Thursday, December 27, 2018

Harvard undergraduate makes a pitch for audio books, and explains the value of fiction

I thought I would share this video from Harvard undergraduate John Fish on the value of reading fiction.

He makes a case for the idea that in identifying with a character you can learn about yourself.  He presents the all too familiar experience of studying Shakespeare in high school.  I remember reading “Julius Caesar” (10th grade), and “Macbeth”, “King Lear”, and (for a book report) “Hamlet” in twelfth grade.

I think I can turn this around and imagine this idea from an author’s point of view. Many of my older manuscripts are about “me” as the central character, who migrates through apocalyptic change and finds success, in his own terms, in relationships through this navigation.  Finally, for the manuscript (“Angel’s Brother”) that I am working on now, I tell the outer story through other two characters, a very gifted graduating college-student (whom Fish, ironically, I might be able to compare to based on his videos), and a middle aged covert CIA agent whose family and marriage is on the verge of breakup. The student, a gifted hacker, has discovered “the plot”, so to speak, through decoding the unpublished works of “Bill” (me) and now wonders if he is an alien himself (that’s a little bit the idea of NBC’s “The Event”, where Jason Ritter’s character doesn’t know that he is an alien). Of course, this leads to heavy layering of levels of plot.

Fish also makes a (sponsored) pitch for Audio Books, and recommends Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (1932) .  Conservative author George Gilder, in his book “Men and Marriage” in 1986, and probably even “Sexual Suicide” in 1973, mentioned this book and often made the point that the retreat from the traditional family (as already developed in society by the 1980s) would invite genetic engineering of babies for perfection and remove the personal risk of dealing with people with disabilities. Yup, the idea could be made to sound fascist.
Getting audio books made sounds like an expensive process, probably not practical for many self-published authors.  It also takes much longer to listen to a book than read it, and often the books are abridged. I have had friends who buy them.  
Fish has several other videos describing his relation to reading books by well-regarded authors, one a week. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Anthology of psychiatric assessments of Trump's mental health

Donald Trump’s behavior the past week has rattled markets and seemed to indicate instability.

There is a book “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President”, edited by Bandy X. Lee, from Thomas Dunne Books, ISBN 978-1250-17945-6, 2017, 384 pages, publisher link

A former staff member of Trump wrote this piece in the NYTimes about being the adult in the room back in Sept. 2018  

The same writer put a piece in “The Conversation”.

This book seems especially relevant now that Mattis is gone. 
Some of the pieces admit reluctance by some psychiatrists to discuss a patient they haven't treated/

Attention by Congress, especially Republicans, should need to be placed on the president's cognitive fitness. 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

David Mixner's work and the birth of "don't ask don't tell" under Clinton recalled in Blade, right after Mixner's own book "Stranger Among Friends" (1996)

Karen Ocamb has an article about David Mixner and how “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” happened in the Washington Blade (p 12) and Los Amgeles Blade, Dec 21. 

The subtitle is “Mixner on how it happened – and Clinton’s Betrayal”.

That refers to Clinton’s DADT policy announcement at Ft. McNair on July 19, 1993. But it was an “honest compromise” with Sam Nunn at the time, and included the other logline, “don’t pursue’.

The article includes details about the cases of Keith Meinhold and Tracy Thorne.  The video above comes from the 1993 March on Washington. 

This all brings up the issue of David Mixner’s 1996 book “Stranger Among Friends”, Bantam, ISBN 0-553-10073-4.  I read this while working on my DADT-1 book in the 1990s.
Mixner had recounted how he was “setup” in 1969 by imposters from the FBI to find out he was gay.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

"Wind-up Train Book": a model train little toy world (3 of them) inside a children's book

Here’s something different, and maybe a Christmas present.

It's a mechanical train-set that offers three micro worlds to live in, as if they were O'Neill nodes on a space station. 

Usborne Farmyward Tales presents the “Wind-Up Train Book with Model Train and 3 Tracks”.

It is illustrated by Stephen Cartwright. It’s based on stories by Heather Amery, designed by Helen Woodm rewritten by Alex Forth, edited by Gilliam Dpherty, with additional illustrations by Erica Harrison and Non Taylor.
There are three layouts where a windup engine can run and switch directions through loops, which is not possible when a rail is electrified. You could prove mathematical theorems about how many times a train can change directions in a particular.

Maybe you could make a toy like this with a true Mobius strip.

I bought this at the Greenberg trains show at Dulles Airport in Virginia. 
There is an ISBN 978-0-7945-2192-9.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Two major reports sent to the Senate on Russian leveraging of US social media

Here are two of the reports sent to the Senate regarding Russian infusion into American politics since about 2014, maybe earlier.

One is from New Knowledge, in Austin, TX is “The Tactics andTropes of the Internet Research Agency”. It is authored by Renee Di Resta et al from NK (see the pdf for the list), and Jonathan Albright (Tow Center for International Journalism, Columbia University in NYC, and Ben Johnson (Canfield Research, LLC).  
The other is from the Computational Propaganda Research Project at Oxford University in London., and at Graphika.  The authors are Philip N. Howard, John Kelly et al (see link). The title is “The IRA and Political Polarization in theUnited States”, 

The New York Times has several articles and editorials today. Scott Shane and Sheera Frenkel have a long analysis
The IRA (“Internet Research Agency”, not “Irish Republican Army” or “Individual Retirement Account”) particularly targeted African Americans. They would show truthful videos about police mistreatment of African Americans after profiling, and get them fed through the algorithms of many social media platforms (esp. Instagram), not “just” Facebook and Twitter.  (I doubt they bothered with Gab.) Then once they had an audience, they would send out posts recommending that POC vote for the Green Party, or at least not for Hillary, breaking up her coalition and allowing Trump a better chance through remainder math of plurality.
Legally, of course, it may be a crime for a foreigner to impersonate an American when using an online service (that’s what the indictments are about),  Were Facebook able to identify their origin, they could have labeled them as such and not fed them into the algorithms (they missed the signals – the use of rubles, and the Russian language – like they should have hired “Paul” from Language Focus on YouTube to help ferret out non-US sources.  

But the content itself would be perfectly legal and ethical.  There would be nothing wrong with a domestic user pumping the system with valid videos of police misconduct, and then encouraging people not to vote for Hillary. That’s the First Amendment.  If you don’t want this to happen, get rid of the Electoral College (which gives rural “places” more electoral clout).  As “Economic Invincibility” has pointed out on YouTube, you can consider major changes in voting systems if you want. It is very hard to change the Constitution, of course (as it must be).
The Russians were amazingly fluent on American culture, and were especially uncanny on the divide between the intellectual elites and the less educated “proles”, and on the deep divisions over gender and sexuality – and even the prospective population demographics (fewer children in higher income people).  They may have gleaned that from “elitist” blog posts, from people who would not fall for their mass “spammy” campaigns.
Alex Ward has a higher-level analysis on Vox. 

Here is New Knowledge’s own high-level takeaway on its work. 

Saturday, December 15, 2018

"Content or Context Moderation?" Booklet by Data and Society looks at challenges for platforms with user-generated content, but seems to miss some big developments

Data and Society published, in mid November 2018, a 50 page paper “Content or Context Moderation? Antisanal, Community-Reliant, and Industrial Approaches”, by Robyn Caplan, at this link (downloadble PDF)

The three basic strategies parse according to the kind of service.  Patreon, Medium, and Vimeo are said to you antisanal (context-based) approaches;  Reddit and Wikipedia use community volunteers; Facebook and Google (especially YouTube) use industrial approaches with considerable automation (such as Google’s ContentId).
There are many areas the report doesn’t mention. For one thing, the upcoming implementation of the European Union’s Copyright Directive (especially Articles 11 and 13) could increase moderation problems for platforms even for users in the rest of the western world.
The article discusses Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act in the US, with a “good Samaritan” policy to allow platforms to set their own moderation standards. Recently CDA230 has been weakened by FOSTA, the new ant-trafficking law.  Violet Blue’s Engadget article (“Congress JustLegalized Sex Censorship: What to Know”, March 2018) gives a detailed rundown on the self-protective behavior of many platforms.  

Caplan doesn’t mention the parallel DMCA Safe Harbor for copyright. It does compare how downstream liability works in Germany, where there is a visitor size threshold and where hate speech is illegal, to the US.
The recent bannings by Patreon (crowdfunding) on a rule based on “manifest observable behavior” as defined in 2017 by CEO Jack Conte, seem to be based on an inflexible (rather than context-antisanal) approach to the use of bad words or slurs. Increasingly platforms are willing to ban for off-platform behavior (beyond the obvious cases of criminal convictions) and associations, partly out of fear of the alt-right and of covert and hostile foreign (especially Russian) influence.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Two big reports show how many people self-radicalize on social media, esp. toward the alt-right by reinforcing algorithms

VOX-Pol (no connection to Vox in the US), in Europe, recently published a large booklet report as a PDF, by J. M. Berger, “The Alt-Right Twitter Consensus: Defining and Describing the Audience for Alt-Right Content on Twitter”, link here.

A shorter but more explosive report comes from Bellingcat and Robert Evans. It is titled “From Memes to Infowars: How 75 Fascist Activists Were ‘Red-Pilled.”.

The term “red-pilling”, from the Matrix movies, means converting someone from a moderate ideology to a much more extreme and combative one, usually emphasizing loyalty to the group or tribe.
Vox (in the US) analyzes these reports in a piece by Zach Beauchamp, suggesting that YouTube has become “infested” as a honeypot for the alt-right.  It's interesting, though, that the Bellingcat report read literally doesn't point to YouTube (75 cases) but the Vox piece does, perhaps jumping to conclusions. 
Before going to far, it’s good to give the Wikipedia reference for “alt-right”, which shows the wide variations in the meaning of the term. But generally many of these forms are quite extreme and emphasize extreme tribalism, such as “national anarchists”. They are generally anti-intellectual and anti-individualistic, and want “socialism” within a patriarchal tribal structure.  They see this as a way to rectify individual inequality of ability

The Vox article shows how the algorithms, in a manner similar to Facebook, drive repeated users into echo chambers.  More moderate users will never be aware of the problem, as they will generally not even see the content.

However, the article shows that populations are susceptible to propaganda, and that less cognitively intact people can be driven into radical areas and convinced to join radical movements.  Intellectually sound people will not even notice this is going on.
Practically all the speech involved is protected under the First Amendment and downstream liability largely protected by Section 230.  This is quickly shaping up as an enormous public policy problem.
Oddly, the danger of promoting radicalization may be greater from users who don’t sell anything or raise money for causes in a conventional way.  Independent journalist Tim Pool has been especially skeptical of reports like this from larger media, who are challenged by low-cost competition from independent media. 

Thursday, December 13, 2018

"The Tablet" looks at hidden "intersectional" bigotry within the Women's March

Leah McSweeny and Jacob Siegel have a booklet-length analysis on “The Tablet” about the Women’s march movement, “Is the Women’s March Melting Down?   There is a correction on Twitter by Yair Rosenberg.

The Washington Times, a conservative paper, has boiled down the problem in a short summary by Valerie Richardson, “Women’s March leaders blame bigotry for issues; didn’t address report on anti-Semitism” (p. A8, Thursday, December 13, 2018).

But the Tablet article, in various places, gets into intersectionality and the idea that groups are systematically oppressed by those in privilege, as such, and need to be dealt with that way.

My own take is that we are finding out that individual rights work well locally, but when they are deployed publicly and internationally in a world with such gross inequality, it is inevitable that runaway abuses with what seem like legitimate self-expression, will occur.  There is a problem that many less educated users don’t grasp meta-speech or the use of abstract conjectural thought.  Frankly, there is also a body of thought emerging saying nothing gets done until everyone is organized (which is how it is in socialist countries, though).
Kevin Roose had continued this idea with a piece about “frictionless” apps, especially on Facebook, “Is Tech too easy to use?”, which makes it too easy for extremist groups (or undemocratic governments) to use social media against people in more vulnerable groups.  This comes back to other recent suggestions to “slow the Internet down”.
See my International Issues blog post today for a preview of Van Jackson's "On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War". 

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Scammell writes that Solzshenitsyn, as a writer who emigrated to the US, may have brought down the Soviet Union himself

Michael Scammell is author of “Solzhenitsyn: A Biography” (W.W. Norton, 1984).
Today, Wednesday, December 12, 2018 he has an op-ed in the New York Times, p. A27, “The writer who beat an empire.”   Solzhenitsyn started out with a novella “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” about a Stalinist labor camp, where he (the person) was sent to a labor camp for writing to a friend criticizing the soviet system.  As in early colonial America, letters were read by authorities.
The little book was published in the west in 1962 by a small literary magazine Novy Mir.  Further autobiographical novels would include “The First Circle” and “Cancer Ward”, and then “The Gulag Archipelago” in 1973.  The Soviets expelled him, and his arrival in the US out to prove to conservatives and especially Trumpians the desirability of some immigration.  His writings helped bring down the Soviet Union in 1991. But Solzhenitsyn did want a nationalist country with religious and conservative family values, rather than Boris Yeltsin’s freewheeling republic, but he got what he wanted with Putin in 2000.

The op-ed also discusses the clandestine publication of Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” which had become a massive motion picture by 1966.
When I became a patient at NIH for the second half of 1962, my roommate had a copy of “The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoyevsky. We would scape past the Cuban Missile Crisis will I was still a patient.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Sandy Hook papers on and by Adam Lanza released and published by Hartford Newspaper

The Hartford Courant is making available all the court papers in state police custody concerning Adam Lanza, perpetrator of the Sandy Hook killings on Dec. 14. 2012.

The main link for the publication is here, as a Courant Exclusive. The reporters are Josh Kovner and Dave Altimari. 
The article provides a link to an editorial explaining why the newspaper decided to release the papers.

There is no “manifesto” as such, but many scrapbooks and loose writings, like “Big Book of Granny”.
Lanza’s mental state seems to be extremely disturbed, starting with autism, which usually does not take this kind of path.  He hated any kind of personal contact with anyone. There are references to what he perceived as sexual abuse from physicians, doing normal examinations. 

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

The "Homebrewed Christianity" series:Bill Leonard's "Flaming Heretics"

Author: Bill Leonard

Title: “Homebrewed Christianity: Church History: Flaming Heretics and Heavy Drinkers

Publication: Nashville: Fortress Press, 2017, 238 pages, paper, 8 chapters, endnotes.

This orange book is one of a series called “Homebrewed Christianity”, edited by Tripp Fuller.

The basic premise is that Christianity is practice has been a bottom-up religion, defined by how it is practiced by real people, who are compared to chess pieces (Bishop, Elder, Deacon, Acolyte). Yet the tone of the book presumes people want to act together and belong, not be so much on their own. 

Indeed, the first chapter is called “herding ecclesiastical cats.  As the reality of actually witnessing a resurrection and ascension, which would have seemed like ultimate truth to those who happened to live at a time and place where they could see it, receded, and became a matter for “men of faith”, it became a member of socialization and organization to figure out who really should be in charge and who should deliver the messages and how people would follow.

Perhaps that has meaning today as individual speech itself becomes questionable and we wonder who has the “privilege of being listened to” in a secular sense.

The church has always had to deal with the paradoxes of hypocrisy.  It doesn’t know who walks with the Lord. Only people do. The latter part of the book gets into specific episodes, like the Jim Crow laws and Scopes Trial (movie “Inherit the Wind” and the “old time religion” scene). 
Copies of this book were sold at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC last spring.