Eyes Wide Open?

If we find ourselves able to look back on anything from the last twenty years to identify as something that forever altered the landscape of culture, and even of national and international law, that thing will be the Internet. I’ve found it a point of interest, as I’m sure have many of you, that culture and legal systems, two things that historically experience slow and incremental changes, have experienced profound difficulty keeping pace with the change that the Internet is causing to occur at such a rapid pace. The  number of technological changes that my generation has witnessed in its lifetime is largely unparalleled in history. But, before I start to sound like I’m writing a textbook, let me say why this is on my mind this week.

The reason was this article from the New York Times that ran earlier in the week, discussing how European citizens want the ability to delete personal information from the web, finding themselves deeply disturbed at how easy it is to discover facts (at times unsavory, as they are) with a few keystrokes, regardless of what that might mean for a person’s reputation. The article discusses how American philosophy departs from this, considering the right to speak the truth and one’s opinions far more valuable than the privacy of someone else.

I’m not sure where I fall on the continuum of which is most important; I think likely somewhere in between. As much as America likes to malign the UK as a surveillance state, the amount of information we are compelled by law to have on our person simply in the form of legal ID would be considered (as I understand it) an egregious breach of privacy in the UK. Traffic cameras have nothing on the fact that, in America, there is no expectation of privacy in a public place. I’m not applying a value judgement to that, simply making the observation.

Stieg Larsson’s protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, raises interesting questions in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and its sequels. As a master hacker, she can quickly discover anything wrong that anyone has ever done if it was ever recorded on the Internet. While Salander is a fictional character, she represents a very real skill set in existence today. And, as we know, the fact that we all are extremely dis-inhibited about what we post online (or are friends with someone who is dis-inhibited about posting things about their friends online), means that our poor judgement and mistakes will end up recorded on the Internet at some point. Its inevitable. As medical records and legal records move into the cloud, the sheer amount of information about us that can be discovered through potentially malicious intent will become even more of a frightening probability.

The questions that Larsson raises with Salander’s character, at least in part, revolve around forgiveness. The Western legal system is all about punishment, and very little about grace. How much more will this mindset be perpetuated when all of our mistakes are available at a few keystrokes? As the question was posed in a discussion I once heard, is forgiveness possible in a world where forgetting is impossible?

The Times Article points out that there is history on the side of the much older European states that America simply hasn’t experienced. Specifically, the article discusses regimes such as Hitler’s that held onto the skeletons in individuals’ closets forever should the need to ensure their compliance with the government ever arise. As frightening a concept as this is for a government, I’m left frozen in fear of this information in the hands of private enterprise, whose sole motivation may be corporate profit.

At the same time, I’m left considering the articles’ points about lawsuits against Google for its street view project, which many in Europe consider a gross privacy breach, and that I think is an incredible convenience. Similarly, I like that ads in sidebars can be customized to me. I think that this is an innovation, a step forward. I wonder, though, at what cost? I also wonder about counting that cost, and ending up in a position such as Massachusetts, where recording the police performing arrests has resulted in legal consquences. This, I fear, sets up an atmosphere where abuse of power is inevitable.

As information has achieved a fluidity that we have never before seen in history, privacy has accompanied it in achieving a fluidity of its own. I’m both amazed at this, and concerned. I recognize the concept of personal responsibility; that is, I recognize that anything on the Internet can be seen by anyone and stays there forever, and that you shouldn’t post it if you don’t want that to happen. I also, however, recognize that humans make mistakes, and those mistakes shouldn’t haunt us forever if we are to believe at all in forgiveness and grace. Certainly, they shouldn’t haunt our friends or colleagues who might have chosen to not post something, but which we have posted without knowing their wishes. I think that there has to be room to take back our mistakes, to have a record, as it were, expunged. Even our punishment-driven legal system makes space for that. As it, and our culture, rush to keep abreast of the explosion of innovation around us, I think that the places that we entrust with our data should make space for that, as well.

Photo Attribution: GothCandy

Bad Wolf: The Retrospective

Doctor Who: Series Six, Part One [Blu-ray]I was having dinner with friends Monday night, and (all of us being at least somewhat of a nerd-like bent) the topic of Dr. Who came up in conversation. Because, lets face it, if you’ve watched Dr. Who for very long, you have to concur that there really isn’t any other television program worth discussing over dinner. Three of us were raving about the current season, and explaining the series to another person at the table, while making plans for a marathon weekend in which we could catch up the uninitiated friend so that she will be addicted, also (because friends should do that for each other). Someone in the conversation referenced some research she had done on all of the previous incarnations of the Doctor, and that she didn’t understand how I was able to store all of the information that I remember about the Doctor, and his companions, and his adventures.

Perhaps I’m just getting old, but I’ve had this thing for nostalgia over the past few years. At first, it only surfaced during the holidays. More recently, its been showing up rather unexpectedly in various places that I least expect. But for a few moments as my friends and I talked on Monday, I vividly recalled the Saturday night ritual of my childhood: staying up late to watch Dr. Who on PBS. I’ve loved many a science fiction adventure since, but never in quite the same way.

My friend said she didn’t understand this, similar to how she didn’t understand how a gentleman she knows is able to recall classic baseball games, with the players and scores and all other relevant data, upon request. My theory is that it has something to do with the age at which we were exposed. If my father had made it a point to take me to baseball games, I likely would have developed a similar interest. However, we lived nowhere near a major sports arena, and my mother was a science fiction lover. Interestingly, she was first exposed to Star Trek at about the same age at which I was exposed to Dr. Who. She’s been an enduring Trekkie ever since, and can recall Star Trek trivia with the same precise ability that I have for Dr. Who. Something about falling in love with something that we’re encouraged to enjoy in those formative years makes it stick.

There are other stories and universes to which I’ve grown close, of course:  X-Men, James Bond, and others. Perhaps those just don’t hold with them that same sense of family unity that Dr. Who holds. We occasionally sat down together to watch a Bond film, but every Saturday night for years brought Dr. Who to our living room…from the time I was so young that I fell asleep during the episodes, forward. During my middle school days, I went with some friends to see an touring exhibit of Dr. Who. I still have one of the question mark lapel pins to this day. A poster of K-9 hangs above my writing desk, and I seriously want one of these.

I’ve grown into whatever level of storyteller I am in part of because of the amazing story arcs of Dr. Who (plots unduplicated in the rest of science fiction, as far as I’m concerned…and I think many would agree). I learned to appreciate the intelligent, complex, and engaging adventures of a character who abhorred violence and held his intellect as his greatest weapon. I’ve watched the character grow through the years, and religiously watch every episode today. And, through it all, I’ve maintained that sense of togetherness and safety that formed the base from which we engaged in those adventures in other times and far away lands.

So, yes, perhaps I am getting more nostalgic as I get older. I’ll accept that. And it will only get worse, dear reader, because, unlike the Doctor, I won’t regenerate. You will always continue to find the Doctor referenced here at times, though, because the character and his adventures have become that referent, that signal that helps me orient myself to a more innocent time, to the foundation for my current adventures. I find the insights and “what if” questions posed by the series everywhere, informing my worldview as though seeing “Bad Wolf” graffiti for myself at every turn.

And, if you know what I’m talking about when I say that, then I’m certain you understand.

A Review of “The Accident Man”

The Accident Man (Samuel Carver, #1)The Accident Man by Tom Cain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fictional stories that spin off of historical events are always fascinating. I don’t mean fictional accounts of the lives of historical people…although those are fascinating as well. I mean novels that take a historical event and ask, “what if?” That is what Tom Cain does with The Accident Man, and he chooses a particularly sensitive subject historically: the death of Princess Diana. Specifically, Cain uses the fictional premise (although he specifically denies attempting to set forth or support any sort of conspiracy theory in his preface) that Princess Diana’s death was not accidental, but rather an assassination. His protagonist, Samuel Carver (who will debut here and will recur in future novels), is the assassin. He specializes in making his hits look like accidents, and only assassinates people whom he deems to truly deserve their fate, without knowing from whom his orders come. With this job, however, Carver has been double-crossed, and unknowingly murders one of the world’s most loved public figures, in order to further the political and financial goals of his employers. The rest of the book is about his discovery of this, his employers’ attempts to in turn kill him when he displays a conscience, and his quest for revenge.

I’ve always loved the espionage and suspense genre, and have gravitated toward books like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or the Bourne trilogy. I grew up devouring the entirety of the James Bond library, from Ian Fleming’s original works forward. What strikes me the most about this book is the consistency between Cain’s world and Fleming’s world for Bond. For example, when Carver takes a shower, he first takes a steaming hot shower, followed by an ice cold shower. This was a trademark of James Bond when Ian Fleming wrote him; Bond always took his showers this way. I was also struck by the female character’s (an unwitting spy who is drawn into a job she hates by people she hates) line after they sleep together, something to the effect of “it’s never been like that before.” I thought to myself, if that wasn’t a James Bond-like line, I don’t know what is.

The reason that I find this fascinating is because this is the first of Cain’s books featuring Carver’s character. He is creating a character much like Bond, and doing it well. However, he is creating a darker version of Bond, one that doesn’t function with patriotic allegiance, but rather with allegiance to the highest bidder, justifying his relativistic ethics with a survival instinct. This can be taken as an interesting commentary on how our world is now as opposed to the Cold War era of Fleming. In essence, Cain is asking a second question in this novel: what would James Bond look like in a modern world of blurred lines between nations where patriotism is no longer an acceptable motive and anyone or anything can be purchased, including life and death?

Cain develops his protagonist fully as he follows a very Bond-like plot, mastering what Fleming did so well with his master spy: balancing his human vulnerability with his deadly professional expertise. Carver’s backstory is interspersed well throughout the book, never bogging the reader down and always contributing to what Carver is doing at that moment. Cain uses interesting language choices for his narration, drawing emotional analogies to the sorts of physical items that would appear in a spy’s life, for example. Cain also develops his other characters, although his villain is not nearly as original or even as memorable as a Bond villain. He makes up for this, however, in the brutality of his villain.

And therein lies part of the problem. The story absorbs the reader breathlessly until around page 300. From that point until the end of the book, Cain moves the plot in a direction that is decidedly like Casino Royale, with some notable differences: the twist with the female character doubles back on itself, the torture scene is even more savage (as unbelievable as that sounds), and the protagonist is not pictured as recovering well. In fact, we wonder how he will return in future books at all after the abuse he survives and the condition in which it leaves him. The interrogation and torture scene goes on for multiple chapters, and left me disturbed well into the next day. I found this to be un-necessary (especially as other characters undergo interrogation during the course of the book, with significantly less graphic descriptions) and so long that it completely robbed the story of its momentum in the closing chapters. The plot line for these adventures, after all, is relatively predictable: we know the protagonist will be captured and interrogated. That’s just part of the genre. This is one area, however, in which Cain shouldn’t have attempted to out-do Fleming, especially as Cain had done so well at making his violence succinct and effective up until this point.

Cain’s dark, post-modern version of Bond is worth reading, if only to experience this contemporary take on the master-spy character in literature. If you like the genre, and can handle the graphic violence in the closing chapters, this would be a good book for you. Tom Cain has given us a character to consider, and Samuel Carver may well be a spy that will be mentioned in all future discussions of the genre. Time will tell. Will I read another Samuel Carver novel? Only time will tell that, as well.

View all my reviews

Timing Irregularities

Its odd that the simplest ways of measuring time seem to replace the most advanced for me. And, as often as not, the simplest ways of marking time are much more abstract, much less quantified, than the more advanced. As such, I suppose, they make a great deal more sense to me.

As regular readers know, Karen and are I expecting our daughter in September. Once you find you’re expecting, guess what? There’s an app for that. We use an iPhone app to track the stages of the baby’s development, and it keeps a countdown of how many weeks and days until “D-Day.” Honestly, those numbers never really mean anything to me. Recognizing that I’m, how shall I say, mathematically challenged, I instead mark our progress by Karen’s belly. That’s where I go to talk to my little girl now, anyway.

There are other ways that I’m realizing we’re close, though. The amount of stuff accumulating for the baby is one way to tell. Last night, though, I realized it in an odd way.

Every household, every marriage, has a division of labor. That is, different people take care of different household chores. In our household, I do the laundry. On most Sunday evenings, I’m able to re-live the adventures of the week by going back through the outfits we’ve worn that week (go ahead, laugh). The fact that we were moving into this new season of life was driven home to me first by taking care of the maternity clothes that showed up in the laundry. Those, after all, were some of our first “baby purchases.” So, I recognize that we’re right in the middle of the process by the fact that I’m laundering almost exclusively maternity clothes for Karen. I really realized this, though, when I asked Karen Sunday night how much longer we have until those begin fading out of the laundry ritual, replaced by what she normally wears…that funky, unique style that I fell in love with years ago.

It seems odd, at first blush, to measure time by what sort of laundry you’re doing. Many artists have pondered this sort of thing, though…Bon Jovi sang that “sometimes you tell the day by the bottle you drink.” For those of us who aren’t given to hard data and quantitatively measurable fields, I suppose this sort of thing makes sense. And, although I’m not certain offhand what sort of poetic devices one might employ about laundry (“sometimes you tell the week by the shirt that you press” just doesn’t have a ring to it), I’m confident that it lends itself to much deeper expression than just saying “six weeks.”

In the meantime, I don’t know what time it is (because I don’t wear a watch), but I know the sun is falling in a way that tells me its evening. Much more beautiful than reducing that to “four o’clock,” or some other numerical value. I recognize that those sorts of measurements have their place, and that a civilized society would have difficulty functioning without them. I just find myself instinctively circumventing them whenever possible.

I’m such a rebel, I guess.

How do you tell time?