16 April 2013

Somewhat Repulsed and Sadly Familiar

And I'm not referring just to any one thing.

  • Bruce Schneier offers a sound, rational, and ultimately unsatisfying response to yesterday's bombing in Boston. The contrast between Schneier's reasonability and the fundamental unreasonability of the bombings discloses the real problem with dealing with terrorist acts: They are, as Toby was told in the aftermath of the attempt to assassinate President Bartlet, "an act of madmen." It's not necessarily the objective that is insane — fundamentally, the Boston Tea Party was a casualty-free act of terrorism — it's the disjuncture among the objective, the justification, and the means chosen to express the justification and achieve the objective. In that light, the Boston Tea Party was a perfectly rational event: It was directly focused on both the objective and the justification; it did no more damage, destroyed no more property, and harmed no more persons than were minimally necessary to express that outrage within that focus; and it matched a symbolic harm with a symbolic act. We would remember things much less fondly if the colonials had, in that harbor a handful of kilometers from yesterday's bombings, blown up the ships in the harbor (killing the sleeping crew, among others) rather than sneaked aboard and dumped the cargo over the rail.

    Ultimately, we're stuck coming to terms with an act of madmen (and this looks to my somewhat-out-of-practice eye like a group effort, although nothing can be ruled out) from a rational perspective. That seldom ends satisfactorily... and never neatly, or quickly, or rationally, or replicably.

  • I suppose it beats figuring out what one could have had for the cost of the Iron Pyrite Lady's funeral. I'm not saying "political figures should never receive public funerals" — only that, in Thatcher's own tradition of austerity, a little more austerity would be appropriate; £10m is an awful pile of quid for fool's gold.
  • Turning to publishing for a moment, contrast Canadian universities opting out of the "official" copyright-fee-collection service with the EU courts embracing such services, despite the same objections. The most-defensible conclusion one can draw is that — as usual — the authors are getting screwed either way.
  • So the Pulitzer Prize folks have followed up last year's refusal to award a prize for fiction (shades of 1974) with awarding it to this. I'm not certain which is stranger... but it does point out that prizes that purport to be about choosing the "best" works should have both juried and nonjuried stages. The Oscars, the Nebulas, and the Hugos all demonstrate what happens when there is no stage under a jury's control; the Pulitzers demonstrate what happens when all stages are under a jury's control. The short answer is that the prize awards simply do not stand up over time, and often fail immediately, as I witnessed for the 2001 Hugo for novel (which, in turn, has tainted the satisfaction others should have had from winning that same night).