Apr 18 30 2018

On Neighbors

All politics is local.

Three years ago, I’d have told you that we no longer tolerate racists and anti-Semites. Sure, a few people still had awful opinions, but they kept those opinions to themselves. Three years ago, I was delighted to find that people no longer tolerated casual misogyny and gay-bating.

Then the disaster happened, and now, here we are. Our local Facebook opinion group has become a den of white-supremacist cant. Right now, the hot topic is how the Council On American Islamic Relations (CAIR) is responsible for taking down statues of Confederates. There’s also a lot of talk contrasting the members’ sainted ancestors who immigrated legally and today’s “illegals,” people who didn’t (or couldn’t) obey the laws that those sainted ancestors erected to keep Jewish scum and evil Chinamen out.

Wikipedia is now fighting (not very successfully) against a concerted effort to whitewash the WWII German officer corps. Klansmen burn swastikas, and the president says there are good people on both sides.

What should we do locally to oppose local malice and prevent local evil?

We’re inclined to listen, to argue, to try to understand, to seek to persuade. That’s good. But enough is enough: some people like to be bigots. Some of our neighbors, having thought things over, have gone nuts and gone Nazi. In better times, we’d ignore them, treat them as doddering old fools. But these are not better times; those doddering old fools may lead us into catastrophe.

Public shunning might help. If you know of a local social media clique that’s become a meeting place for kooks, let them have a piece of your mind. And tell your friends and neighbors to do that, too. Not once, not twice, but often. For as long as it takes.

Private shaming might help. Talk to their parents. Talk to their grown children. Talk to their friends, if they have any, and tell them why they ought not to be friends anymore.

We might be entering boycott territory. If your mechanic is a white supremacist or wants immigrants to go back where they belong, you can find a new mechanic. So can all your friends, and all the decent people in your community.

This is a kindness. After the emergency, we’re going to have an aftermath. People are going to prison. If this gets as bad as I fear — mass deportations or worse — a lot of people are going to prison. Not just national politicians: repairing the damage after Vichy meant a lot of mechanics and a lot of Nazi pals found themselves in very hot water.

Apr 18 29 2018

On Not Blogging

From time to time, people chide me for not blogging the way I used to blog. I plan to write a little more here, but I suppose I ought first to explain why I cut back.

First, when I started this back around the turn of the century, everyone in my field had a blog. We had productive arguments between weblogs. We had productive arguments between weblog networks: the Scandinavian Hypertext Feminists were a thing. Those blogs mostly collapsed and have been largely forgotten, but they shouldn't be forgotten. The Great Battle between Ludic and Narrativist Game Theory was conducted almost entirely on weblogs, and almost all of the participants are still on speaking terms. The later conflagration known as Gamergate was conducted almost entirely through Twitter, Facebook, and email harassment on the one hand, and conventional journalism on the other. Almost none of the combatants are on speaking terms, and many allies aren’t, either. (One of the prominent Wikipedia Gamergaters adversaries has been in prison lately, but I don’t think we’d be having lunch even if he were at liberty on Thursday.) Weblogs promoted conversation. I warned (at Blogtalk Downunder) that comments kill weblogs, and I was right. Facebook and Twitter are platforms for comments that dispense with the weblog; they give us all the disadvantages and keep all the profit.

Second, people got busy. They got tenure. They got book contracts. They had kids. A number of key figures were rewarded with valuable administrative positions, leaving them little time for anything else.

Third, many scholars deeply misunderstand popular media. The mark of an open mind has long been a willingness to learn from pop culture, but this led in the late age of postmodernism to a fascination with box office. Some scholars stopped trying to learn from pop culture and instead grew obsessed with the star-making machine. If something was making money, they were for it, and if something else was making even more money over there, they were trotting down the road.

And then, 2016 happened. It started early for me — exactly a year before Trump’s inaugural, Gamergate took over Wikipedia, part of a trial run for the whole megillah.

I’ve been more politically active in my old age; I never kept politics completely out of the weblog, but I write for colleagues in Melbourne, Southampton and Bergen more than for the folks down the block and I didn’t really want to bore people with American parochialism. That changed when Trump won; now, clearly, we all had an emergency on our hands.

But all politics is local politics: in our current catastrophe, a lot of the people who live in my little city have been deeply disappointing. We have people who think (and write on Facebook) that our main problem is all the half-civilized Asians who have moved nearby. We have people who think (and write on Facebook) that it would be a good thing if someone would shoot some famous Jewish financiers. We have people — retired elected officials! — who thought it a great idea to catechize a Muslim who was running for school committee: does she renounce Sharia? Is she, or has she ever been, a terrorist? It’s one thing to disagree about parking rules or signage regulations; when actual Nazis want to hunt down the people who live next door, it puts all that into perspective.

Or, it should: the local Democrats just won’t take a stand for immigrants, for Muslims, for real Democrats running for office, or for anything else. (The local Republicans seem to be scouring Facebook in search of the Russian Recruiting Office.) Sure, plenty of them work har

d for this candidate or that cause, but it’s supposed to be a Party. It’s one thing in normal times to have elected representatives who are decent folk even if they are a little squishy, a bit too beholden to the status quo. When we may be counting on those folk to stop a mass deportation or end a pogrom — well, we know what happened in our parents’ and grandparents’ day.

Mike Dukakis says it was worse in the 50s, that Joe McCarthy and George Wallace were more frightening than Trump and Pence. I want to believe him.

I’ve been too angry to write about politics, and when writing about anything else, I have to ask myself whether that’s playing into the hands of the Nazis. I don’t write well when I’m angry, but it’s hard to be funny when the stakes are so high.

This has been good for Tinderbox — it’s work I can do, and it’s work that I have to do if it’s going to get done. I think we had our best year last year, whether you measure in terms of finances, of engineering, or of art. But things have been quiet here. Perhaps too quiet.

Apr 18 26 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 24 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.

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”

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.