Archive for February, 2013

Review: In One Person

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

John Irving writes a John Irving novel better than anyone else does.  That’s more of a trick than it sounds like.  More than many writers, Irving pays explicit homage to his influences and has become closely attached to a set of symbols and touchstones.  Having such a strong and imitable voice will attract parodists and rip-off artists at a surprising rate. It’s easy for a rip-off to become more noticed than the original; ask Bill Hicks.

It’s amusing that Irving has chosen to practically parody himself in In One Person. Reading it isn’t so much a game of “spot the trope” as looking for ground that hasn’t been covered by Irving before. It’s a misleading game, though.  Even as I was checking the boxes (there’s a cross dresser, there’s a wrestler, it’s a New England Prep School, Dickens story, oh, look Austria) it never felt old. It’s a nice way to make the point that individual characters and people are individuals, even if they share experiences.

And really, what Irving does better than anyone is build his characters lives that bring them into sharp focus.  There’s usually an issue of the day to address as well, of course.  The man is a Dickens disciple, after all.  While his well-wrought characters generally illuminate that issue, I always enjoy them just for their clockwork completeness and emotional verisimilitude.

In One Person has a lot to say about the lives of non-heterosexuals (that sounds PC, but Irving covers a fair amount of this ground) that is certainly worth hearing.  Irving says it all by walking a real person through that world and inviting us along. Writers have been doing that since Dickens (at least), but few as well.


Review: Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

E. Gabriella Coleman is an anthropologist who did her field work studying hackers – in the “free software geeks” sense of the word.  And that’s “field work” in the sense of “serious social science investigation of a culture by immersion” sense of the word.  She applied the same techniques and rigor to studying Debian maintainers as others have applied to Maori tribes.  If I’m not a member of that hacker tribe, I’ve certainly lived around them for many years, and it’s both enlightening and disconcerting to see that analysis progress.

I’m not an anthropologist, but I find the analysis insightful and largely accurate. It’s strange to see the values, mores, and rituals of my community described with the clinical compassion of the anthropologist.  In addition to describing these features, her dissection of how they relate to and are motivated by larger societal issues is compelling.  I think someone reading this could explain hacker culture more effectively both to non-hackers and to hackers themselves.

In addition, I learned some specific things about the Debian project.  I understand their positions and why I didn’t know more about them now.

Coding Freedom is a scholarly treatise and an anthropological one at that, so it is thick both with anthropological jargon and with references and citations.  That can make for dense reading, but for me, it remained compelling.