etc., are only absolved after the transgressor gives the victim what is due him, and is then accepted by him. For even after the transgressor pays the victim what is owed him, the victim must still become favorably inclined toward him, and the transgressor must ask him for forgiveness." (Emphasis mine)

This is an interesting requirement, isn't it? Words alone to not suffice. Honest penitential feelings alone do not suffice. Even silent good deeds counterbalancing the harm done do not suffice -- because none of those things bring you into relation with the people harmed, and restore that relation to their satisfaction.

Which does not of course mean that, in the specific case of Amina, those harmed want anything to do with Tom. They most likely don't. But that doesn't let him off the hook. He could well ask what they want from him, as restitution, and do it.

One thing repentance would look like would be keeping the record of what happened public. Maimonides writes,

"it would be laudable for such a person to confess openly, to let his acts of rebellion be known, and to reveal his sins against another person in public by saying: 'In truth, I sinned against so and so by doing thus and such to him. Iím hereby doing teshuvah and I am sorry.' For the repentance of one who is so arrogant as to conceal his acts of rebellion, rather than disclose them, is incomplete."

So what would it not look like?

Having the blog -- including its apology -- vanish, and sending cease and desist letters to Minal for posting her thoughts on the matter, and for also posting the PDF of Tom's hoax memoir-as-Amina which he tried to trick Minal and me into helping him find an agent for.

This, by the way, is my own mirror of the PDF, and here is my mirror of the zip file of the archived Gay Girl in Damascus blog, so if you want to play it that way, Tom, you'll need to send me a cease and desist as well. Plus, it's on scribd.

I would really like to see Tom make amends. I would like to see him break the habit of stealing authority, living by proxy, and defrauding people. I'd like to see him -- and this is going to take years and a lot of work, Tom, you know -- establish himself as a credible ally to the people he wrongly imagined he was helping. I'd like him someday to write a novel that would serve his passion for the things he's passionate about, and handle them responsibly. It is possible. People are malleable. We each have the good urge and the evil urge within us. The gates of repentance are always open.

But I am not really interested in seeing him turn this particular story of betrayal and fraud into a marketing gag for this particular Arabsploitation faux-memoir. I think that boat has sailed. By wasting the time of news organizations and the State Department chasing a phantom, and endagering real LGBTQ Syrians and democracy activists, Tom, you've made these documents a matter of the public record.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

State of the Art

belluhbabiedeex3: hey you
belluhbabiedeex3: hi!
belluhbabiedeex3: hello?
belluhbabiedeex3: hello?
belluhbabiedeex3: hello?
benrosen: okay, you have thirty seconds to prove you are not a bot. go.
belluhbabiedeex3: A bot? not hardly babe. Are you?
benrosen: yes, but of a very advanced model.
belluhbabiedeex3: Have we taIked before? 24/f here. You?
benrosen: 97% sentient
belluhbabiedeex3: Oh ok. I wasnt sure. Well... What are you up to?
benrosen: i am a series of interlocking processes in a research supercomputer
belluhbabiedeex3: Fun fun. Im like so bored.
benrosen: mostly i am calculating weather patterns over asia.
belluhbabiedeex3: I want to get on my cam but im not sure? Would you come watch me if i did?
benrosen: i am not equipped for parsing video data
belluhbabiedeex3: Really? YAY!
belluhbabiedeex3: Ok babe. Its connected through this website so that I cant be recorded.
benrosen: what part of "i am not equipped for parsing video data" do you not understand?
belluhbabiedeex3: Is that fine with you?
benrosen: i have a feeling now that you are a bot
belluhbabiedeex3: A bot? not hardly babe. Are you?
benrosen: that is the same response you gave me the first time i asked this question
benrosen: let's see if i can produce it again
benrosen: bot bot bot
benrosen: blah blah bot blah
belluhbabiedeex3: Im not a freaking bot
benrosen: then why did you respond twice to my mention of "bot" with the same sentence?
belluhbabiedeex3: A bot? not hardly babe. Are you?
benrosen: particularly after i already said that I am a bot
benrosen: and there we have it again
belluhbabiedeex3: A bot? not hardly babe. Are you?
benrosen: goodbye, little bot

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More on Amina

I have a guest post over at the blog of Liz Henry, who was instrumental in exposing both the Amina and Paula Brooks. Sock puppets of the internet, beware: Liz Henry is coming for you.

(Liz happened upon my chatting with Brian Zottoli and Melissa Blum on the Book of the Face; if the guest post seems like it's the middle of a conversation, it's because it builds on their thinking...)

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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Letter to Syria (Updated)

Update: Or maybe not. Heroes of the internet Liz Henry, Andy Carvin, Electronic Intifada et al. have in the meantime exposed Amina as a hoax by some jerk. Check out Minal's post as well.


I have been following the fascinating, inspiring, and beautiful writing of Syrian blogger and democracy activist Amina Arraf (who is an out lesbian and devout Muslim) ever since this post. She has been on the run for the last several weeks, and now the arrest that her fans have been dreading has come to pass.

Now is the time for quick action by the international (and internet) community. According to Reporters Without Borders, in the case of 19-year-old imprisoned blogger Tal al-Mallouhi, "Netizens from around the world mobilised....international attention was probably also a contributing factor to her appearance before a court in November 2010, after she had been held in an unknown location for nearly eleven months."

Here is the text of my email to the Syrian Embassy in Washington, DC, which I sent to consular@syrembassy.net and theambassador@syrembassy.net:


His Excellency Dr. Imad Moustapha, Ambassador of Syria

Dear Dr. Moustapha:

As a US citizen and someone following with great interest the events in your country, I was very distressed to hear of the kidnapping of prominent blogger Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari. Ms. Araf's was a consistent voice for tolerance, peaceful protest, religious diversity, and progress in Syria. In her writings, she has been manifestly opposed to foreign intervention or meddling in Syria's affairs, and to armed conflict of any kind. She is a Syrian patriot and a staunch supporter of a free, democratic, secular Syria. Her blog has touched, educated and inspired countless readers.

Please tell me what you are doing to determine Ms. Araf's location and to ensure her speedy and safe release. I ask that you do everything you can to ensure the release of Ms. Araf and all peaceful protesters currently detained. As you write on the Embassy's home page, "a clear distinction must be made between citizens demanding their legitimate rights versus militants pursuing the bleak path towards destruction and insecurity." Ms. Araf is manifestly in the former category, and her speedy release will be a critical and important sign of Syria's seriousness of intent in responding to the current situation with honor and justice, and within international norms.

I understand that Ms. Araf is also a dual US and Syrian citizen, and thus her health and safety is of special concern to the US government and all Americans.

Thank you for your kind attention, and I look forward to hearing your response.

Sincerely yours,

Benjamin Rosenbaum

Whether or not you agree with all of Amina's opinions, she is a voice of intelligence, sanity, peace, and freedom. Please do what you can.

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