Category: Culture

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Gamer Gate: Three Stages to Obit

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A lot of things been written about Gamer Gate. Some of them wrong, some of them stupid, some of them both.

A lot of the confusion (both accidental and malicious) is because Gamer Gate is three separate things clustered together under one name.

The Three Stages of Gamer Gate

Gamer Gate began in a relationship spat. Person X was dating person Y. At some point person X realized that person Y had engaged in a pattern of cheating and lying, and person X blogged about the dirt.

This relationship drama was the first stage of the GamerGate, and as a he-said-she-said tale, it's of interest only to the two people involved, and their friends.

The blog post, though, went beyond "she told me she loved me and then she showed she didn't", and alleged that the unfaithful partner had slept with powerful media figures in the small world of computer games journalism…figures who either reviewed games coded by the unfaithful partner, or managed writers who did review the games. The alleged behavior is (at best) a breach of common sense, and (at worst) a major breach of journalistic ethics.

This gamer journalism drama was the second stage of GamerGate, and as a sex-for-positive reviews scandal (unproven, in my mind), or just as a "jeez, gamer journalism is as corruptly orchestrated as mainstream media is under Ezra Klein's Journolist" scandal, it's of interest to the tens of thousands of people who read and write game review journalism… which doesn't include me.

This is where things got wacky. And by "wacky", I mean "exploded like a barbecue grill when liquid oxygen is poured on it."
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121

Strange Seeds on Distant Shores

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In Soviet Russia, Pravda punches you

I once asked a coworker who had grown up in the Soviet Union "What was the most surprising thing about coming to the West?" I was assuming it was going to be something physical and mundane: the shape of traffic lights, or the fact that you can't find Vodka for sale in bus stops – something like that.

His answer, though, made me realize that I'd accidentally asked a really interesting question. "Growing up under communism, things didn't make perfect sense. Facts didn't quite fit together. But because everything – schools, newspapers, radio – was all from the same people, you never knew what was wrong…but you could tell that something wasn't right. It was like boxing while you're blind folded. You keep getting hit in the face, but you don't know why. Only after I got out did I see how the real world really was, and how everything we'd been told was lies and distortions." (Quote is from memory ten years later)

There's an aphorism that "fish don't know that they're in water." While googling up the phrase to make sure I had it exactly, I learned that Derek Sivers has made exactly the point I wanted to make next, and made it well, so I'll let him speak:

Fish don't know they're in water.

If you tried to explain it, they'd say, "Water? What's water?"

They're so surrounded by it, that it's impossible to see.

They can't see it until they get outside of it.

This is how I feel about culture.

We're so surrounded by people who think like us, that it's impossible to see that what we think are universal truths are just our local culture.

We can't see it until we get outside of it.

I was born in California and grew up with what I felt was a normal
upbringing with normal values.

My Russian friend was a fish, and it wasn't until he got out of the water that he could look down and exclaim "Holy shit! That is why I felt so wet all the time!"

Well, lucky us – we live in the West where the schools, the media, and the government aren't all held captive by one totalitarian ideology, so we get a diversity of viewpoints and can see how things really work.

I'm joking, of course. (more…)

Fear Cuts Deeper Than Swords: Bergen Community College Freaks Out Over "Game of Thrones" T-Shirt

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Tragedy is inevitable. Our reaction to tragedy is not. We cannot govern every risk, but we must govern our reactions to risks. Here's the question we must ask ourselves: when awful things happen in the world, will we abandon reason and accept any measure urged by officials — petty and great — who invoke those awful things as justifications for action? Or will we think critically and demand that our leaders do so as well? Will we subject cries of "crime" and "drugs" and "terrorism" and "school shootings" to scrutiny? Will we be convinced to turn on each other in an irrational frenzy of suspicion, "for the children?"

If we don't maintain our critical thinking, we wind up with a nation run more and more like Bergen Community College in New Jersey, where we may be questioned and sent for reeducation for posting a picture of our daughter in a popular t-shirt on Google+.

Naturally the FIRE has the story, sourced from Inside Higher Education.

Francis Schmidt is a popular professor of design and animation at Bergen. Schmidt posted to Google+ a cute picture of his young daughter wearing a Game of Thrones t-shirt in a yoga pose next to a cat. The t-shirt was this one, bearing the phrase "I will take what is mine with fire and blood," a quote from Daenerys Targaryen, a fictional character in a series of fantasy novels (which has sold tens of millions of copies) turned into a hot TV series on HBO (with close to 15 million viewers per episode.) Googling the phrase will instantly provide a context to anyone unfamiliar with the series.

So: a professor posts a cute picture of his kid in a t-shirt with a saying from a much-talked-about tv show. In the America we'd like to believe in, nothing happens. But in the America we've allowed to creep up on us, this happens:

But one contact — a dean — who was notified automatically via Google that the picture had been posted apparently took it as a threat. In an email, Jim Miller, the college’s executive director for human resources, told Schmidt to meet with him and two other administrators immediately in light of the “threatening email.”

Although it was winter break, Schmidt said he met with the administrators, including a security official, in one of their offices and was questioned repeatedly about the picture’s meaning and the popularity of “Game of Thrones.”

Schmidt said Miller asked him to use Google to verify the phrase, which he did, showing approximately 4 million hits. The professor said he asked why the photo had set off such a reaction, and that the security official said that “fire” could be a kind of proxy for “AK-47s.”

Despite Schmidt’s explanation, he was notified via email later in the week that he was being placed on leave without pay, effectively immediately, and that he would have to be cleared by a psychiatrist before he returned to campus. Schmidt said he was diagnosed with depression in 2007 but was easily cleared for this review, although even the brief time away from campus set back his students, especially those on independent study.

So. That happened.

Pressed for an explanation of this lunacy, Bergen Community College Kaye Walter retreated into the first refuge of a modern authoritarianism, "think of the children":

Walter said she did not believe that the college had acted unfairly, especially considering that there were three school shootings nationwide in January, prior to Schmidt’s post. The suspects in all three shootings were minors targeting their local schools (although three additional shootings at colleges or universities happened later in the month).

This — this — is the core demand of the modern Fear State. Tell us what to fear, leaders, for the night is dark and full of terrors. Tell us what we have to do. Tell us what to think, and how to assess risks. Tell us "if you see something, say something" so we may feel duty-bound to vent our fears and insecurities about our fellow citizens rather than exercising judgment or compassion or proportion. Assure us that you must exercise your growing powers for our own safety, to ward off the terrible things we worry about.

Is Bergen some sort of unlikely citadel of irrationality? At first glance it may seem so. After all no well person would interpret the t-shirt as a threat and report it. That takes irrationality or dysfunction. No minimally competent or intelligent or honest school administrator would pursue such a report upon receiving it; rather, anyone exercising anything like rational discretion would Google the thing and immediately identify it as a mundane artifact of popular culture. No honest or near-normal intellect would say, as Jim Miller did, that the "fire" in the slogan might refer to an AK-47, a profoundly idiotic statement that resembles arguing that "May the Force Be With You" is a threat of force. Nobody with self-respect or minimal ability would claim that this professor's treatment was somehow justified by school shootings.

But Bergen isn't an anomaly. It's not a collection of dullards and subnormals — though Jim Miller and Kaye Walker could lead to think that it is. Bergen is the emerging norm. Bergen represents what we, the people, have been convinced to accept. Bergen is unremarkable in a world where we've accepted "if you see something, say something" as an excuse to emote like toddlers, and where we're lectured that we should be thankful that our neighbors are so eager to inform on us. Bergen is mundane in a world where we put kids in jail to be brutalized over obvious bad jokes on social media. Bergen exists in a world where officials use concepts like "cyberbullying" to police and retaliate against satire and criticism. Bergen exists in a world where we have allowed fears — fear of terrorism, fear of drugs, fear of crime, fear for our children — to become so powerful that merely invoking them is a key that unlocks any right. Bergen exists in a country where our leaders realize how powerful those fears are, and therefore relentlessly stretch them further and further, so we get things like the already-Orwellian Department of Homeland Security policing DVD piracy.

Certainly the Miller-Walter mindset is not unique in American academia. We've seen a professor's historical allusion cynically repackaged as a threat. We've seen a community college invoke 9/11 and Virginia Tech and Columbine to ban protest signs. In pop-culture debacle much like this one, we've seen a college tear down a "Firefly" poster as a threat. We've seen satire and criticism punished as "actionable harassment" or ""intimidation."

As a nation, we all need to decide whether we will surrender our critical thinking in response to buzzwords like "terrorism" and "drugs" and "crime" and "school shootings." On a local level, we must decide whether we will put up with such idiocy from our educational institutions. So tell me, students and teachers and alumni of Bergen Community College. Are you going to put up with that? Because institutions that act like this are not helping young people to be productive and independent adults. They are teaching fear, ignorance, and subservience.

If you feel strongly about it, you could tell Bergen Community College on its Twitter Account or Facebook page.

Update: Bergen made a statement doubling down:

"The referenced incident refers to a private personnel matter at Bergen Community College. Since January 1, 2014, 34 incidents of school shootings have occurred in the United States. In following its safety and security procedures, the college investigates all situations where a member of its community – students, faculty, staff or local residents – expresses a safety or security concern."

There are at least two maddening components to this. First, they didn't just "investigate" — they suspended the professor and made him see a psychiatrist because he posted a picture of his daughter in a wildly popular t-shirt from pop culture. Second, the statement is an implicit admission that the college refuses to exercise critical thinking about the complaints it receives. There is no minimally rational connection between school shootings — or any type of violence — and a picture of someone's kid in a pop-culture t-shirt. The college is saying, in effect, "complain to us about your angers or fears, however utterly irrational, and we will act precipitously on them, because OMG 9/11 COLUMBINE TEH CHILDREN." Shameful. Ask yourself: what kind of education do you think your children will get from people who think like this?

Takei on Phelps

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On the topic of gay marriage, I'm pretty old fashioned.

…by which I mean I believe what goes on in a marriage contract is between two or more people, their lawyers, and their goðar / non-governmental polycentric legal service providers.

As a non aligned bystander in the left-vs-right culture wars, I'm not as much a reflexively huge fan of George Takei as some people are.

Then I saw this:

George Takei

I take no solace or joy in this man's passing. We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding "God Hates Freds" signs, tempting as it may be.

He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.

Well done, sir.

Houdini Now and Then – Caught on the Web

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This article originally appeared in The Mandala Magazine (2:5), April 2012

Houdini Now and Then
:
Caught on the Web

It’s tough being a fan of the Great Houdini. Your non-magician friends quickly grow tired of hearing you say “Watch me escape from this” or “Tie me up! Tighter!” The patience of your significant other wears thin as you beckon “Look at this photo of the fourth milk can!” And your magician friends who are not fans of HH (a defect we fans describe with the phrase “just doesn’t get it”) are likely to respond with “You know, he wasn’t really much of a magician” or “You know, Vernon fooled him with a double” or “You know, he was sort of an arrogant bastard to… well… everyone.”

Houdini, Germany, ca. 1902 (John Cox Collection)

Houdini, Germany, ca. 1902 (John Cox Collection)

OK. Yes, we know. Even so, there’s just something about Houdini the man and the myth. And being a fan is no longer about becoming Houdini (though for some it once was). Nor is it about defending Houdini. (Well, maybe a bit.) It’s about appreciating two interwoven themes in the life of Ehrich Weiss: a tragically imperfect pursuit of the American Dream and a splendidly perfect example of magical theatrics. The actor lived a life, not always well, but the character he played projected a fiction, always magnificent. (more…)

Your Criticism of My Holocaust Analogy Is Like Yet ANOTHER Holocaust

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When Tom Perkins wrote his letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal suggesting that very rich people are facing a "progressive Kristallnacht," the marketplace of ideas functioned as advertised. Tom Perkins said something very stupid, and was widely ridiculed as someone who had said something very stupid. He was the butt of many jokes and his former associates distanced themselves from him.

Perkins' comment was self-serious and inflammatory enough to be slightly novel. The reaction was mundane. So was the utterly predictable reaction to the reaction. This time, that sur-reaction is delivered by the Wall Street Journal, in an editorial helpfully titled "Perkinsnacht: Liberal Vituperation Makes Our Letter Writer's Point."

Maybe the critics are afraid that Mr. Perkins is onto something about the left's political method. Consider the recent record of liberals in power.

The Journal goes on to decry genuine abuses of power — like the IRS's despicable targeting of ideologically incorrect groups — and rhetorical douchebaggery from the likes of Andrew Cuomo and Bill DeBlasio. The Journal sullenly concludes:

The liberals aren't encouraging violence, but they are promoting personal vilification and the abuse of government power to punish political opponents.

But personal vilification isn't violence, and it is right and fit to call people out every time they say it is, and then call them out again when they double down.

Vigorous and hurtful and unpleasant speech is what we have instead of violence. Our ability to level such viscerally satisfying attacks on speech we don't like is a crucial part of what convinces us, as a nation, not to censor speech we don't like. In Europe, Tom Perkins might face official sanctions for saying the wrong thing about the Holocaust; here, he faces late-night jokes and insulting cartoons and the contempt of many. I like our way better.

It's common, now, to indulge in rhetoric that conflates criticism with violence or official oppression. People — mostly African-Americans — were actually lynched by mobs in this country less than a century ago. But now "lynch mob" is generally invoked when someone acts like an asshole and, in the judgment of their supporters, too many people are pointing it out at once. Real kids commit real suicide because of real bullying while advocates of the Right and the Left invoke "bullying" to describe having one's views criticized or questioned. In some countries people are still executed for witchcraft or condemned to jail or death by inquisitions; here when people say "witch hunt" or "inquisition" we generally mean we think public criticism of someone's obnoxious behavior is excessive. We're told that the "masculine and muscular" are at "risk" or "danger" because of feminized culture. As I understand it the particular risk is being made fun of on MSNBC, which muscular masculinity is apparently too timid to sustain.

All of this silly rhetoric is itself free speech, of course. But it's not harmless speech. It's pernicious. Conflating speech and violence encourages citizens to think that speech should be controlled like violence. That's not a abstract danger. It's real. States continue to pass idiotic "cyber-bulling" statutes, blundering around the legal landscape trying to determine which insults are hurtful enough to criminalize. American institutions continue to censor speech by willfully misconstruing protected rhetoric as unprotected threats. Police and prosecutors imprison kids for what are clearly jokes and investigate authors of critical reviews for "harassment." Left-leaning law professors argue that speech on the internet ought to be regulated to protect the civil rights of participants deterred from participation by harmful speech, using rhetoric that sounds suspiciously like what Right-leaning folks use when they complain that "political correctness" deters them from participating.

So: indulge yourself if you must. Call the people speaking ill of you a "lynch mob." Call that person criticizing your political screed a "cyber-bully." Cry "witch hunt" when someone doesn't like what you say. Cry "Holocaust" if you're rich and you don't like people pointing out that the system is rigged in favor of the rich.1 But just know that the price of your self-seriousness is the creeping notion that speech is just like action, and that therefore maybe we ought to regulate it a little more.

That's why I, as a defender of free speech, am going to keep calling out and ridiculing your Kristallnacht analogies, even if you think that's another Kristallnacht.

How I Became A Dupe, And Why I Blame Canada

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I make fun of people who take satire literally. I enjoy websites like Literally Unbelievable, and chortle in a superior fashion when ideological or social opponents fall for satire. When right-wing sites sloppily repeated clear satire about a nutty liberal college professor I criticized them and used it as an opportunity to repeat one of my favorite aphorisms:

Someone once said — and I wish I could figure out who it was — that all satire is a shared joke between the writer and the reader at the expense of a hypothetical third person — the dupe — who takes the text at face value.

Of course, sometimes the dupe is not hypothetical.

So of course I (albeit briefly) fell for satire yesterday. I was the non-hypothetical dupe. It's Canada's fault.

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In Which Elan Gale Teaches Two Social Media Lessons

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Elan Gale, a reality television producer, had a high-profile Thanksgiving weekend. Mr. Gale live-tweeted a purported confrontation with a woman named "Diane" during a busy holiday flight. The intended message of Mr. Gale's presentation — whether it was "reality," or pure fiction — was that "Diane" was rude to airline staff and unpleasantly entitled, and that Mr. Gale is witty and righteous.

Not everyone took it that way. Some people found Mr. Gale to be an insufferable douchebag who enjoys telling complete strangers "eat my dick" and then crowing about it on Twitter. On the other hand, some people defend Mr. Gale and celebrate him as an honest comic or as a champion of manners.

Mr. Gale serves to teach us two lessons about social media and the internet — and more broadly, about life.

Lesson One: Douchebaggery Is Not A Zero-Sum Game

The first lesson is that boorish behavior is not binary. People are complex, life is complex, and despite our hunger to see the world in simple terms of white hats versus black hats, sometimes all participants in a social media melee are assholes.

In this instance, it's perfectly possible to recognize that (1) that "Diane" — if she exists — was contemptibly rude and entitled towards airline staff who have no control over when a plane leaves and who are simply doing their jobs under trying circumstances, and (2) also recognize that Elan Gale is contemptibly self-involved for seeing Diane's rudeness as an opportunity to confront and torment her for his own amusement and self-promotion. Recognizing one does not diminish the other, because douchebaggery is not a zero-sum game. "Diane" thought — either out of bad character, or temporary frailty — that she was entitled to vent at some poor bastard working for an airline on a holiday. Mr. Gale thought that the abuse of an airline employee was a swell opportunity to put a woman "in her place" and preen for his followers. You can criticize both without letting either one off the hook.

Being human, I've probably been guilty of both. Despite my best efforts I've been rude to people in service jobs (remember what Dave Barry says: someone who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person), and I've probably written about bad behavior here as a vehicle for one-liners on more than one occasion. It's good to be honest about that before throwing the first stone, but because it's not a zero-sum game, recognizing that doesn't diminish any else's responsibility for their own actions.

Lesson Two: You Control Your Behavior, Not The World's Reaction To It

Elan Gale also taught us another lesson over the weekend: you control your own words and your own behavior, but you don't get to control how the world reacts to you. If you try — if you act like you are entitled to control how people react to you — you'll come off like a fool. Mr. Gale did.

When some people online failed to recognize his righteous genius, Mr. Gale reacted with increasing resentment and petulance.

GaleAngryIsGaleAngry

GaleHowDareYouDisagree

GaleDontYouKnowWhoIAm

Faced with unverified claims that "Diane" might have been acting that way because she has Stage IV lung cancer and is dying — which could be true and could explain the face mask Gale claims she was wearing, or could be completely made up — Mr. Gale responded with more ridicule:

GaleUnicorn

That one's not going to seem very funny if "Diane" is real and actually has cancer. (Well, Maybe Elan Gale would still think it's funny.)

Elan Gale can control what he says or does. He can decide whether or not to use a complete stranger for a comedy routine and whether to solicit praise from his followers by telling women to eat his dick. If the whole thing is made up, it's up to him whether or not to make such things up.

What's not in his control, and not up to him, is how others react.

You can do two things with that truth: you can own your words and live with the reaction to them, or you can react with wounded outrage when folks don't think you're as special as mommy always said you were. Elan Gale is has chosen the later option, erupting like a moody tween at people not embracing his awesomeness. I'm always at risk of blasting someone here who doesn't "deserve" it, but I hope at least I'm not in danger of proclaiming that I have a right to do so without being criticized. Do you want to be edgy? Do you want to crusade against boors? Do you want to use strangers in your comedy routines? Knock yourself out. But if you do so, and then whine when someone tells you that you've acted like an asshole, you're a ridiculous and pathetic figure.

Or perhaps Elan Gale's self-righteous reaction to criticism is scripted as well, and the whole thing is a satire of a culture of narcissistic entitlement on all sides — in which case, well played.

Edited to add: Mr. Gale continues to see himself as a victim, and to have nothing resembling self-awareness:

GaleHelpHelpImBeingOppressed

Edited again: Gale now seems to be suggesting that the whole thing was made up. Is he suggesting that his entitled response was part of the joke? I suspect he will.

What Does Mercy Look Like?

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About three decades ago, in high school, I was on the football team. Well, no, not really. I was affiliated with the football team. Well, no. Not really that, either. I covered the football team for our questionable local paper. I knew absolutely nothing about football and didn't particularly like it and felt alienated from it, so my stories had a sort of smug and ironic Wild Kingdom tone to them, like when the New York times covers nearly anything.

At the time, my school played eight-man football in a prep school league. There was a mercy rule — if one team was ahead by 45 points, the game ended. Such endings were not uncommon. Our team would mercy-rule one LA-area private school every year at their own homecoming. They seemed to draw from an unusually short population, and the sight of their team on the field saluting the flag after a dubbing, tiny helmets held firmly over humble hearts, had a certain amount of pathos. The worm turns; that school is now dominant in the league and has been for several years.

This year my son, having entered seventh grade at my old school, played on the seventh- and eighth-grade flag football teams. He did fine — he's mid-sized, but quite fast from soccer, and the spinning and dodging of flag football suits his skills. His team didn't win a single game. There's no mercy rule any more. Yet the kids don't seem to mind. After each touchdown against them they'd square their shoulders and return to the line, and after each game they'd listen patiently to the coach's speech, then return with equanimity to talking about sports and (still obliquely) girls and homework and video games.

Some of the other teams ran up the score, given the opportunity. 12-year-old boys, able to run the long plays they dreamed of and practiced on summer lawns, romped and cheered in the Autumn sun. It would never occur to me to complain.

It would occur to some people.

Down in Texas, Aledo High School beat Western Hills High school 91-0 last week at a football game. These things happen; sometimes one school is simply outmatched, and apparently that league has no mercy rule. But a Western Hills parent was angry and filed a "bullying report" with the school district. We have all decided that bullying is a Serious Problem, although we rarely agree about what it means. Such reports — whatever their merit — have immediate legal consequences, thanks to the no-discretion rule-bound zero-tolerance approach we take to educating our kids in America:

Buchanan spent an hour in the superintendent's office this week and the school is currently investigating, as mandated by the state. The Aledo principal told Buchanan that a written report is expected in the next day or so, something required by state law. Buchanan — who is in his 21st season as head coach at Aledo and said he has never been accused of bullying — said he has the support of the Aledo administration.

I suspect that the report will be resolved in the coach's favor. Folks understand that sometimes one school is in a slump and the other school is riding a crest. The opposing coach certainly understood it:

Western Hills coach John Naylor, whose team dropped to 0-7, didn't have any issues with how Buchanan and his staff handled the game, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the athletes played hard and didn't "talk at all."

"They're No. 1 for a reason, and I know Coach Buchanan," Naylor told the newspaper. "We're fighting a real uphill battle right now."

Various news outlets are trying to portray this incident as part of the weakening of America. That's too much. It's important to point out that the report is from one angry father, not from an entire culture. The systemic issue, if there is one, is the series of laws that requires a formal investigative process no matter how facially ridiculous a complaint. Another systemic issue, if there is one, is the malleability of words like "bullying," which can be used to pursue any sort of grievance, whether or not it is actually related to the well-being of children.

So was the 91-0 win unmerciful?

A mercy rule — in which a game ends when one side is ahead by 45 points — is perfectly legitimate. It's a previously agreed-upon recognition that such a game is no longer much of a contest, and it doesn't require either side to change the way they play.

But a rule or norm that a winning team must stop trying its best is insulting to both sides. It's condescending to the outmatched team, which must keep struggling to score as the other side struggles not to struggle too hard. It's debilitating to the stronger team, which must unlearn good habits and adopt bad ones. Often, when a contest is lopsided, the better team's second- and third-string players will come out, eager to have their day in the sun, and they are the ones who will be given the unmanageable instruction to play but not to play too hard.

Is that mercy? I think not. Different people have different abilities. It is not merciful to pretend otherwise. It is the opposite of merciful to teach children to expect that when they grow up and graduate and make their way in the world, somehow the world will refrain from beating them 91-0 when it can. There's honor and dignity in fighting a lost cause against an overwhelmingly stronger opponent. (I could hardly be a criminal defense attorney if I didn't believe that). But there's no pride in a system that asserts that you are entitled to perform at a certain level whether or not you can reach that level yourself, or that you are not entitled to try your hardest if the results you can achieve are too strong.

Mercy is refraining from ridiculing or abusing the young men who lost 91-0. Mercy is complimenting them for their effort. Mercy is treating them like athletes and competitors after such a loss. Mercy is applauding when they return to the line time after time against hopeless odds, and when they return to practice again the next day. Mercy might be sitting down with them and telling them about times you lost badly and how you felt and how you got up again. Mercy is pointing out to other kids the character it takes to keep trying under such circumstances, and challenging them to have character like that. Mercy is teaching kids how to deal with the adversity they will certainly face in their life.

It is not merciful to teach them they have a right not to lose badly.

Afterthought: This is what mercy looks like.

Biology-Online.org, "Urban Whores," And The Many Axes Of Douchebaggery

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Biologist Danielle N. Lee blogs as "The Urban Scientist." She admirably strives to widen the audience for science and explain how the fundamental principles of science can be observed in any environment. A few days ago she received an email solicitation from Biology-Online.org, an ass-ugly advertisement-encrusted content aggregator site. "Ofek," a "Blog Editor" at Biology-Online, wrote Ms. Lee and asked her to contribute blog posts as a "guest blogger." Ms. Lee asked some polite questions — how often, and do you pay your content providers — and upon receiving the answers, very politely declined.

So Biology-Online "Blog Editor Ofek" called her a whore.

Because we don't pay for blog entries?
Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?

Urban WhoreHOW DARE YOU NOT PROVIDE US WITH CONTENT FOR FREE.

Ms. Lee told her story more kindly than "Ofek" deserved, and used it as an opportunity to advocate for widening access to science and the audience for science. Ms. Lee rocks.

Here the story might have faded quickly into obscurity — it hit on a weekend during a news-heavy month. But remember the first rule of public relations: it may quite difficult to make things better, but it's always very easy to make things much worse by running your mouth before you have time to get a grip. Hence the venerable Scientific American — which for reasons that passeth all understanding partners with Biology-Online.org — elected to delete Ms. Lee's blog entry about the issue from their site. Called on that, Scientific American Editor-In-Chief Mariette DiChristina reacted with a stupid lie:

OhBullshitScientificAmerican

As other Scientific American bloggers pointed out, that's just bullshit. Scientific American allows such blogs all the time. Scientific American's online leadership — faced with a story about a scientist being treated badly by one of its "partners" — deleted the story and lied about it, inexorably prolonging the story, substantially widening its audience, and associating Scientific American with its villain. The Aristocrats!

Many bloggers have written about this as a clear example of how sexism is pervasive in the sciences. After all, how else can you explain the interpersonal dysfunction of someone demanding free content from a female scientist and then calling her a whore when she refuses?

But I think sexism is, at least, an incomplete explanation.

I have no doubt that the scientific community is awash in ignorant and reflexive sexism. I've heard too many stories from loved ones, classmates, and clients2 in the sciences to think otherwise. But human douchebaggery spins upon multiple axes. It may be that the most powerful axis in play here is not sexism, but marketing.

Perhaps "Ofek" is3 some kind of scientist. If he is, and his identity is revealed, he is likely to experience significant social consequences — that is, he is likely to be treated as someone who calls women "whore" when they decline to provide him with free content. But Ofek is currently in the business of spamming bloggers to ask them to contribute free content to a sordid little advertising-heavy aggregator site in order to increase traffic and thereby increase advertising revenue to Ofek and Ofek's team. In other words, Ofek has ceased to be a scientist and begun a career as a marketeer.

And marketeers are entitled douchebags. Within the context of online marketing, Ofek's behavior is perfectly typical. Ofek's belief — that he is entitled to profit off of Ms. Lee's work, and that she's worthy of abuse if she objects — is the apotheosis of marketeer culture.

You can hear echoes of Ofek in the marketeer who called the Bloggess a "fucking bitch" when she snarked about receiving Kardashian spam. You can hear it in the offense taken by the spammer who showed up in our comments, outraged that we called out his spam. You can hear it in the attitude of comment spammers who suggest that if bloggers don't want comment spam they shouldn't have open comments. You see it in the buffoonish look-how-successful-I-am rants of marketeers who defend their vocation. You hear it in the rancor of marketeers who believe they own hashtags on Twitter and that anyone who uses them for criticism is a spammer. You can hear it in the angry entitlement of the marketeer who threatens me with a lawsuit when I call out his deceitful methodology.

It is right and fit that people who learn about Ms. Lee's experience should use it as a teaching opportunity about sexism in science. But that's an incomplete lesson. It's also an opportunity to remind yourself and your readers about the culture of online marketeering. This is what online marketeers think of you. When you treat with them you only help spread this culture. Fight sexism! But don't forget to shun marketeers and their methods.

Note: "Ofek" clearly intended "whore" to be a gendered slur. His communication should be treated accordingly. But when you think about the use of the word "whore", it's a good thing to remember that sex workers are actual human beings, not abstractions. They are more than the collection of social attitudes about them. Read the words of a dozen sex workers and you'll get a dozen different attitudes about what they did and how society treats them. I recommend Maggie McNeill, who writes forcefully from one perspective. Since I started reading her I stopped using "whore" as a political epithet.

Cross-Global Echoes At A Kiddie Party

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So I was reading the Wikipedia entry for Malta — it was blasphemy-related — and I spotted this:

On a child's first birthday, in a tradition that still survives today, Maltese parents would organise a game known as il-quċċija, where a variety of symbolic objects would be randomly placed around the seated child. These may include a hard-boiled egg, a Bible, crucifix or rosary beads, a book, and so on. Whichever object the child shows most interest in is said to reveal the child's path and fortunes in adulthood.

That sounds familiar, I thought. It sounds just like a dol, which I have held for my two older kids, both born in Korea:

The highlight of the dol is a ritual where the child is placed in front of a table of foods and objects such as string, brushes, ink and money. The child is then urged to pick up an object from the table. It is believed the one selected will foretell the child's future. For example, if the child picks up a brush or book, he/she is destined to be smart. If he/she picks up money he will be wealthy; If he/she picks up food that means he/she will not be hungry. If the child picks up the thread, it is believed he/she will live a long life. The types of objects placed on the table for the baby to choose has evolved over time, as a reflection of society's evolving perception of successful occupations. However, many parents remain more traditional in their selection of objects to place on the table.

photoSEIZE ALL THE DESTINIES

photo(1)Abby chooses rice, signifying prosperity, passing up a basketball, signifying a scholarship and an NCAA Women's Basketball championship in 2022.

So. Direct cross-cultural contamination? Common heritage from an ancient ur-culture? Or parallel development of fundamental human concepts?

History Must Be Curved

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I'm about to quote almost 700 words from a blog post, which normally would be considered long…but it's from an almost book-length series of posts, so as a proportion of the whole, it's actually quite short.

http://tofspot.blogspot.com

HISTORY MUST BE CURVED, for there is a horizon in the affairs of mankind. Beyond this horizon, events pass out of historical consciousness and into myth. Accounts are shortened, complexities sloughed off, analogous figures fused, traditions “abraded into anecdotes.” Real people become culture heroes: archetypical beings performing iconic deeds. (Vansina 1985)

In oral societies this horizon lies typically at eighty years; but historical consciousness endures longer in literate societies, and the horizon may fall as far back as three centuries. Arthur, a late 5th cent. war leader, had become by the time of Charlemagne the subject of an elaborate story cycle. Three centuries later, troubadours had done the same to Charlemagne himself. History had slipped over the horizon and become the stuff of legend. In AD 778, a Basque war party ambushed the Carolingian rear guard (Annales regni francorum). Forty years later, Einhard, a minister of Charlemagne, mentioned “Roland, prefect of the Breton Marches” among those killed (“Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis praefectus,” Vita karoli magni). But by 1098, Roland had become a “paladin” and the central character, the Basques had become Saracens, and a magic horn and tale of treachery had been added (La chanson de Roland). Compare the parallel fate of a Hopi narrative regarding a Navajo ambush (Vansina, pp. 19-20). This suggests that 17th century history has for the bulk of the population already become myth. Jamestown is reduced to “Pocahontas,” and Massachusetts boils down to “the First Thanksgiving.” And the story of how heliocentrism replaced geocentrism has become a Genesis Myth, in which a culture-hero performs iconic deeds that affirm the rightness of Our Modern World-view.

Conclusion: Our ancestors were not fools.

In three centuries, the long complex story of how the mobile Earth replaced the stationary Earth dipped below the horizon from History into Legend. Like all good legends, the story of heliocentrism and the culture-hero Galileo is simple and general and geared toward supporting the Rightness of the Modern worldview. But history is always detailed and particular.

The reasons for the stationary Earth were rooted in empirical experience and successful modeling. The dual motion of the Earth is not sensibly evident and was difficult to establish on empirical grounds. Heliocentrism triumphed first of all because Neoplatonic number mysticism had become au courant during the Renaissance, and Platonists equated mathematical elegance with physical evidence.

Resistance to heliocentrism was rooted in the science of the day and religion entered the picture mainly because the Church Fathers had interpreted Scripture in the light of that science. They weren’t about to change until there was solid evidence that the science (and hence the interpretation) was wrong; not in the middle of no honkin' Reformation they weren’t. Thomas Huxley said after investigating the affair that “the Church had the better case.” But Pierre Duhem put it differently. The Copernicans were “right for the wrong reasons.” The Ptolemaics were “wrong for the right reasons.”

Science doesn’t follow a mythic positivist ideal but the plural scientific methods described by Feyerabend: a mixture of empiricism, flights of fancy, intuition, aesthetics, doggedness, and jealousy. Scientific theories are underdetermined. Any finite set of facts can support multiple theories, and for a long time the available facts were equally explained by geostationary or geomobile models.

In the Legend, the conflict was between Science and Religion. But in the History, the conflict was between two groups of scientists, with churchmen lined up on all sides. Copernicanism was supported by humanist literati and opposed by Aristotelian physicists; so it was a mixed bag all around. Science does not take place in a bubble. International and domestic politics and individual personalities roil the pot as well. The mystery is not why Galileo failed to triumph – he didn’t have good evidence, made enemies of his friends, and stepped into a political minefield. The real mystery is why Kepler, who actually had the correct solution, constantly flew under the radar. A deviant Lutheran working in a Catholic monarchy, he pushed Copernicanism as strongly as Galileo; but no one hassled him over it. Too bad he couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag.

This is from the conclusion of Michael Flynn's masterful nine part essay on "The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown".

I can not recommend it highly enough.

  1. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown
  2. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Down for the Count
  3. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown:
    The Great Galileo-Scheiner Flame War of 1611-13
  4. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown:
    The Down 'n Dirty Mud Wrassle
  5. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Here's Mud in Yer Eye
  6. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Comet Chameleon
  7. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Time and Tides Wait Not
  8. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Trial and Error
  9. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: From Plausible to Proven

If you find the idea in the first quoted paragraph above ("Beyond this horizon, events pass out of historical consciousness and into myth. Accounts are shortened, complexities sloughed off, analogous figures fused, traditions 'abraded into anecdotes.'") somewhere between tantalizing and fascinating, then you could do worse than to check out his Spiral Arm series of novels:

  1. January Dancer
  2. Up Jim River
  3. On the Razor's Edge
  4. In the Lion's Mouth

I loved the books.

Wikipedia has this to say about them:

Wikipedia

This is a far future science fiction novel set in a universe populated with only humans and "pre-human" artifacts. It is told as a narrative presented with variations on English, Chinese, Indian, and Celtic words. The literary style has been described as extremely difficult to read due to the inclusion of non-English terms and historical accounts that are not common knowledge to most SF readers[1][2]. The characters in the story belong to 2 major factions of humanity: The United League of the Periphery, and the Confederacy of Central Worlds. The Confederacy is the remnant of Earth and its original colonies while the League is composed of the planets far out on the spiral arm of the galaxy. These 2 factions are in a galactic "cold war" and both have secretive pseudo-military agencies that feature prominently in the book. The story centers around the Confederacy and League agents seeking the answer to a mystery of the disappearance of ships in the rift between the spiral arm and the central worlds. The story's title comes from a "pre-human" artifact called the Dancer which is discovered early in the book. It exerts a subtle but very profound effect on various characters throughout the story. It is eventually revealed to be part of an ancient race of silicon based lifeforms called "The Folk of Sand and Iron" that have played a very significant but almost unknown role in human history. The story has 2 sequels and a third planned[3]. The January Dancer was a finalist for the 2009 Prometheus Award.

ObDisclosure about this review:

  1. I've never met Michael Flynn, and have no personal or economic stake in his success.
  2. I do, however, have a memetic stake. He thinks Deep Thoughts that I agree with. I wouldn't mind him getting funded so that he can keep writing.
  3. The links to his books above use the Amazon Popehat affiliate code. Read about how that money gets spent here.
  4. Depending on the reaction to this post, I may end up writing reviews of science fiction novels that I find worthy of note. Whether or not people like this one, I'm pretty likely to write one of my big-honkin' pieces on the topic of left/right/centrist post-apocalyptic novels.

UPDATE: Thanks for dropping by, Hacker News readers. If you liked this you might want to subscribe to the RSS feed. Popehat is a group blog. Ken is the most prolific blogger and covers civil rights law. I'm the second most prolific blogger (this week, at least) and talk about science, politics, and – upcoming – intended to dive deep into Urbit and will soon start writing reviews of science fiction novels. The other co-bloggers are also fascinating nerds and write about stuff that the typical news.yc reader would enjoy. Stick around!

Brave Educators Confront Guns, Vampires

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DATELINE Harmony, Florida

In days gone by, the worst that teachers and school administrators had to worry about was chewing gum, running in the halls, and the occasional skirt that brushed the knee.

Now, however, educators face an arsenal arrayed against them and against the safety and discipline of our nation's schools. Students brandish pistols, rifles, grenades, swords (both steel and plasma), gigantic fighting robots, and occasionally dinosaurs.

Now, to be perfectly accurate, some of these weapons are imaginary. For instance, the Harmony Community School recently suspended eight-year-old Jordan Bennett for making an imaginary gun with his finger while playing with friends at recess. But educators maintain that good order requires zero tolerance of any reference to violence, real or imagined.

Osceolla County School District spokesperson Dol Umbridge bristled at the suggestion that suspending an eight-year-old for imaginative play was excessive. "A gun is a gun, whether you choose to brand it as 'real' or not," said Umbridge. "Imagining violence leads to violence. Past permissiveness about 'games' of 'cops and robbers' are exactly why crime is at an all-time high. And children who imagine guns will go on to imagine other things, which is highly detrimental to our curriculum. Moreover, thanks to budget cuts, many of our professional educators have been deprived of the in-service training days that would permit them to distinguish between 'real' and 'imaginary' guns."

Umbridge added that the district's policy against imaginary items is based on a successful initiative launched by the federal government in 2001.

"The point is," Umbridge explained, "that there have been school shootings in this country. Those school shootings demonstrate that parents should accept the risk assessments of teachers and school administrators, and give them the benefit of the doubt that they only want what is best for our children." Umbridge's defensive comment may have been a reference to a somewhat controversial incident at an Osceolla County school last October when a Vice Principal staked a third-grader pretending to be a vampire at an Autumn Festival. Vampires are on Osceolla County's list of prohibited subjects of imaginative play because of their association with violence, sexuality, and dysfunctional relationships.

Though the no-imaginative-play policy has met some opposition, it also enjoys support. "I can't teach my kid the difference between fantasy and reality. That's what schools are for," said one Orlando father who had recently blamed the popular computer game "Minecraft" for his nine-year-old son bringing a steak knife, bullets, and an inoperative but real handgun to elementary school. "I look to the government to flush this sort of nonsense out of his head. What am I supposed to do about it?"

Public Shaming For Internet Behavior: A Specific Instance

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For the last week Popehat has hosted some discussions about public shaming based on obnoxious online behavior. You can find my post framing public shaming as an instance of more-speech social consequences here, Clark's concerns about the impact of public shaming on culture here, and a collection of past on-topic posts here.

Let's look at a specific example to continue the discussion.

Yesterday Nina Davuluri, who is of Indian descent, was crowned Miss America. The results were predictable to anyone familiar with the internet, not to mention anyone who remembers what happened when Rima Fakih won the Miss USA pageant: unrestrained derpitude, often by people who are too ignorant to tell different ethnic groups apart.

As is often the case, some sites collected and published tweets by people upset that a person of Indian descent won the pageant. Here is the forthrightly named Public Shaming Blog, and here is Buzzfeed. Many of the people featured have since deleted their Twitter accounts or made them private.

Is this good, bad, or indifferent? Positive, negative, or neutral?

Here are some arguments I'd expect, without (yet) endorsing any of them:

Pro:

1. It's entertaining. Human frailty is the oldest and most consistent funny subject. People who are constantly incensed at brown people and can't tell Arabs from Muslims from Indians are foolish and foolishness is amusing.
2. It's whistling past the graveyard. Bigotry exists; ridiculing bigots is a mild act of defiance.
3. It's supportive. Bigots exist; ridiculing and calling them out tells people subject to bigotry that we support them.
4. It's a pressure release. The ability to ridicule bigots publicly reduces pressure to make the government regulate speech.
5. It's socially transformative. Ridiculing bigots causes people to rethink being bigots.
6. It's Darwinian. Twitter and Facebook, aided by Google, help those of us who hire employees distinguish between morons and people of normal intelligence.

Con:

1. It's disproportionate. Though Twitter is public, people don't expect their worst moments to be publicly searchable forever, which can have real-world impact like loss of jobs or relationships.
2. It's out of context. It's too often difficult to tell if something is satirical or tongue-in-cheek. [Edited to add: Patterico suggests, plausibly, "When something like this happens there is often at least one person mocking the bad guys who gets lumped in with them."]
3. It chills speech by subjecting it to nationwide attack.
4. It encourages "mob rule" by directing large numbers of people to attack someone for expression of opinion.
5. It's arbitrary, in that there is an inexhaustible supply of derpitude out there, and these people are having their derpitude irrationally singled out.
6. It doesn't contribute to a dialogue on the situation, only an attack.
7. It treats minors and adults equivalently, and unkindly preserves youthful idiocy.
8. It's fake outrage manipulated for pageviews.

My biases are these: I believe in, at least, Pro points 1 – 4. I think that Con points 2 – 6 ignore the question "compared to what" and are part of the fallacy of treating response speech different than initial speech.

What do you think?

The Difference Between Me On The Internet, And Women On The Internet

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I say things on the internet that annoy people. It is my lot in life.

I annoy them a lot. I annoy them back into the stone age.

When I annoy people I tend to get comments like this:

The Pophat guy would be pretty smart is he wasn't completely incoherent.

Or this:

Congratulations, Ken. You've used this situation to make yourself feel more pious. And that's what's really important, right? To be correct, and to lecture people who get involved.

A hit! A palpable hit!

Sure, on very rare occasions I draw a murder fantasy by an unprincipled oily lunatic, but for the most part, the reactions I get aren't threatening, and don't make fun of my appearance (despite it being a prime target) or sexuality.

But then, I'm a guy, aren't I?

Other people have other experiences.

Take this young woman, who posted a very annoying YouTube video expressing her disapproval of Louisiana State University ending its illiberal and frankly unconstitutional "free speech alley" policy that confined student expression like petitioning and leafletting to a single thousand-square-foot area on campus. Watch her video yourself, but I would characterize it as expressing resentment of expression she doesn't like, entitlement to be protected from views she doesn't like as part of a "safe environment," and sneering disdain at the concept of free speech. I found her video thoroughly dispiriting coming from a university student. I said as much.

The difference between this young woman and me is that when I annoy people I don't get comments like this, from this individual:

We can see your fattits through your cheap shirt you unenlightened cunt.

That comment seems to have very little to do with the young woman's regrettable attitude towards free speech. It seemed to have more to do with the fact that the young woman is a young woman.

It doesn't happen to me, even though I annoy a very large number of people. I don't want to brag, but Popehat's traffic increases every year, and I still find time for recreational comments elsewhere, and I think that I have been getting steadily more skilled at being annoying, although I hope I still have my best days ahead of me.

But nobody calls me anything comparable to cunt. They don't make fun of my manboobs. They don't tend to make fun of my body.

I think it might be because I'm a guy.

I've thought about this more as I think about the experience my daughters will have on the internet. I've thought about it as I have talked about how talking about internet abuse makes some people go so completely around the bend, and watched with dismay as those threads become the most vicious and unpleasant at Popehat.

I've carefully considered the input of people who tell me that men get treated just as badly on the internet. I've thought about the contributions of people who say that women are being oversensitive about this or misrepresenting their experiences for political benefit. I've evaluated the suggestion of people who say this is political correctness.

I think they are full of shit.

Glendale Unified School District, Concerned About Social Media, Pays Money To Be Creepy

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I'm fond of Glendale Unified School District. It endured me for several years as a misbegotten youth. I learned computers on Commodores and later Apples stamped with G.U.S.D. that my mom would bring home for the summer to do school district work. She worked there for thirty years as a teacher and vice-principal and principal and head of the gifted education program. District schools did an excellent job with my two older kids, notwithstanding the occasional head injury and total lack of common sense.

But this is an extremely creepy development.

Glendale school officials have hired a Hermosa Beach company to monitor and analyze public social media posts, saying the service will help them step in when students are in danger of harming themselves or others.

After collecting information from students' posts on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, Geo Listening will provide Glendale school officials with a daily report that categorizes posts by their frequency and how they relate to cyber-bullying, harm, hate, despair, substance abuse, vandalism and truancy.

Quoth one official:

"People are always looking to see what we're doing to ensure that their kids are safe. This just gives us another opportunity to ensure the kids are safe at all times," he said.

But kids are never going to be "safe at all times." That's an unreachable goal, and when you set it, it justifies any and all intrusion into the lives of kids and their families. Moreover, the school is responsible for kids' safety when kids are at school. "At all times" is none of their damn business.

I can see a reason for schools to search public social media in response to specified threats or as part of specific investigations. But sucking up all the public data kids leave out there and hiring companies to data-mine it? That's a thoroughly creepy increase in government surveillance.

Fortunately, it's also an excellent opportunity to teach kids a lesson. Hey kids: (1) things you do on the internet are public unless you take sufficient steps to make them private; (2) the government will spy on everything you do if you let it; (3) your government feels entitled to know about everything you do; (4) your government feels entitled to have a say about everything you do; (5) your government is not to be trusted.