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Sadism, trolley problems and fire ants

The first time I saw The Sound of Music I was about six or seven.

At that age, I was aware that Europe was a place, and that my parents' best friends had gone there and brought back vacation photos and a bright red lacquered pair of wooden shoes for my sister and me to play dress-up in, but that was about it. After the movie, I was full of questions: what was the deal with Austria and Germany? Why were all the women in the first part dressed like penguins? Who were all those guys with guns?

The answers left me with even more questions, so I started reading, beginning with the World Book encyclopedia. Long story short, as a grade schooler I was morbidly obsessed with World War II and particularly the Holocaust, in that way that only an autistic child with access to a library can perseverate. In fourth grade, my best friend Nadine Topalian and I played soldiers in her back yard, smashing the Nazi stranglehold on Europe with imaginary guns and tanks. Mrs. Topalian had mentioned in passing that their family was Armenian. It would be years before I learned there had also been an Armenian genocide.

I wonder, now, what she thought about while she watched her daughter and her friend play.

This fascination with the intentional infliction of suffering is why I find this paper (PDF here) so interesting. (Wars and serial killers are about the same trainwrecky level of MUST STARE AT IT for me.) In it, the researchers gave people the opportunity to crush bugs in a coffee grinder (modified so that the bugs would actually fall safely into a hidden chamber, with a convincing grinding sound effect). People who enjoyed crushing bugs — some of whom even volunteered to crush more bugs — were also the only ones willing to put in effort to punish an innocent victim, although nonsadists with other Dark Triad traits were willing to do so when little effort was required.

I have to confess, in that situation, my first question would be "what kind of bugs." Fire ants, for instance, are assholes. They chew through buried power lines, they drive out native species, and they damn near killed me when I was two. I carry a grudge about fire ants, and given the opportunity I would gladly grind every fire ant you care to bring me to a smooth, acidic paste. Ladybugs, though? Fuck no, those are a beneficial species. I don't think I'd even be okay with grinding up flies; they're pesky and they spread disease, but they're not actively dicks like fire ants are. The bugs in the study were pillbugs, which are not even bugs at all and are friendly, harmless little things, so no, I would not have killed bugs in this study. What if they'd handed me a cup full of pillbugs and fire ants? Well, I'm not going to pick through a mess of fire ants with my bare hands to fish the pillbugs out, so I guess in that situation the fire ants get to live. (I am now somewhat possessed by the question of which thought experiments become more interesting with fire ants. "Imagine a room with one window in it, full of Chinese dictionaries and fire ants...")

I'm not sure whether this makes me a nonsadist or a sadist with a Schelling fence about who it's acceptable to be sadistic to, somehow based on the harm/care axis. I don't think it's correct or useful to restrict the notion of sadism only to those who punish the undeserving; certainly there exist people who, given the slightest excuse, will unload everything they have on a target they construe as "acceptable," and proportionality is important here. People who gleefully go around looking for acceptable targets to beat on give me the screaming heebie-jeebies, particularly when the means they use to do the beating go way beyond the severity of whatever they're using as an acceptability justification. Are such people sadists? I'm inclined to agree; they're sadists with enough theory of mind to infer which sadistic acts, what degree of sadism, and which justifications other people will let them get away with. But the fact that people let others get away with harm doesn't mean that the harm, or its root cause, don't exist.

Am I a sadist toward fire ants if I'm motivated by enjoying their suffering? This seems to be what the second part of the study sought to explore: sure, some people will opportunistically inflict suffering if the cost is low, but people will only work to inflict suffering if the infliction provides enough reward to offset the opportunity cost of putting in the work. The thought of fire ants writhing in tiny formic misery pleases me, but let's go back to the cup-o-pillbugs example. Mostly I don't want to get bitten, but even if they gave me tweezers or ant-proof gloves or a robotic arm to sort ants from pillbugs, I can't see myself putting in the effort; I despise fire ants, but not that much.

But the people who do despise fire ants — or Jews, or Armenians, or sex workers — enough to go out of their way to obliterate them are still a source of morbid fascination for me. The Third Reich took an enormous amount of effort and coordination among thousands of people, and even after thirty years of thinking about it, "why?" is still a black box. Sure, to the people at the bottom of the hierarchy, it was little more than a jobs program that happened to encompass some of the most appallingly evil jobs ever to have existed. What I want to know is, what the fuck kind of mind do you have to have to be the guy who draws up that org chart? Normal people do not go to HR and say "okay, we need thirty carpenters, five heavy equipment operators, ten medical technicians and a team that can operate a gas chamber." I can tell when someone is acting sadistically or has acted sadistically, and with enough observation I can make pretty decent guesses as to whether someone will act sadistically given a low enough opportunity cost, but this gives me no information about why they act sadistically. Where does the joy in it come from? What else does it compare to? How long does it last? Is it only (or more) enjoyable against certain targets, or are there sadists for whom any target will do? For sadists for whom any target will do, why don't they attack everyone?

Target selection continues to be the most interesting open problem in the domain of conflict. In all seriousness, though, fuck fire ants.

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On Heuristic Tradeoffs

My friend Jenna is quitting smoking, on which I congratulate her unreservedly. Nicotine is a devilishly hard drug to kick; I managed, after countless false starts, to quit smoking, but I will probably leach nicotine into the soil long after I am dead. Note that I said I quit smoking but not nicotine; quitting smoking was, in the end, a matter of finding a nicotine administration route that was less of a hassle than going outside, lighting a small paper tube on fire, and inhaling the smoke from it. Patches weren't it. (I get rashes.) Gum wasn't it either. (The release rate is all wrong.) No, I am one of those e-cigarette dweebs, microdosing flavoured nicotine like a pain patient on a PCA, all day erryday. I admire everyone who manages to disentangle the routines of addiction from their other everyday routines, because I'm probably never going to get there myself: I like my drug and it's a stupid hobby. Yes, I suppose I'd be a better person if I could learn to rise above most of life's minor inconveniences through my own poise and willpower, but let's face it, nicotine is faster.

I bring this up to establish a standard of charity that I'm going to try to keep to in what follows.

I was catching up recently with an old friend going through something of an identity crisis. He's always thought of himself as a feminist: "the radical notion that women are people," check, all one happy motte here. Recently, though, he dated a third-wave feminist, and ran into a lot of cognitive dissonance, in that they were basically unable to talk about the kinds of problems Ozy Frantz brings up in this post. Ozy's opening paragraph is worth quoting in full, the sort of thing that ought to be cross-stitched into samplers and framed in bathrooms as a reminder that the map is not the territory:
Memo To The Social Justice Community At Large: the privilege/intersectionality model of how oppression works? Is a model. It’s an oversimplification that people use because the actual reality of how oppression works is way too complicated to talk about. It is not the Ultimate Truth Of How Oppression Works Forever and Ever.

There are lots of reasons why a model might not adequately explain real-world outcomes in its domain, but most of them boil down to "you took a shortcut somewhere." This usually happens because it's necessary. In machine pattern recognition, we grade the performance of systems on two metrics: precision, or "of all the times the system predicted outcome FOO, how often was it right?", and recall, or "of all the times the system should have predicted outcome FOO, how often did it?" Tuning a system that you plan to use for decision-making on real data often involves making tradeoffs between precision, recall, model size, and engineering constraints. For example, most of the bulk of any voice recognition application on your phone or tablet will be a few megabytes of precomputed matrices that the app uses to transliterate your speech sounds from your microphone into words on your screen -- that is, when your device can't reach the cloud servers where much more nuanced and accurate models that can run to the tens of gigabytes or more sit. Such is life in a world where device storage is finite. The hybrid system uses the remote, more accurate method when it can, and the local, does-the-best-it-can method when it has to.

It's hazardous to get too quantitative when comparing silicon to brains (the architecture's just so different), but I think the qualitative analogy -- that our mental models necessarily incorporate heuristic shortcuts -- should be pretty uncontroversial. It's which shortcuts people choose to take (or refuse to consider not taking), I think, that creates the sort of cognitive dissonance which my friend experienced on a micro level, and which on a macro level creates and perpetuates outgroups.

My brain is pretty meta sometimes, and occasionally goes about installing heuristics without warning me about it, which in combination is probably how I ended up with a heuristic aversion to people who cling to sloppy heuristics. (I am also kind of a jerk, though, don't forget.) This is going to be an interesting one to deal with, because look, sometimes sloppy heuristics are all somebody can afford. And, unfortunately, we're not silicon-based pattern-matching systems, so replacing a cheap-but-sloppy heuristic with a ballpark-as-cheap-but-less-sloppy one isn't as simple as a matter of pushing an app update. Just like my stress, the decision problems never go away; just like nicotine, the sloppy heuristic is a quick and cheap solution with long-tail side effects that we cheerily hyperbolically discount away, because the opportunity cost of switching to the better solution is higher than we're willing to pay up front.

Thus do we trap ourselves in coordination problems of our own making. So it goes.

Properties of Successful Failed States

I've honestly never found much to get worked up over about neoreaction, one way or another. To some of my more rightish acquaintances, it's a breath of fresh air, while some of my more leftish acquaintances think it's the next great bogeyman (one wonders if the spectre of a Koch brother stumbling across Moldbug keeps them up at night). I just reflect on the political theory course I took from the reasonable Dr. Ross Lence (RIP, 2006, as it turns out) lo these many years ago, and think, We've been here before, and we'll be here again.

The main thrust of the neoreactionary argument, as I see it — or, at least the part that interests me — is that the cost of a state failing is so catastrophically large that it's really worth looking critically at how various forms of state-level organisation have emerged, risen, and fallen in the past. After all, we have actual data now on how monarchies, republics, dictatorships, and so on have weathered war, environmental disaster, economic instability, domestic instability, and other disasters — or not, as the case may be. Why shouldn't we use that to inform our decisions about how we build resilience into our social structures? Buckminster Fuller would be proud.

What I question, though, is one of the fundamental assumptions: is it necessarily all that costly for a state to fail? I'm pretty convinced the answer to this question is "no, depending on how the state is set up to handle failure." But in order to explain why, first let's talk about mail servers.

Dan Bernstein, aka djb, is the author of several highly regarded implementations of various useful things, including a DNS server, djbdns, and a mail server, qmail. The services djb writes are lightweight, secure, and not as widely used as they ought to be. That last is due to a principled design decision on djb's part that unfortunately conflicts with a lot of people's intuitions about how software ought to work: crash-only design. Crash-only design is a brute-force-and-ignorance way to satisfy Tony Hoare's dictum that the most important property of a program is that it accomplish the intentions of its user: if a process hangs, or otherwise enters an inconsistent state, it dies (or is killed by a watchdog process) and respawns in some previous known-good state, rather than trying to flail its way from somewhere in failure-space back to working order. Anything exceptional is regarded as antithetical to accomplishing the intentions of the user, as the user's intentions can only be accomplished if the service is working normally. "Time to working order" is therefore one of the variables in a process-failure scenario that you want to minimise. If you don't know how long it might take a service to recover from exceptional circumstances, it's hard to plan around that: how many inbound requests do you queue? what do other services that need it do in the meantime? But with crash-only software, "time to working order" is however long the process takes to respawn. You want it not to crash at all, but if it loses the plot, you want it to give up and restart quickly to avoid downtime.

"Brute force and ignorance" isn't an insult there, incidentally. No matter how stupid an approach sounds, if it works, it isn't stupid. There have even been serious, well-reasoned proposals for building entire crash-only systems, composed from components which understand "on" and "off" and are designed to flip from one to the other as quickly as possible.

I bring all this up because Belgium effectively has a crash-only cabinet.

The Kingdom of Belgium is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy, politically well to the left of the US but somewhat to the right of Scandinavia. Like the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, our monarch's duties are mostly ceremonial, but unlike either of these, our monarch has also had to perform non-ceremonial duties in recent memory.

We've talked about Duverger's law here before, with respect to its failure case that the US experiences: in a first-past-the-post electoral system, "successful" voting eventually comes to mean "voting for one of two major-party candidates," and eventually the legislature settles into 50-50 deadlock. Belgium gets the other one. Seats in parliament are allocated proportional to the number of votes that various parties receive, which leads to a proliferation of smaller parties. The members of Parliament then have to figure out how to form a coalition of at least 50% of the seats, with the extra hitch that any seats filled by a member of a party with a cordon sanitaire around it still counts as a seat, but nobody will accept that member into a coalition. If they can't reach that 50% threshold — including if a party pulls out of a coalition later — then we don't have a cabinet and everything deadlocks.

Except we also have a watchdog process, and its name is "the monarch." If Parliament can't form a coalition, one of the royal powers that's effectively ceremonial under normal circumstances suddenly becomes really, really important. After every federal election, the monarch normally appoints a formateur to manage the process of appointing cabinet ministers. Typically the formateur is also the person expected to become prime minister, which is why this is normally a formality. But if a coalition collapses, the monarch can nominate a new formateur to establish a new cabinet, sometimes repeatedly. The cabinet was down for 589 days in 2010-2011, and it took eight tries to reboot it.

The really interesting thing about this is that not a lot of people seemed to mind all that much. A lot of politicians had soundbites about how embarrassing it was, and given that between 2007 and 2011 we had no cabinet for a total of over two years your odds of reading a "Belgium still doesn't have a government" article were pretty good if it was a slow news day, but that was about it. The postal service still operated, the military (and federal police, which we have and the US doesn't) still got paid, national parks were still open — none of the infrastructural hostage-taking that's starting to become business as usual in US budget deadlocks happened here. Beer and chocolate did not instantaneously morph into warlords and AK-47s simply because the cabinet process failed. If the executive is the State, then by that definition, Belgium has failed repeatedly within the lifetime of the average third grader.

A pedant, of course, would point out that since the monarch is the official head of state, no constitutional monarchy can fail unless the monarchy also fails. I'll accept that, and it's certainly not lost on me that I started out talking about neoreaction and am currently tolling the advantages of monarch-as-watchdog-process. I'm not sure what happens if something triggers a succession crisis during a coalition collapse (let's assume the least convenient possible world, where the entire succession hierarchy gets taken out in one shot like in that one John Goodman flick). In reality, though, it's probably something rather prosaic, like $MOST_SENIOR_SURVIVING_MINISTER stepping up into the functional role of "person who appoints the formateur" and business continuing as usual.

My point is: the day-to-day business of governance is all about continuity planning. If your government has taken responsibility for roads, or mail delivery, or power generation, it is the job of a wide variety of different people to make sure that the roads stay driveable, the mail gets delivered, or the lights stay on. More importantly, though, the processes they carry out are functionally, and should be operationally, separate from other processes like "what a cabinet does." Enforcing operational separation is a win for stability precisely because it disincentivises hostage-taking, but also because it facilitates crash-only design: if a service is becoming unstable, you bounce the damn thing, and you don't endanger the stability of the rest of the system.

Where I part from the neoreactionaries is that I don't think you necessarily have to have a monarchy, or really any form of autocracy, as the watchdog for crash-only governance to work. But this gets into a long comparative analysis between, at the very least, the Belgian, Dutch, and British monarchies, and so I think that will be another story for another time.

Where Ari Was and How She Got There

You should probably read this before going any further.

I am the someone who read the Parable of the Gronkulated Fleebwanger. I want to say it was palecur who sent it my way but it might have just been Facebook or something. I believe we were at my girlfriend in the Bay Area's place last summer when I found it, and I handed it to thequux, who remembers binging on Ari's entire blog hardcore while we were there, a decision which I had independently made I think an hour or two before sending the post to thequux. So there's where the initial connexion came from.

I am sort of bad at starting conversations with people whose writing I admire, but if there is somebody who is really really good at starting conversations, it is my friend Willow Brugh, who came up with the idea behind this event uh, a few months ago I think?, and who talked about it with me fairly early on. I wasn't physically there — thequux had a business meeting in Berlin and I went with him because fuck yeah working remotely anyway — but I was ready and willing to remote in if that could be arranged. About three days before the workshop, in the middle of talking about how it could be (the notion of borrowing a telepresence robot from the MIT Media Lab was floated, but we ended up using Google Hangouts and that worked out well enough), I facepalmed mid-chat conversation and brought up the fleebwanger post.

"She's in Boston," I said. "Boston's not that far from NYC, a train would be easy, I could ask Pilo if she could stay at the Pilopad," the Pilopad being where thequux and I lived in downtown Manhattan when we were there for like six months in 2012 (aka the end of my tenure at Red Lambda and the start of my current gig at Nuance), by quirk of the universe's sense of humour also the time when we were housemates with weev.

I went and talked to Pilo, and showed him the workshop announcement and the fleebwanger post and explained the situation, and he said "of course" because he's also friends with Willow, so this was basically just the social graph doing its thing, announcing itself in apparently kinda strange enough of a way (i.e., last-minute) as to be eyebrow-raising (for, I mean, perfectly understandable reasons) but turning out to be yes actually a genuine workshop being done on the cheap. This is sort of how hackers roll.

I would probably not have had the "ask Pilo for crash space" intuition had I not read Ari's blog back to front last summer; I'd have to hunt to find them, but the indexing algorithm that my brain apparently has for things I read brings up a couple of hits on observations of hacker culture that registered as accurate to me, and I mean she is a sociologist and everything and it was fucking amazing to finally get to talk with her some about how brains tell us things about other people, which is apparently a subject of great interest to us both.

I am kind of a machine for solving logistics problems sometimes, and apparently I have some decent intuitions about what kinds of trust are transitive, I'm just kind of bad at doing the social parts of executing on them myself on occasion. This can be awkward except when you can delegate, which happened because Willow is awesome, and yeah, it was actually pretty great to be in a hotel room all day for two of the days I was in Berlin, being "The Internet" (along with thequux and another fellow — pics eventually) in a workshop about social dynamics and game theory and other stuff that is Highly Relevant To My Interests. Delegation can work. Whoda thunk.
I've seen some criticism that the punchline of this:



is disingenuous because criticism of one's clothing choices and sexual assault are incomparable.

This criticism is itself disingenuous because of its gross scope insensitivity. To illustrate, a quick thought experiment:

Would you be okay with a single person saying "I think you shouldn't have worn that shirt" once? Probably.

Would you be okay with hundreds of thousands of strangers telling you over and over again that you shouldn't have worn that shirt, for several days running with no end in sight?

Yeah, didn't think so.

Context matters. Scope is part of context.
It is pretty important to read this Atlantic piece on synthetic biology in light of the research of Ester Boserup. (The Conditions of Agricultural Growth is not all that long and the clarity of her writing is up there with Bertrand Russell.)

When cultivable land is "squeezed," as the Atlantic puts it, that is a constraint on agricultural conditions. But population will continue to determine agricultural methods -- ours, and our soil symbiotes', and our crops' predators', and our (tiny, tiny) predators'. Eating and fucking are the two primary drivers of technology, and at least we have something resembling a historical record on the how-dead-things-become-eating part.

I'll waffle by a decimal order of magnitude plus or minus and say the hub-and-spoke model of food distribution is responsible for an ecological shift about on par with the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Need to dig into Lord May to get a better grounding in that. I'm too close to the problem, still, for now, to be able to think coherently about the attendant parallel shifts in power structures that necessarily accompany the discovery and colonisation of a new resource, but maybe that's for someone else to think about.

What I do know, though, is that the Atlantic is right. The boulders are voting about how to start the avalanche. If the pebbles want some role in its direction, the time to get rolling is now.

Professional Courtesy

Everyone I know dislikes having to get in touch with their bank, except for people who bank with USAA.

The United Services Automobile Association is a financial services group with its origins in insurance. It has a membership base of about 10 million; members must have served in the military or be in the family of another member1. Wikipedia credits them as a pioneer in the field of direct marketing, and while I am no expert on marketing and know nothing about USAA's corporate strategies, "get the attention of your desired customers by offering them products they want and can use, and keep it with outstanding customer service" is a pretty good description of how they have always marketed to me and seems like a workable strategy as long as you don't have to be growth-oriented.

This has the pleasant side effect of reducing my likelihood of procrastinating about bank-related Shit What Has To Get Done. I have been running a near-constant executive function deficit since, oh, probably mid-2006, and trivial inconveniences are a huge cognitive hazard when you're running low on executive function. I am the kind of customer that banks with scummy transaction processing order practices wish were theirs, because the amount of inconvenience required to dissuade me from picking up the phone and demanding that they process my paycheck before my rent check is not that high. It's higher than picking up the phone to talk to someone who wants to help me solve my problem, but it's lower than picking up the phone to talk to someone whose motivations are "keep call times low" (because that's a metric their job performance is evaluated over) and "don't give the customer anything" (because that's what management impresses on them, perhaps something they've seen others fired over).

This observation brought to you by the so far really quite impressive customer service of the small group practice where my new therapist works. More to come, perhaps.

1I got my membership through my dad, who 4-F'ed out of Vietnam due to a heart problem. He became a member through his dad, who was in the field artillery in WWII and Korea and retired as an LTC. So I already had an account with them when I enlisted, which was handy.

On Leave

The other day my coworker and I were comparing the relative merits of our company's vacation and sick leave policies in the US and Belgium, respectively. That part was mostly minutiae, but it also got us talking about the trend in the US, in my lifetime, toward a single pool of "personal time off" rather than discrete sick time and vacation time.

That trend has always annoyed me, mainly because having both migraines and a job with one-pool PTO make it impossible to plan a vacation pretty much ever. These days I schedule my vacation time out of a pool of time that is just vacation; when I am sick, that time is compensated according to a baroque1 system largely defined by the Belgian federal government, the workings of which are mostly opaque to me apart from the bit where I have to get a doctor's note if I'm going to be out for more than two days. To give you some idea of how opaque I mean, I have no earthly idea under what circumstances they stop paying me if I'm sick2. We are talking about the Benelux, though, which when it comes to social welfare is basically "Scandinavia but less pushy about it."

Even in the US, though, I think there could be a lot of value, in terms of employee quality of life, in splitting PTO back up into vacation time and "emergency time". Being able to schedule time off for planned events (like family trips or conferences) is one kind of benefit, being able to take time off for unplanned emergencies (like car trouble, or needing to pick up a sick kid from school, or your basement flooding, or being sick yourself) is another kind of benefit, and not having to expend effort on budgeting under uncertainty between the two is yet another, albeit more indirect and less obvious. Still, less stress is less stress.

If I ever run a company with full-time employees again, I'm inclined to try this.

1That is to say, like everything else the Belgian government does.
2Although apparently I have the statutory right to take up to two weeks off in a row, if I have enough time banked to do so.

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The Fungible Audience Fallacy

Incidents of "Shanley Kane verbally attacks some friend of mine in some way that is obviously counter to her stated goals" keep rolling in at the rate of about one every two weeks. Last time, it was bashing a friend who started slinging C professionally around the time I was born because "her generation" didn't create the workers' utopia (by Shanley-logic, this apparently means my friend "doesn't belong in technology," because what the fuck); this time around she's up in netik's grill about how abuse reporting on Twitter should be a solved problem already because of his FUCKING AMAZING COMPUTER SKILLZZZ (yes, that's a quote -_-).

Over on Facebook, a friend of netik's observed:
I don't think she's insane. I think she's cognizant of a character she's portraying, and an audience she's playing to. I think the same of Rush Limbaugh.

I find this especially interesting in light of Scott Alexander's recent post about the motte-and-bailey doctrine, aka "strategic equivocation".

Activists of all stripes point to "raising awareness" as a last-ditch defence of their activities; the implication seems to be that maybe they didn't do anything to solve the problem themselves, but at least now more people know about the problem and maybe one of them will solve it. (When did passing the buck become a thing to pat yourself on the back over?) Taking into account the human cognitive bias toward remembering unusual/bizarre things over ordinary ones, it follows readily that the most successful "awareness-raisers" will be the ones who stand out as discordant in some way. As a meta-strategy, staking out the farthest-out-in-the-bailey positions you can find and defending them as loudly and obnoxiously as you can generalises to every ideology I can think of.

The problem with this strategy is that listeners aren't fungible. Not all listeners are equally capable of solving hard problems, so if your stance is going to be "if you don't like my bailey then you can't be in this motte either," (ETA: which rezendi pointed out may very well be a deliberate attempt to move the Overton window; I should have made that explicit earlier) you have to have a really good heuristic for figuring out who can't solve problems you care about and can therefore be alienated without much further thought versus who can and should therefore be interacted with more, erm, thoughtfully. Which makes this an especially stupid argument on Shanley's part, because as far as I can tell, she and netik share a motte, and whatever semblance of a map she might have for improving Twitter's response to abuse is useless without the territory knowledge of someone like netik.

Perhaps rather than "she's insane" it would be more accurate to say "her decision-making criteria are incomprehensible." I mean, maybe she thinks yelling at an ex-Twitter employee will knock a few neurons together in someone currently working at Twitter (perhaps one of her readers) and get them to solve the problem. If she were a better social engineer she might even be right about that, except for the fact that the problem is also nowhere near as tractable as she thinks it is and she doesn't seem to have any interest in examining its structure. I think that counts as irony.

As usual, nearly everything that matters is a side effect.
I need to start keeping a timeline or something (UPDATE, 19/12/2014: Slate did it for me! Thank you, Slate), because I figured at some point the cogs in the 24-hour outrage cycle would notice that some of us have cottoned on to their business model, and now Jessica Valenti has. Obviously the Grauniad, bastion of even-temperedness that it has ever been, is the perfect pulpit from which to reassure the masses that these horrid aspersions on the character of Feminism™ are but spittle flung from the maw of Patriarchy™ as it writhes in its death throes. Important Things are happening in Feminism®! Feminism™ is the hip, happening place to be! Don't you all want to come hang out with the cool kids in Feminism™ and not those squares at the Washington Post?

Let me back up a step.

Clickbait, in Annalee Newitz's analogy, is to social media journalism as the pun is to humour: a low form, made lower still by the deceptiveness often attached to it. Sure, those may in fact be 15 cat videos behind that link, but you won't know if they really are the 15 Funniest Cat Moments Ever, or even cat videos at all, unless you click through. As soon as the site loads, the site owner has racked up a few more ad impressions at the expense of a small fraction of your time, attention, and bandwidth cap if you have one. They are no longer on the hook to deliver anything ("We never said the videos had to load"), and any further time and attention you spend on the content presented is your lookout. Newitz's historical analogy to yellow journalism is incredibly apt, and applies financially as well: once you handed over one red cent for that issue of The World, it was yours to read, yell at, or line your birdcage with as you pleased, but that penny was never coming back.

Both the analog and digital forms of yellow journalism require some amount of repeat business, which according to this NPR interview takes the form of running some yellow content and some "strong" content (that's the word the interviewee chose) so that readers don't feel deceived or ripped off, or at least that they feel sufficiently less deceived/ripped off that they'll continue visiting the site instead of blocking it on Facebook. (I noted with some amusement that NPR noticed Mr. Hind from a piece he wrote entitled "In Defence of Clickbait," in — three guesses and the first two don't count — the Guardian.) If transactional analysis had been a bit more rigorous about the game theory that Eric Berne based it on, we might call this a mixed strategy, where the player (the publisher) chooses option C ("strong content") some percentage of the time and option D (clickbait) the other percentage of the time, and the player's strategic question becomes where to set that point.

The Guardian has a lot of strong content, much of it having to do with surveillance and geopolitics. Unfortunately, there's yellow journalism to be found in that domain on their pages as well, and distinguishing one from the other is still an exercise for the reader. I named the options above C and D not because A and B were already taken, but for Cooperate and Defect. And yes, I am explicitly making a normative assumption here; that said, the Guardian's own editorial code states up-front that
A newspaper's primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted.
so at the very least, the Guardian at least claims to hold that same assumption itself: that a newspaper is cooperating with its readers if it provides them with accurate news, and defecting against them if it lies to them.

Okay, now back to Valenti.

I have argued for a while that activism in general is being strangled by an epidemic of self-righteous tourists, to the point where I consider the term "activist" an insult; I build things, fuck you very much. Take the case of Nick Kristof, whose ham-handed foray into anti-sex-trafficking activism gave a megaphone to the Somaly Mam Foundation as it inflated itself with fabricated horror stories until finally the tower of lies became too precarious to stand up anymore. Or, remember #KONY2012? Of course you don't, that was two years ago and that's forever in Internet time, plus nobody likes embarrassing memories. Joseph Kony is still tooling around the remoter parts of central Africa, though, and Jason Russell doesn't seem to have done much since his documentary got that SxSW award. Though I suppose that's rather the point, isn't it? Crucially, nothing has actually happened. Why would it, when the gravy train provides such "strong content", so many awards, and so very much attention and praise?

Valenti is not a tourist; she came by her credentials honestly. But she is a travel agent, and a very busy one at that.

A travel agent's job is to sell you the promise of an experience and the tokens you exchange for that experience: plane tickets, hotel stays, car rentals. The agent cannot sell you the experience itself, and you can only guess what the experience will be like until you arrive in booming metropolitan Norilsk and wonder what the hell you're doing there.

Jessica Valenti sells moral panics. If you're the sort of person who thrives on group approval, a moral panic can be a rousing good time, at least if you identify strongly with the side doing the panicking or the side being panicked against. If that's not your idea of a good time, though, too bad; the side effect of a moral panic, after temporarily transforming a community into its own version of 17th-century Salem, is to leave it much like Norilsk, chilly and polluted with ill will, and whether you wanted to end up there has nothing to do with the fact that you're there.

What I find interesting about the Guardian article is the indicators that Valenti sees a moral panic rising against feminism. She dubs George Will, Conor Friedersdorf et al the "backlash machine" (a portmanteau of Faludi and Will, I guess?), accusing them of "court[ing] and revel[ing] in such controversy."

*ring ring* Hello, Pot? This is Kettle. Guess what? You"re black! *click*


She accuses the "backlash machine" of gaslighting women who are angry about rape by telling them that they're overreacting, mere moments after implicitly telling David Bernstein that he was overreacting to Michelle Dean's hit piece on him by swallowing Dean's "Bernstein said only prostitutes explicitly consent to sex!" line hook and sinker. Bernstein's rebuttal came out the day before Valenti's piece, but apparently as far as she's concerned, it doesn't exist.

This is blatant dishonesty not just to David Bernstein, but to all of the Guardian's readers. Valenti put words in Bernstein's mouth and is trading on an out-and-out falsehood, all in the name of rallying more banners around her flag. I'm not sure which has gone on longer, gaslighting women or gaslighting people unwilling to participate in a moral panic, but neither of them are right or good and I am appalled at Valenti's brazen condemnation of the one while committing the other. Though I suppose that's rather the point, isn't it? After all, I'm sure LiveJournal appreciates my pixel-spilling far more than my employer does, since LiveJournal can put ads on it.

"But, Meredith," I hear you say, "isn't it true that Feministing, Jessica Valenti's most successful venture to date, doesn't even make enough ad revenue to pay its own writers? Considering the scope, aren't you overreacting?"

I would be, if this were just about money. But it's not just about money. It's about attention, but probably not in the way you think it is. It's about bias, but probably not in the way you think it is.

Most of the valuable things you interact with every day are not money. Time is one of them, but the other one I mentioned way up top — attention — is more interesting, because you can't control the passage of time, but you have some amount of control over where your attention goes. Do you remember how much of your attention went to #KONY2012? I know you don't want to, but screw your courage to the sticking-place, download your Twitter archive and scroll back through your Facebook history, and confront exactly how much time you wasted. Soak in it until your fingers go pruny. That was you, two years ago. If you didn't actually scroll back, then you're cheating, because your memory hyperbolically discounts and you're not getting the full effect. Scroll back, look hard at who you were two years ago, and ask yourself: is this how I really want to be spending my attention?

Your present self excusing your past self for wasting its resources isn't the only bias at work here, either. There's also confirmation bias, in particular a really nasty manifestation of it called the backfire effect. When you "learn" something false, then encounter new information that contradicts your previous model of the world, your brain doubles down on rejecting that new information — particularly if the false thing you "learned" in some way confirmed your existing model of the world. There is indeed a wedge between the two sides of a culture war, it is called group polarisation, and giving a rabble-rouser a platform from which to lie unrestrainedly is one of the best ways to drive it in deeper, because first there's the initial strike and then there are the depth charges of the backfire effect going off when the inevitable contradictory information surfaces. Nice job breaking it, Grauniad.

What annoys me the most is that there was plenty to respond to in Bernstein's original article without libeling him as a hooker-hater. The law has been the law for quite some time now, and anyone who is serious enough about writing explicit consent into the criminal code to voice the thought needs to also give some serious thought to how that amendment might be worded and how the wording will interact with the rest of the body of law, because guess what, that shit matters. Both of Bernstein's articles read to me like he's totally open not just to having that discussion, but moving it forward as well; he's a law professor, so this is the sort of conversation that he has the body of knowledge to make really useful. (If you're reading this, Dave — is it cool if I call you Dave or do you prefer David? — I am totally down to have that conversation, whenever it's convenient for you.) We could have had a thoughtful discussion about how to revise the motherfucking law in the direction Valenti claims to want it to go, but no, lying about him is just way too much fun.

Get an editor, Jessica Valenti, and get a sense of responsibility. And get off my goddamn lawn, it's getting like Norilsk around here.

Edited to add: lilmissnever points out that there is now a correction at the bottom of the article. That's all well and good in the abstract, but my point about the backfire effect still stands; see also docstrange's remarks. Bernstein's rebuttal came out a full day before Valenti's article. Some editor should have caught this, or at least compared Valenti's characterisation of his original article with the actual text and realised just how far off base it was. The time pressure that the 24-hour outrage cycle demands leaves little or no time for fact-checking, and that's why crap like this makes it to press.

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