Monday, November 27, 2006

Five (minus two) More Thoughts - Social Justice Ed.

(A "five thoughts" feature that I sporadically generate. I only had three this time.)

1. Killing people, that is, looking them in the eye and murdering them (ignoring for the sake of discussion the usual realpolitikal weaseling of the biblical shalt nots), is a bad thing. Most of us grade the badness on a curve based on the level of malice committed, as probably we should. For example, if you commit murder in a spontaneous rage, it's less bad than if you spend a month contemplating it, and less bad than if you torture somebody over the course of days (again ignoring...). You can consider the cumulative evil as, roughly, the area under the violence-time curve.

(Parenthetically, the resistance to this evil is a good definition of toughness. In materials science, toughness is the area under the stress-strain curve. It measures how much ill treatment can be absorbed before failure, how much overall. Although it's cumulative, it also varies with the rate of abuse.)

Here's the thing though, we happily let people fall off the bottom edge of the evil scale. The bullying boss, the browbeating wife, the inconsiderate smoker, each of these people is likely to commit more stress over a longer period of time than someone who puts a knife through someone's heart. And even if the end result is the same--death through a broken spirit or through lung cancer--only the murder that peaks high in violence is a serious crime. Although it's no doubt unworkable from a criminal justice standpoint, it would be interesting (and better?) if our notions of social acceptance were wired differently. The victims of these long-simmering traumas are also tougher, of course, than people usually give them credit for. Our animal selves are not wired to love the people who willingly take shit every day of their lives. Paradoxically, they only attain social status when they resist their slow oppression with sudden violence.

It's the rate we respect.

2. For reasons I myself don't fully grasp, I try to keep content on this blog full of my more "writerly" stuff (um, usually), while the fluffier or more irrelevant gets shipped elsewhere. (I am reconsidering this model, maybe dumping it all here.) One thing I do that seems appropriate in that more literary motif is regular book reviews of whatever I'm reading. If you have a StatCounterTM tool, one thing it can do is keep track of what search queries caused people to land on your blog. For a low-traffic site like mine, book reviews are a magnet for new arrivals, and it gives me a warm fuzzy in those rare instance when they go on to look at pages other than the one they landed on.

Not that they ususally do, mind you. I'm pretty sure it's been a common source of ill-researched book reports. (There are the .edu domains for one thing, and when someone googles "book report of XXX," I take that as sort of a hint.) I don't know what to make of this, really. I'm probably less sanctimonious about plagiarism than a lot of people, but on the other hand, even I can see how wrongness accrues as an area-under-the-curve thing. It's not as though any of these hapless schmucks is going to pass for me (in the unlikely event they'd want to) but I'm enough of a prick that I'd be happy if I knew a way to encode some bombs to alert a wary teacher that some kid is skating by on my material. Any ideas?

Popular book report queries, if you were wondering, are Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin, and Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut. I wish I'd tried harder on those reviews. Maybe brilliant writing would have been enough to out the sneaky little bastards.

3. Plagiarists aren't a big deal but I actively hate spammers, and if they are not as bad as murderers, they still deserve a special place in hell. Just the same, they are quirky enough to provide me with amusement from time to time. It's tough to imagine that any sane email reader would answer an intimate letter from Melinda, especially when he's sitting on a boxful of identical ones from Raul, Julio, Ingrid, Courtney, Alice, Davey, Mustafa, Clementine, Axl, Stimpy, and Masumi and all of these old and unremembered friends are suspiciously eager to sell their stores of Viagra and Ambien at discount rates. Penny stocks aren't much better--you'd have to be stunningly naïve to conclude that the landslide of insider information from people you've never heard of constitutes some kind of clever tip.

Sure, you'll land some suckers with those techniques--stunning naivete being all too abundant--but smart spammers, should they exist, need to capitalize on subjects to which people spend lifetimes conditioning themselves in gullibility. The stock market is not a bad stab at this, I admit, but the real suckers are religious. If J. Random Idiot got 114 emails telling them that Jesus Christ (or Mohammed or Krishna) asked--no commanded--them to donate a dollar or to buy into Avalanche Pharmaceuticals (AVP, now trading at $1.98/share--last chance!), then that would really strike to the cultivated heart of their unreason. You just know that otherwise functioning members of society would be squirming themselves into knots about donating. Because what if God really does want me to do it?

So send $1.25 to Keifus at the address below or risk eternal damnation. Ganesh commands you!


LentenStuffe said...


Honestly, I come here because it's you.

Re: your first point, Criminal Law has an entire literature accumulated on the differing Mens Rea involved in the act of murder. It also makes provision for extenuating provocations like long-term abuse. Professional jurists are adepts at this reasoning.

I agree with you on your take on plagiarism and felt the profound eloquence of your presence elsewhere.

Keifus said...

Note to self: stop trying to make fine points about law. I wasn't aware that accomodations are made for that sort of thing (though I do think it may be undervalued socially, um, maybe). I suppose I'm familiar enough with "aggravated" crime as a lessening of importance (aggravated is mitigating, go figure).

K (thanks as well, but don't be so sure)

august said...

Re. point 1 --

When I lived in the grad student dorm, and when I had no other choice, I sat with the philosophers. First year grad student philosophers, at the time, spent a lot of time coming up with bizarre examples of causality/responsibiltity. Mainly they seemed to involve switches and loaded trains (throwing the switch that results in train crashing, failure to throw switch so train crashed, two trains coming can only save one, each repeated ad nauseum with different numbers and types of people. I stopped listening when the trains go to be full of Nazis.

[My cat is suddenly dead set against my commenting here]

At any rate, now I wish I listened, or at least noted a couple of articles. Causality -- what it means to make something happen -- seems to trip people up everywhere: scientists and historians, policymakers and web administrators.

If you (either of you) have ever looked into the matter, would appreciate suggested reading.


Keifus said...

Like a lot explanations of things, "causality," at least as it relates to character, works best in a literary sense, is important but often questionable in real human terms, and is probably meaningless biochemically. To tear down my early argument further, one reason things slide off the bottom of the social relevance scale (if, in fact, they really do) is that the causality of low-grade abuse becomes too tenuous to reliably assert.

I've got no references for you, although I swear I've found it as a theme now and again. I'd be interested in the discussion myself, provided it's made appropriately entertaining for a non-philosopher.

Also, I've got it on good authority that cats read through their assholes. Kitty's interested in my work, I think. I'm touched.


hipparchia said...

about those kids plagiarizing your book reviews ... i suppose you could always set up a paypal account and ask them to donate whatever they think is an appropriate fee for your ghostwriting services.

an awful lot of really fine creativity happens, in the arts as well as in science, when creative types collaborate, be it inadvertantly or deliberately.

it's a blow to the ego to have someone take your idea and do it better, but people can survive that. about the only thing i'd get truly bent out of shape over would be if someone stole my work and then turned right around and accused me of being the thief.

hipparchia said...

ps. i will admit that it is fun to catch other people using your words, pictures, ideas and letting them know that you know that they're caught red-handed.

Keifus said...

I don't imagine any college kid mining the internet for report fodder is going to improve much on my reviews. (Which isn't to say that there's not a lot of room to improve them, just that these aren't likely candidates to do it.) I take it as a challenge to try and write more uniquely.

Also, I kind of pity the poor bastard who got stuck with Winter's Tale for a class. Schad's synopsis as beautifully written but unreadable is spot-on. It's long too.


Claude Scales said...

Be damned if I'm gonna take orders from any four-armed elephant. OK, guess I'll be damned. (What's Hindu hell like?)

Your plaint about spammers went to those on e-mail. The ones on Blogger never bothered me much (I resisted putting on word verification for a long time because so few people would comment on my blog that I didn't want to do anything that might discourage them in the slightest), since it was easy to spot something like "I loved your blog. If you love Texas Hold 'Em, go to ... ." and click on the little dustbin. Several months ago, I stopped seeing any spam. It seemed like word had gotten around the spammer community that I was vigilant about policing my site. Then, after a long hiatus, I got something about "low cost loans". I quickly deleted it, but it then showed up as a comment on one of my other posts. I deleted that, but it showed up a third time, which I also deleted.

After that, I got no more spam, but, a day later, I checked my AOL e-mail and was horrified to discover about fifty MAILER-DAEMON messages, along with some automated "I'm out of the office but will reply soonest" messages, and, most alarmingly, some other automated messages from institutional sites telling me that my e-mail had been rejected because it contained a virus. Sorting through this mess, I was able to determine that someone had used my e-mail account to send out a message to the effect that I was the attractive young lady who had accidentally scratched the recipient's car and that I was very sorry and wanted to do something to make it up and BTW attached is my photograph (this was apparently the virus carrier).

I tried to determine who had actually received the e-mails, and sent follow-ups saying that someone had sent these messages out on my account without my knowledge or permission, and that they should be deleted because they likely contained a virus. The only responses I received were written in Hungarian. I replied to these, apologizing for being unable to read or write Hungarian, but repeating my warning about the virus. In reply, I got another sentence of Hungarian, followed by "Haha :-)"

It may be just a temporal coincidence, but I'm convinced that the "low cost loan" spammers were pissed off by my repeated deletions, and hijacked my AOL account to teach me a lesson. Anyway, I've now bitten the bullet and put word verification on comments to my blog. Fortunately, I'm now getting more (relevant) comments than ever, so it doesn't seem to be discouraging anyone.

Maximo said...

you know... directories and catalogs used to (and still do) intentionally print errors so as to catch infringers.

maybe you could insert in your reviews fake (but entertaining and profound-sounding) plot twists/characters/literary insights.

it's a good writing exercise actually.

Keifus said...

I think Hindu hell just goes on and on... (Or something). I used to get very little spam at work, but lately it's jumped to obscene proportions, a hundred a day. (Why my company filters are inferior to, say, yahoo's is unknown). I've considered turning the word verification off (I find it annoying when replying), but don't want to spend all day scrubbing.

Max: I like that. Next up is a Tom Robbins book, and the exercise seems appropriate in that case. I'll see how motivated I feel over the weekend.