An Exchange of Hostages

I finished another book from my experimental pile, An Exchange of Hostages by Susan Matthews, 1997. This is the first book in a protagonist-oriented (that is to say, it is primarily a character study) series about Andrej Koscuisko, a dual surgeon/torturer in an inquistion-themed future. Already a brilliant surgeon at the start,  the book details his largely unwilling training as a torturer, divided into nine ascending Levels. The first is simple verbal abuse, and the last few are pretty damn nasty.

The question the book proffers is if it is possible to be a moral or ethical torturer, with Koscuisko offered as a palpable maybe. It’s not clear. He’s a complicated fellow. On one hand he is philosophically opposed to torture, but he does it, forced to by a family and society that has carved out his career path for him. He actively avoids inflicting unnecessary pain to his prisoners, but he discovers fairly early on in his training that he’s a sadist and that he derives professional pleasure from his job. And as if he didn’t have enough issues, he’s forced to take on a personal slave (the book calls them ‘bond-involuntaries’, a catchy bit of Orwellianism) that comes to admire his restraint. In short, people, including his victims, tend to admire him, perhaps as he is the best available person in a throughly mad society. Does that make a moral torturer? Maybe. I can see why there’s a blub by Stephen Donaldson on the back, as he pretty much patented making readers uncomfortable with a protagonist.

I kept trying to fit the book into a genre or find a parallel, without much success. It reminded me of Ender’s Game with the progression through morally questionable training, but the book ends suddenly with graduation instead of the grand prolonged denouncement that Card delivers. The dystopian psychological  manuevering and the style in which it was written reminded me a little of Dune, especially the sections told from the perspective of K’s fellow student, who fancies herself a master manipulator but consistently misreads every situation she’s in. But it’s too small-scale. Donaldson’s Covenant is close, but K is far too decisive and centered to be compared to the Unbeliever.

Carrier on Erhman

Richard Carrier takes on Bart Ehrman, who recently wrote a rather unfriendly HuffPo article on mythicists. I saw a talk by Ehrman years ago where he also dismissed mythicism out of hand; it struck me as his blind spot in an otherwise reasonable take on early Christianity. Unfortunately, it’s an oversight shared by many scholars. All scholars have a blind spot or two where their theories break down; I couldn’t tell you what mine are, as by definition I can’t see them, but I’m sure I have several.

Haven’t read his (Ehrman’s) new book yet, but I hope he makes a distinction between principled mythicists (yes, you can teach early Christianity and doubt a historical Jesus – wow, what a overstatement he makes) and the fringe that operates without method/evidence.

There are, certainly, “mythicists” that wouldn’t accept a historical Jesus without a birth certificate, and even then would claim it was forged. On the other hand, there are “mythicists” that are deeply concerned with the methodological issues associated with making a claim with scanty evidence.

Right now as I see it, there are two current ways to argue for a historical Jesus, and both are questionable. One is the Gospel of Mark. The other gospels are dependent on it to some degree, so they can’t be certain independent witnesses, and we don’t have a copy of the supposed Q, either. The real problem with Mark, though, is that it contains a plethora of details that seem unavailable to Paul. This opens the question of whether they are later inventions, in which case we must fall back to the second argument, by way of Paul – and Paul offers very little evidence beyond the creed of 1 Cor 15, which is secondhand.  The ‘brother of the lord’ line in Galatians is suggestive, but Carrier does a good job of cutting it to pieces. There is a third route, through Josephus, but that’s been debunked to death.

More ME3 ending analysis

I have to link to this ongoing analysis of ME3’s ending, if only for this quote:

It’s inexcusable. Part of what drove me to write this analysis is that it is inconceivable to me that a professional writer could have produced this staggering degree of literary incompetence and I truly want to believe that it’s all part of the plan – not necessarily for the sake of the Mass Effect story, but for the sake of my continued faith in human competence.

Personally, I favor the ‘cock-up before conspiracy’ rule for broken narratives, but there is a healthy appetite in humanity for conspiracy theories. It is unpleasant to view our fellow humans as powerless or incompetent, so we invent reasons for their behavior, and even better future outcomes than what might be expected. It is not dissimilar to how religion works.

It is very difficult to maintain logical consistency over all aspects of a lengthy narrative that contains dozens of characters. Simply resolving plot lines is hard enough; doing so without violating common sense is even harder. It takes a lot of time and work. I just finished reading Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, and I can appreciate the delay in its publication; he’s working with well over a hundred characters, with perhaps two dozen of those critical, and making all their decisions and utterances make something resembling sense, and happen in a reasonable order and time,  is incredibly time-consuming. It helps a little, of course, when genre conventions allow for character incompetency, covering up the occasional authorial mistake with low expectations.

So, in short, it’s probably still a cock-up, barring evidence to the contrary.

Sick, CK2

I have hay fever. I’ve had it off and on for several weeks but yesterday was horrible. I didn’t even go outside, so I’m not sure what brought it on. I spent most of the day reading, but at half speed because I had to pause to cough and sneeze and try to avoid rubbing my eyes out after every half-page. It’s not the worst allergic reaction I’ve ever had, but it’s up there. I’m going to try to teach tomorrow, but I’ll probably look like hell.

Later in the evening when my symptoms calmed down, I tried my hand at Crusader Kings 2. So far, after a half- day’s examination, it’s the best game Paradox has made, even better than EU3. The complex succession laws, management of levies, and handling of vassals are all spot on. It has a learning curve, but not so much I wasn’t able to take a duchy in Munster in 1066 and have a son become King of Ireland by 1100. The goals are smaller – world conquest is pretty much out of the picture, but keeping a dynasty going is – but those goals are more meaningful.


The GOP nomination process should be well over, but it is not, in large part due to Romney’s failure to win in any Southern states besides the take-all Florida and Virginia. He has failed to win Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi, which should all be easy wins for a GOP frontrunner. Most ominously, Santorum currently leads in Texas.

Why ominous? The GOP has always needed the South to win since before I was born. Alabama, South Carolina, Texas, and Mississippi in particular haven’t gone blue since 1976. Tennessee went blue twice, but only for Gore.

The fact that the South is currently gaga for the Pennsylvanian Santorum, and that Gingrich still gets support, means, at least for me, that the party continues to be deeply divided. Alabama and Mississippi are ground central for white religious Republicans, and Romney failed to attract them. A brokered convention continues to be possible. This is very different divide than the one that separated Obama and Clinton supporters in ’08 – those two candidates were virtually identical compared to Romney and Santorum.


The other week I did something that I almost never do – went into a bookstore and picked out some books in the scifi section by authors I didn’t know in the hopes that they might be somehow good. Generally I acquire books by overheard reputation or prior experience with the author(s).

So far my experiment has proved largely fruitless. I finished Leviathan Wakes by James A. Corey (a pseudonym) and Heaven’s Shadow by Goyer and Cassutt. The first was a reasonable 80-page novella with a 480-page introduction – I’m dead serious. If the book had begun on page 481, I would be singing its praises. The second was a reasonable enough first-contact story, but like most of them, it doesn’t stack up well to Rendezvous with Rama or the Eight Worlds scenario, which I prefer for their study of expected alien indifference/antiapathy.

I’m still rereading A Song of Ice and Fire, but that’s going to take awhile. A Feast of Crows in particular is providing to be like wading through a sea of a thick but pleasant-tasting maple syrup.

I decided to switch to experimental mode after by reading lists like this one from NPR on the 100 best scifi works (really it covers fantasy and scifi), and realizing I had read most of them (my count on that particular list was 57 of 100, with 21 of the first 25 and almost all of them that represent series. It’s not a very good list, BTW – should be by author). Of the other 43, most were automatic turnoffs, some I’d already tried and gotten burned on, with only a handful suggesting future reads are in order.

This means I’m getting saturated. There are still good stories out there, surely, but they’re getting harder to find. My father, who likes hard scifi but dislikes fantasy, has an even grimmer search.

Measuring acceptability of arguments

Here’s a question worthy of some thought. At what point does an opinion become unacceptable? I’m talking about Santorum, not Fish, mind you, from the link.

Fish points out that Santorum’s position on church vs. state matters is not an outlier or crazy because “a number of Supreme Court justices and A-list legal academics” that hold similar views. Fish ends his initial defense with the following summation:

This of course does not mean that Rick Santorum is right; only that he is not a total outlier or a nutcase. His views, although perhaps less well expressed than they might have been, are well within the boundaries of a legal and political debate that has been going on for more than a century.

Note the language – outlier, nutcase, within the boundaries. Fish acknowledges there are boundaries, and that it is possible to be an outlier or a nutcase (my favored term for this is ‘spewing horseshit’), but due to a number of /acceptable/ authorities that hold similar positions, Santorum is not, to use my term, spewing horseshit, but working within a larger intellectual debate.

This reasoning presents a problem. Apparently, in order for an opinion to become acceptable, it need only be vetted by the presence of a sufficient number of similar opinions that have already become acceptable, by dint of qualifications, charisma, etc. By this bandwagon-style reasoning, if Santorum espoused support of cannibalism, as long as a few Supreme Court justices and A-list academics held the same position, his position would be just dandy. That sounds a lot like the moral relativism everyone likes to bash, and reminds me of Hume’s discussion of taste standards, which my rhetoric class discussed earlier this week.

What would be preferable? Judgment on the merits of the argument, not its popularity or whether or not high-placed individuals happen to think the same way. Of course this is not always possible. Such a value is more of an ideal target than a daily standard. The standards of acceptability slip on a regular basis, even with the most objective and impartial – I recall many of my graduate school professors in particular had blind spots you could drive a bus through, some of which they knew about, and I make no claim to not having a few myself. But it seems to me that making acceptability arguments based on popularity is a particularly dangerous habit that breeds complacency and retards actually thinking about the argument itself.

Another standard I particularly dislike is dismissing acceptable arguments because they are old, sometimes even only twenty years or so. Sometimes this is warranted, for example pre-WWII history monographs, or discussions of technology, but it shouldn’t be automatic and reflective. I run into this kind of thinking in biblical studies constantly, but that field doesn’t have a lock on it by any means. The reverse is even more insidious – dismissing arguments because they are new and don’t match existing acceptable thought.