The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

Apr 18 25 2018

Cave Of Bones

by Anne Hillerman

Our latest visit with Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, and Bernadette Manuelito does not disappoint. The leader of an outdoor enrichment program for troubled kids has vanished in the rugged, volcanic malpais between Zuni and Acoma, on the day Manuelito was supposed to give a talk to the kids. A small mystery and a small book, but one in which real people face real problems.

Linda points out that, though Hillerman doesn’t call attention to the fact, most of the characters in the book are women. That’s still unusual in mysteries.

Apr 18 23 2018

Damage Control

by Denise Hamilton

A contemporary LA Noir thriller, as experienced by a dolt.

The 21st-century procedural mystery has two core concerns. First, the range of protagonists has expanded greatly, both in terms of the characters themselves and in terms of their vocations. Second, where once a flawed but unquestionably good and capable knight strolled down these mean streets, recent writers have increasingly explored the flaws and the unreliability of the protagonist.

Here, Maggie Silver is a PR agent, specializing in damage control. She’s drifted into this profession because she is herself so damaged, and because from her high school days to he nearly middle-aged present she has always believed that befriending glamorous people will make her glamorous. She’s an expert at rare perfumes, for which she scours eBay and LA thrift stores in time stolen from a 24/7 job and a lonely mother whom, recovering from breast cancer, has moved into Maggie’s little house.

Everyone plays Maggie. She has the street smarts of a fire hydrant, and the question is not whether she will be betrayed, but how often.

Paul Surette, newly-appointed co-moderator of the Facebook group "Penny For Your Thoughts: Malden", is not pleased with me. Who could blame him?

Recently, he complained to the group about Mya and Deenaa Cook, two high school students from Malden who took a brave stand last year against their charter school’s discriminatory dress code. The Massachusetts Attorney General agreed with the Cook sisters; do did the Anti-Defamation League, the ACLU, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. For some reason, though, Paul wants to take on these two high school girls yet again. (It's not fair; they're much more knowledgable.)

In the ensuing kerfuffle, I wrote:

Mark Bernstein: Amazing how these racists won’t let this go. Malden was already a national laughingstock for harboring the sort of racist school policies normally associated with Mississippi and Alabama. Racism lost; now you want to argue some more?

In response, Joe Kaplan denounced me in an interesting way:

Joe Kaplan: Paul....look who you are debating,. an indoctrinated self-loathing Jew.Save your brain cells.
Paul Surette: You're right, Joe

Now, I have plenty of faults, but self-loathing is not one I hear a lot about. I'm not sure what Joe think’s he’s thinking, but I imagine it all stems from a bunch of boys in middle school with a pilfered copy of Portnoy’s Complaint, trying to find the good parts before the third-period bell. Finding Philip Roth puzzling, perhaps they looked to the flap copy for an explanation. I bet they figured it out eventually; anyway, the phrase seems to have stuck.

“Penny For Your Thoughts” used to be a conduit for local political issues -- the sort of place where you heard about zoning changes for a new restaurant or candidates for school committee. Lately, though, it's changed. More fake news memes were posted and taken seriously, often from Russian or alt-right sites. A former city-councillor decided to catechize a local activist, is a private citizen who happens to be Muslim, challenging her to renounce Sharia. Paul Surette chimed in:

Paul Surette From what I've seen the last 6 years is that a 'moderate' muslim is one who says nothing about secular violence, but quietly cheers it on.
Paul Surette: My 'understanding' of moderate Muslims here is accurate as judged by Muslims I know who live here who know who the moderate Muslum is really about. Moderates live under the quise of being anonymous while quietly cheering secular violence.

The former city councillor joins in, this time ridiculing another private citizen for her religious beliefs.

Neil Kinnon: Some of us have not given up. Better to fight them now. Bruce Warren Lynch is a radical who epitomizes the idea of ”defining deviance down”. He and his significant other according to Nichole Mossalam were elected delegates at the Democratic city Committee out of Ward Two Edgeworth (not confirmed yet) Lynches girlfriend is a self declared Witch, excuse me Wiccan according to him and our lovely friend Nichole, see yesterday’s posts. This is what the local Democratic Party is being taken over by. Pagans who worship witchcraft. The last political group that were elected with widespread beliefs in the occult were the National Socialists in Germany... [emphasis mine]

Another participant lamented the fact that Malden is now “only 37% American”, by which she meant that a majority of Malden residents today are Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Caribbean-Americans, or African-Americans. (A number of Old Maldonians are scions of families that moved to Malden from South Boston to escape school integration in the 1970s, when Malden High was still essentially segregated. The integration of Malden schools may help explain why so many regulars in ‘Penny For Your Thoughts” no longer live in Malden and are so angry at Malden’s current residents.)

In another discussion, Muslims are collectively responsible for, well, basically everything.

Joe Howard …The hateful muslim group is a major problem worldwide, and they're the ones who are responsible for the overseas terror. Immigration sanctions are out of control.

The group’s posted rules call for "No name calling, threats, racism, sexism, or that sort of thing." Interestingly, all the above pass muster. Other posters falsely blamed Warsaw’s Jews for surrendering to gun control and failing to resist the Nazis, attributed credit for Victory in Europe to the German resistance(!), and claimed George Soros was bussing in demonstrators against the Boston “Free Speech” march for white supremacy. What’s behind this bile, in what Mayor Gary Christenson has celebrated as a diverse and welcoming city?

(I have left the spelling unchanged in the quoted posts. A number of these writers often misspell words they dislike — for example, “anti-Semete” for “anti-Semite.” I don't know whether this is meaningful — a dog whistle of some sort? — or merely random.)

- - -

Why not simply ignore white-supremacists and bigots on social media?

I’m a long-time student of new media; it's my primary research area. This year, I’ve been focussing on some dangerous asymmetries that facilitate malefactors on Twitter and Facebook. With Dr. Clare Hooper, I wrote “A Villain’s Guide To Social Media and Web Science” for the 2018 ACM Conference on Hypertext and Social Media. The conference was good enough to give us a prize! (If you enjoy funny academic papers and don’t mind 25 footnotes, happy to share a preprint. Email me.)

One important lesson we have learned is that, in social media, ignoring villainy today makes it harder to oppose villainy tomorrow. This is the lesson of the 1930s: if you close your shutters when the brownshirts are shouting in the street and don’t call the police, next year those same brownshirts may be the police. If you don’t oppose Vichy today, after the Liberation comes your friends and neighbors may look at you and see a collaborator.

A second vital lesson — one that was entirely unexpected — is that on social media it is easier to spread lies than to disseminate the truth.

Third, we have the core asymmetry: a single scurrilous word can do lasting harm that a thousand well-intentioned “likes” will not repair.

In better, safer times, we may safely ignore wretched hives and scum and villainy. This is not such a time.

Since the Trump disaster began, Penzey’s Spices has unabashedly stood for a free and decent America. This weekend, they outdid themselves.

The promotion offered a free 8-spice sampler, featuring some of the best ad copy I’ve ever read.

With the revelations of this week the time has come for us all to stop pretending that what is happening in America is in any way normal. Right now we are in a struggle for the Heart and Soul of our country. It is a struggle we can’t allow ourselves to lose.

America matters, not just to us but to the world. The forces both foreign and domestic who’ve worked to shape the Republican Party into what it is today knew what they were doing. As long as America is America there is hope in all the corners of the world. Shut off our light and hope fades, opening the door for corruption to take hold.

The spice sampler is billed as the “American Soul” package. What’s in American Soul?

  • Galena Street BBQ rub
  • Ozark spice rub
  • Adobo
  • Cinnamon
  • Curry
  • Florida Seasoned Pepper
  • Italian Herbs
  • Cajun Seasoning

Even better, the enclosed recipe book urges you to bake a pie, because pies are American. Better still, bake two pies, because it’s really no extra trouble, and give one to a neighbor. That’s really American.

Locally, I hear they had lines out the door. Penzey’s sent out a followup email apologizing for running out, not only of promotional boxes, but of the custom-made spice bottles they use to make more. Rain checks for all!

Innocent people don’t do what this administration is doing. If you go along with this you are lost. Please don’t be lost. Snap out of it. Too many people need you. If you give up your values and replace them with his it will be at least a decade before the young people in your life respect you again.

by John McPhee

John McPhee collects his recent New Yorker essays on his writing process. The key here os the first essay. , Progression, which addresses the large-scale structure of McPhee’s work, and Structure, which looks at starting places, end points, and at the Kedit text processor on which McPhee has long depended.

I do wish that Tinderbox had been around for McPhee back in the day.

I wish I knew more about some details — especially, a feature that highlights overused words. I’ve just written a paper with Clare Hooper about “A Villain’s Guide To Social Media And Web Science.” When writing about bad guys, some words and phrases do tend to recur. Wicked, vile, repellent, nefarious: use them once, you’re on a roll, but use them twice and you might be turning into Donald Trump. This sounds like a useful tool, but simply doing a word count with a stoplist of common words seems far too clumsy. I’d like to know how McPhee did this, and I’d like to know whether there’s now a better way.

by Jeffrey Clement

An intriguing look at Afghanistan, which I grabbed because Tom Ricks pointed to it as a key book about logistics. As the Trump madness grows, I fear it makes sense to learn what we can about the wars that are coming.

Jeffrey Clement was a second lieutenant in Northern Afghanistan, in command of a truck platoon. He argues that the command of a truck platoon is the very best job a Marine can have, if not the absolute pinnacle of human happiness. That in itself is interesting.

Early in the first convoy Clement led, he sighted an isolated observer watching the convoy in the distance. He prepares to shoot the man if the man does anything hostile, while hoping he would not. When nothing happens, Clement is relieved but confident that he was in fact a “bad guy” and that he would have killed him if necessary. This is strange: Clement was there and he was a professional and I am a civilian with an yellowing 1-O card, but Clement cannot actually have know whether this man was a “bad guy”. He might have been curious. He might have been undecided in his allegiance. He might have been Lawrence of Fucking Arabia. Clement doesn’t discuss this further, but it seems to me this epitomizes a constant and growing problem in both our military and our police.

I’m co-author of the 2nd-place finisher for this year’s Blue Sky Award from the ACM Conference on Hypertext And Social Media:

Mark Bernstein and Clare Hooper, “A Villain’s Guide To Social Media and Web Science”

And I’m the author of the 3rd-place finisher:

Mark Bernstein, “As We May Hear: Our Slaves Of Steel II”

Congratulations to the winner:

Charlie Hargood, Fred Charles and David Millard: “Intelligent Generative Locative Hyperstructure”
Mar 18 27 2018

Farthing

by Jo Walton

After so much indulgence in the Mitfords, I wanted to revisit Jo Walton’s fine mystery of Nazi England. (I also have two writing projects in hand — one of them The Villain’s Guide To Hypertext And Web Science — for which some Jo Walton techniques might come in handy.)

Farthing is the best of the Small Change series, not least because its heroine is the most interesting. Jon Clute’s critique of the series is sensible: we never do learn how England’s sensible classes so readily acquiesced in fascism. It could perhaps happen, and we do see how some silly aristocrats could be persuaded, but Farthing doesn’t really show how stolid, sensible working folk would come to fall for it.

Then again, Clute was writing in late 2008, during the Obama transition. Reading Farthing while the Trump family loots the treasury (and sacks the Republican Party), at a time when our city’s unofficial Facebook forum is rife with anti-Semitism, the whole thing seems a lot more plausible.

Mar 18 26 2018

First Aid

What do we know about helping out when friends and allies are attacked on Facebook and Twitter?

There’s a ton of research literature out there that, as we have seen, usefully identifies people who are especially vulnerable to bullies. We have technology that automatically flags people for the possible sexual interests or political sentiments. We have tools that help coordinate mobs of attackers — the 21st-century brownshirts.

But what is known about effective ways to help when you see the brownshirts marching down the virtual street, bricks and broken bottles in hand?

by Laura Thompson

In the New York Times, Tina Brown hit this one on the head. “Oh no! Not another book about the Mitfords! That was my instant reaction,” she began, only to begin the next paragraph, “How wrong I was. “The Six” is riveting.”

The Mitfords were six famously beautiful daughters (plus a son, whom everyone always forgets), born to Lord and Lady Redesdale between 1904 and 1920. They knew everyone. They went to the best parties. They wrote. They quarreled, and because they wrote books about their quarrels, everyone eventually knew everything.

What Laura Thompson gets right here is that the group story of the sisters is a story of an unhappy family, and so the biographer’s chief task is to explain their specific, differentiating unhappiness. This makes the pivot of the tale the fourth sister, Unity Valkyrie Mitford, who became an ardent Nazi and who, when England declared war on Germany, shot herself in Münich’s Englischer Garten for love of Hitler. Unity tends to be an afterthought in other Mitfordiana, but of course her story is central: if this had been a large family of obscure Canadians, her tragic suicide would naturally be the central issue and her Nazi affinities the central problem. (Mom and Dad were pro-German anti-Semites, though that might have been a gesture to humor the girls: it’s nice to take an interest in your adolescent hobbies, and if your adolescent’s hobby is Hitler, well, you’ve got a handful, don’t you? Big sister Diana married Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. Little sister Jessica started as an ardent Communist and wound up a Berkeley, California journalist and civil rights activist. Nancy, the oldest girl, spent most of her life as the paramour of DeGaulle’s chief of staff. Whatever olive branches and indulgences were attempted, they didn’t work.)

What Tina Brown overlooks, however, is that Laura Thompson’s own sympathies lead her repeatedly to excuse the fascist Mitfords while denouncing Jessica’ milder and less consequential sympathy for Communism. Time and again, we are reminded that Stalin (whom Jessica implicitly supported) was monstrous. Jessica’s elopement with communist Esmond Romilly was inconsiderate — for some days, her parents didn’t know if she was alive or dead — but marrying an aristocratic British leftist is not, as Thompson seems sometimes to believe, even worse than falling ion love with Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s enormity goes without saying, but Stalin’s is constantly asserted in a way that seems almost to excuse Unity’s absurd infatuation and the rest of the family’s fawning socializing with the Nazi ministry.

by Gish Jen

Novelist Gish Jen sets of into the world of armchair sociology to distinguish the Western psyche — the “avocado-pit self” — from the more collectivist Eastern flexi-self. There’s some good plain sense here, and some gross generalization of concepts that Jen, the author of Mona In The Promised Land, can address with more safety and confidence than most.

The title comes from the protagonist of its framing story. A Chinese girl applies to Milton Academy. She has great test scores, a fluent essay, great recommendations. She’s admitted. When a school representative meets her plane, though, the student is nothing like her application. Eventually, it emerges that her sister got those scores and wrote that essay. What, Jen asks, made her (or her sister, or her parents) think this a good idea?

The problem with this story is it’s the best and most interesting part of the book. Another high point is a sociologist who went to visit Dafen, the Chinese town that’s dedicated to making copies of oil paintings. A civic leader praises the visitor’s interesting topic, and offers to write her dissertation for her; after all, he reasonably says, he is a good writer and knows Dafen and its painters intimately. Just tell him how she’d like it organized, and he’ll have it ready in a couple of weeks.

These are fascinating confrontations — just as good as Mona with her realization that she wants to convert to Judaism because the Jews, even more than the Chinese, have this minority thing figured out. But the language of nonfiction pop psych flattens everything, and because we’re making generalizations we spend a lot of time explaining that yes, there are lots of exceptions. Usually a stylish writer, Jen here develops a fondness for rhetorical questions to which she supplies an immediate, and usually obvious, reply. I’d have preferred a novel.

by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Sequel to Fledgling, we follow Theo to University where she studies to be a pilot. It’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays in space, with a modest measure of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower for good measure. Lee and Miller are more interested in genre and style than in speculative fiction or form, but they’re very good at genre. I’ve read a bunch of school stories: this is good.

Mar 18 18 2018

Fledgling

by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Theo, a charming, isolated daughter of two professors, lives on a planet dedicated to scholarship. This has advantages; everyone understands why tenure matters. It has disadvantages, too: Mom and Dad are splitting up in order to improve Mom’s academic visibility, the whole planet is governed by the Safety Committee, and because Theo is sometimes clumsy and sometimes just a bit too assertive, Mom’s rivals think it might be a good idea to sedate her for everyone’s safety. It’s a space opera, and if it’s not really adventurous science fiction, it’s a skillful exploration of coming-of-age with spaceships and telepathic bears.

by Ron Chernow

A comprehensive but pleasant biography, Grant never bogs down. That’s a challenge for the biography of any general, but especially challenging for Grant because his life before the war was far from notable and his postwar life was not entire successful. The axis of this book, it seems to me, revolves around the disastrous Johnson administration and its strenuous efforts to give the defeated South what it could not win in battle. The calamities of the Johnson era, in which one cabinet member barricaded himself in his office to prevent his replacement, are strikingly resonant today.

Mar 18 13 2018

Borderline

by Mishell Baker

A Jason Snell recommendation and Nebula finalist, this faery noir saga pits a young film director with borderline personality disorder (and without legs, which she lost jumping off her dormitory roof in a failed suicide attempt) against a frightening magical conspiracy.

by Jihae Park

A fascinating, nimble play in which two Asian-American high school sisters, L and M, find that their plans to both attend The College are in trouble despite their 2400 SATs, amazing softs, and impeccable grades. (M, “the smart one,” has a 4.8/4 weighted GPA. L only has 4.6/4.) They’re both double-minority. But each year, The College only accepts one, and this year the fat early-decision envelope fell (from the heavens) on a classmate with a slight claim to American Indian descent and a brother with cystic fibrosis. Macbeth ensues, naturally.

by Noah Hawley

This polished, intriguing, and formally-innovative mystery brings a collection of interesting and colorful rich people together in a modern locked-room, country-house mystery. A small private jet crashes on a hop from Martha’s Vineyard to Teterboro, NJ. Something or someone caused the crash. Everyone wants to find out — the anchorman on the cable news empire whose owner chartered the jet, the NTSB chief investigator, the FBI whose had planned to arrest another of the passengers the following morning for money laundering. Scott Burroughs, who somehow swam to safety, and the network head’s 4-year-old boy whom he rescued, are the only survivors. Hawley takes an Agatha Christie format and updates it with a vengeance; his minor characters are sometimes synthetics but they’re detailed and though through.

I’ve been noodling around with Dying Light, an (more-or-less) open-world first-person zombie apocalypse game.

On my iMac Pro, it’s impressively immersive, and the immersivity itself is a ton of fun. In a way, that’s all the fun: as big foreign town filled with hostile monsters ready to chase you. There are lots of good narrative hooks here, but the designers don’t use them or don’t see them; the stories you get are mostly pretty dull. But, still, there’s a whole city there, one that doesn’t suffer terribly from repetitively reused elements.

I thought that that point of zombies was twofold. First, the engine’s tendency to get walking slightly wrong doesn't cross into the uncanny valley if that’s where you start. Monsters walk monstrously. And second, superhero games where you mow down legions are (slightly) less awful if the legions are irredeemable. And that’s the point of the zombie. The problem here is that the designers are also really interested in detailed gore and that good old ultra-violence. I’m not. And there's something deeply, deeply disturbing to me about pummeling (among others) young women of color with a baseball bat, even if those young women of color want to eat your character’s brains.

A show-stopper for me is that the game is built with chokepoint missions, and some of those missions involve doing extraordinary feats at great heights, all realistically depicted with extra vertigo thrown in. I hated that — enough that I said to myself, “this is supposed to be fun and it’s not required reading.” Ouch. It’s the only time I remember where I actually wanted a cheat code. (Oddly, there doesn't seem to be one!)


So, what do I want to play that’s not loathsome, reasonably open, and that offers this kind of adrenalin-spiked immersion? Email me.