Oct 19 3 2019


From Haaretz, a devastating in-depth account of The Fake Nazi Death Camp: Wikipedia’s Longest Hoax, Exposed. (See previous notes Wikipedia Broadcasts a Blood Libel and Wikipedia And The Jews.)

Eastern European and Russian operatives, aided by PR firms and lots of allied volunteers, have discovered that editing teams can easily manufacture what Wikipedia mistakenly believes to be consensus. Worse, Wikipedia has stumbled into a fatal asymmetry. Desperate to restore civility, Wikipedia deplores any suggestion that an edit is anti-Semitic or racist: that, according to the Arbitration Committee, suggests that the editor is anti-Semitic or racist. That’s a personal attack! As a result, it’s entirely permissible to indulge dog-whistles and thinly-veiled anti-Semitic tropes, and impossible to challenge them.

That’s what happened in the episode Haaretz covered. A team of Polish nationalists sought to systematically overstate Nazi attacks on gentile Poles and to minimize their attacks on Polish Jews. Editors caught them. The editors who complained have been topic-banned and banned. The nationalists remain. It’s a replay of the Infamous Gamergate episode in which Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee responded to Gamergate attacks by banning Gamergate’s opponents.

Also noting that on Wikipedia today:

  • Orlando Cepeda is “a Puerto Rican” baseball player
  • Minnie Minoso “ was a Cuban” baseball player
  • Rod Carew is a baseball player “of Panamanian descent.”
  • Didi Gregorius is “a Dutch” baseball player.
  • Xander Bogaerts is “an Aruban-born Dutch” baseball player.

On the other hand, Carl Yastrzemski is just “‘American”. So is Ted Williams. So is Moe Drabowsky, who was born in Poland. This cleverly suggests that some baseball players are more American than others.

The difference? Yaz, Williams, and Drabowsky are white.

Sep 19 27 2019


John Gruber apologizes for getting Richard Stallman wrong. To be honest, I don’t think Gruber has much to regret here: Stallman has always been such a bizarre figure that it’s hard to know how to react. His paper on “EMACS the extensible, customizable self-documenting display editor” is a classic; few papers so deeply influenced my thinking. The system it described was even more brilliant — and that’s speaking as someone who has never liked EMACS. Stallman’s whole free software polemic always left me cold — a half-baked idea inexplicably beloved by some brilliant people — but it certainly moved the world.

I think I’ve met Stallman, briefly, twice. He’s someone everyone talks about, and remembers. From the beginning, Stallman was a legend: uncouth, unclean, unmannered. He didn’t care if he bothered other people: that was their problem. He didn’t care if he made you uncomfortable. He didn’t care if he inconvenienced you; inconvenience was part of the price for his time and attention. He didn’t care about rules if he didn’t understand those rules.

Even when he was being a jerk, he sure could write; here’s a small excerpt from a famously-hilarious list of requirements he demanded of his hosts when asked to give lectures.

Dogs that bark angrily and/or jump up on me frighten me, unless they are small and cannot reach much above my knees.  But if they only bark or jump when we enter the house, I can cope, as long as you hold the dog away from me at that time.  Aside from that issue, I'm ok with dogs.

If you can find a host for me that has a friendly parrot, I will be very very glad.  If you can find someone who has a friendly parrot I can visit with, that will be nice too.

DON'T buy a parrot figuring that it will be a fun surprise for me.

In the end, there's always the work — and the work is very, very good. The work isn’t all that matters, but it does matter, and it lasts.

No one, I think, really knows how to think about Stallman. No one has ever known. When you see someone doing something familiar but bad, you know what you ought to do. If you don’t do what you ought, you should apologize later. I’ve never met anyone else who was remotely like Stallman, and I’ve never heard of anyone like Stallman. Reaching for a historical analogy, I draw a complete blank.

When I saw he had resigned from MIT, I was surprised that he still had even a nominal affiliation with the university. He has never been collegial. He didn’t teach. That classic paper stands lonely in the ACM digital library among a modest pile of speeches and manuals. It is good for Software to find a place for Stallman, but odd that the place was a school.

Open-source/free software has attracted or cultivated a surprisingly large number of very successful people whom you wouldn’t bring home to your mother.

The inimitable and brilliant dana boyd unloads on the MIT Media Lab and the tech industry.

My time at the Media Lab was full of contradictions. I have so many positive memories of people and conversations. I can close my eyes and flash back to laughter and late night conversations. But my time there was also excruciating. I couldn’t afford my rent and did some things that still bother me in order to make it all work. I grew numb to the worst parts of the “Demo or Die” culture. I witnessed so much harassment, so much bullying that it all started to feel normal. Senior leaders told me that “students need to learn their place” and that “we don’t pay you to read, we don’t pay you to think, we pay you to do.” The final straw for me was when I was pressured to work with the Department of Defense to track terrorists in 2002.

She concludes: “‘Move fast and break things’ is an abomination if your goal is to create a healthy society. Taking shortcuts may be financially profitable in the short-term, but the cost to society is too great to be justified.”

Michael Chabon nearly despairs.

These feel like such dire times, times of violence and dislocation, schism, paranoia, and the earth-scorching politics of fear. Babies have iPads, the ice caps are melting, and your smart refrigerator is eavesdropping on your lovemaking (and, frankly, it’s not impressed).

Fascists, bigots, and guys who plan to name their sons Adolf wake up every day with a hateful leer on their faces and the Horst Wessel Song in their hearts—if you’re an ignorant, misogynist, xenophobic, racist against science, I guess times have never felt better. But for the vast rest of us—and please know, please believe, you and I greatly outnumber them—for the rest of us, things can seem so much worse than they did back in 2010, when a decent, thoughtful, level-headed, rational, and humane black man was living in the White House.

But perhaps there remains something to do.

The hell with fascism. The hell with bigotry and paranoia. The hell with fools falling for the lies of charlatans; that’s what fools do. We’re just going to keep on doing what we do: Making and consuming art. Supporting the people who remind us that we are in this together. We are each only one poem, one painting, one song away from another mind, another heart. It’s tragic that we need so much reminding. And yet we have, in art, the power to keep reminding each other.

From the 2019 ACM Conference on Hypertext and Social Media: 48-Hour Hypertexts!

It’s not too late! Take the 48-hour hypertext challenge!

An excerpt from Intertwingled.

The Shot And Danger Of Desire

Twenty Years On The Holodeck

Twenty years have elapsed since Janet Murray, in Hamlet On The Holodeck, argued that the future of new media lay in vividly immersive, encyclopedic and emotional interactive experiences rather than in the intertextual, allusive, lyrical and intellectual(ized) works that had epitomized new media through the preceding decade[Murray 1998]. Murray’s vision of immersive experience, of a platform where you could play cards with Sherlock Holmes or where you could be Prince Hamlet, been enormously influential throughout new media.

In these notes, I would like to call attention to a number of sources of disquiet that arise in composing immersive works in which the reader intentionally and effectually acts to change the events that take place in the story. These issues are not new but they have not been widely discussed, and drawing them together in this context may have some value.

These are not hypothetical or invented questions. Most actually arose in the course of my writing a hypertext school story, Those Trojan Girls. Others were familiar to me from editing and publishing hypertext fictions over several decades. Reflective practice is an important source of insight, and its judicious use can prove invaluable.

The Shot And Danger Of Desire

We may begin, alongside Murray, with the vision of inserting the reader into the story of Hamlet. We are not passive witnesses of the scene, nor minor players— not Rosencrantz or some third murderer, incapable of changing what happens. We are a prince! (I have noted elsewhere that, considered as a dramatic practice, this approach is not always promising: let a sensible person like you or me into a tragedy and the tragedy is prone to fall apart.)

What, on the holodeck, are we to do about Ophelia? She is an enigmatic character, one whom the 19th century found more fascinating than the 21st. Polonius speculates that Hamlet loves her; Laertes sees the prospect of a sexual relationship as a threat. If, as interactor, we have meaningful choice, might some combination of choices lead us to propose to marry Ophelia? To kiss her? To have sex with her?

All these choices are problematic. Can a simulated Ophelia marry? Specifically, can she consent? The presentation of meaningful choice within the fictive world leads us to the very threshold of the Turing Test, for the characters must necessarily be sufficiently convincing as to invite suspension of disbelief.

The choices, moreover, are ours, and the performance is ours as well. It is one thing to witness theatrical events that you cannot affect and that harm no one; it is another thing entirely to perform yourself what might be a crime. Holodeck Ophelia exists only for us. If we propose to make love to her, is her consent not coerced? Ophelia exists only as long as Hamlet remains interested in pursuing a romantic relationship or a sexual liaison. The imbalance of the power relation- ship is overwhelming, and indeed the holodeck must, if anything of dramatic importance is to be accomplished, make us forget that we are proposing to make love to a character whom we believe (or are led to believe) has free will but whose choices appear to be limited to either consenting to our advances or accepting (in one form or another) oblivion.

Mark Bernstein,
Intertwingled $29.95

You can always remove it later.

Paperback, 130 pages. isbn 1-8845-1156-2. Available October 1, 2019. Available now.

by P. W. Singer and August Cole

This novel about a near-future naval war between an isolated United States and a Chinese-Russian alliance is skillful, exciting, and jingoistic. I have a sneaking fondness for this genre, for early Tom Clancy and even for W. E. B. Griffin, and Ghost Fleet shares many of the virtues of those books. Indeed, it shares rather too much with Clancy’s Debt Of Honor, Clancy’s book about a second war against Japan. (Clancy was trying to write a plausible replay of the Pacific War as a sequel to Red Storm Rising, his sprawling and underrated exploration of a war between NATO and the Soviet Union.)

In old Hollywood war movies, America and civilization were saved by a scrappy ethnic alliance of guys who discovered that, underneath, they're all Americans. Here, the free world is saved by a working-class, enlisted father, his college-boy officer son, a Chinese-American electrical engineer, and a serial murderer who discovers that war is rather good fun. The heroic and cute engineer would be fun if her casting weren’t so obviously racist and if she was given space to become a character rather than a placeholder for the Good Asiatic. Tension between chief petty officer Dad and his Executive Officer son works nicely, though Dad is always around and the 174 other crew members aren’t. The war is not well motivated, so we have perfidious Asian sneak-attack followed by a cruel Asian occupation that (again, very unfortunately) is partly mitigated by advice of the kindly white Russian attaché.

Still, for all its many flaws, it’s a good airplane book.

Em Short’s essay, Patchwork Girl (Shelley Jackson) and Spatial Hypertext, is an interesting view of this classic hypertext as a spatial hypertext. This is probably not the way previous critics have approached Patchwork Girl — it’s usually considered a calligraphic hypertext — but it's not a bad one. Imagining an even more radically spatial hypertext I envision in Getting Started With Hypertext Narrative, she says that

I find myself imagining a kind of reading in which the reader’s role is to use the hypertext not only to examine and study this argument, but to record how their response maps against that of the author: to assent to certain assertions and all their supporting texts; to reject others; perhaps even have some mechanism for asserting the existence of additional evidence or counter-evidence, in the reader’s knowledge.

That is, I think, exactly what Modernism wanted from readers, and precisely what Barthes meant by the death of the author. Even in narrative, we want and need active readers and active reading. (At Hypertext 2019, Samuel Booker presented a very interesting paper, “Man proposes, God disposes: Re-assessing Correspondences in Hypertext and Anti-Authorist Literary Theory”, in which he suggests that Landow (in Hypertext) and I (in On Hypertext Narrative and elsewhere) underestimated the continuing role of the author. (I think even Barthes knew how new books were made, and that the stork was not involved, but let that be.)

It’s good to see people facing these hard problems again.

Patchwork Girl (Shelley Jackson) and Spatial Hypertext

Prof. Claus Atzenbeck opening Hypertext 2019 in Hof, Germany last week.

Sep 19 11 2019



Last month, I found myself standing on the top floor of Strand Books and looking at the manifestos and chapbooks of the Beats and the Sixties and I said to myself, “we should do more of that.” In healthy book worlds, people write books, and then other people write books in reply.

We don’t do that. We should.

We now know that the future of serious writing lies on the computer’s screen, and that writing for the screen means writing with links. Economics, technology, and our dire circumstances converge to make hypertext essential to our future, if we are to enjoy a future.

We know far too little about the craft of hypertext.

Our planet is burning. Our electronic networks, one of the crowning glories of our civilization, are crammed with the ravings of fools and the counsels of con men. Many of our governments are controlled by senile knaves or irrational zealots.

We can do better. Here are some steps.

Table of Contents

  1. Better Than Books
  2. We’re All Working For The Pharaoh
  3. Slaves Of Steel
  4. Minnesota Nice
  5. Writing The Unspeakable
  6. Quarterly: Some Reflections
  7. Style
  8. Systems
  9. Ophelia In My Pocket
  10. Hypertext In The Age Of Trump
  11. References

Paperback, 130 pages. isbn 1-8845-1156-2. Available October 1, 2019. Preorder now.

Mark Bernstein,
Intertwingled $29.95

You can always remove it later.

by Jo Walton

A compellingly readable history of the leading science fiction awards, from their origin in 1953 through 2000. Invaluable both for superb commentary about the evolution of novels and, even more so, for sensitive and intelligent examination of short fiction and its central role in advancing genre.

by Jennifer Egan

A solid effort, reminiscent of John Crowley’s Four Freedoms in telling a story of the American Home Front in WW2 with a (mostly) modern sensibility. It’s a good book but it’s also a bit of a shaggy dog, gratuitously losing one of its most interesting characters and sending another to the far end of the world. Some very deft handling of point-of-view is perhaps the aspect most reminiscent of Egan’s wonderful A Visit From The Goon Squad.

Sep 19 9 2019


Revised 9/9/19 to clarify Eric Corbett’s political affinities.

Gamergate was the template for the villainy of modern social media. Here’s a great NPR interview on Gamergate today.

It’s still simmering. At Wikipedia, an unbannable editor, “Eric Corbett,” was banned over the weekend. In a previous version of this note, I described him as “right-wing (or at least anti-Feminist)”; Corbett, formerly a notable prolific Wikipedia, suggested by email that I describe him as “an equal-opportunity abuser.” Corbett continued:

You may have been duped by those I categorised as ‘militant feminists’ - and I'm sure you know who I'm referring to - but I have always supported equal rights and opportunities regardless of gender. My dispute with your gender gap heroes was quite simply over my distrust of the figures produced by the WMF purporting to claim that only something like 10–15% of editors are female, which the WMF have themselves been forced to admit is a figure they pretty much made up.

Corbett became notorious when, in an argument over the encyclopedia’s gender gap task force, he told one of the leader’s of the task force that “the easiest way to avoid being called a cunt is not to act like one.” Wikipedia bent over backwards to avoid a sanction then.

When opponents of women in computer games showed up for Gamergate’s attack on Wikipedia, the arbitration committee banned every feminist they were ask to sanction, and only the feminists. (One throwaway right-wing account was banned, and its author decamped to a write a regular column at Breitbart. The editor behind another Gamergate account got drunk one night and got into a fight with a policeman; the resulting jail term disrupted their editing.)

Like clockwork, right-wing Wikipedia is now out to “balance” Eric Corbett’s ban by ridding themselves of PeterTheFourth, one of the few remaining people who are not right-wing extremists and who are willing to edit Gamergate pages. Meanwhile, Wikipedia's coverage drift’s further and further to the right, from a constant years-long edit war to smear Margaret Sanger to exercising extraordinary care to avoid covering last week’s game-industry meltdown in which several prominent game-industry figures were accused of rape, assault, and creepiness by their former colleagues.