29 October 2018

Cuban missile crisis

I'm snipping out the meat of an article ostensibly about Donald Trump and John Bolton because it delivers a crisp telling of how Americans' collective memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis is wrong.

There is a standard story about the Cuban Missile Crisis, at least for those who remember it at all:

The perfidious Soviet communists, bent on intimidating the U.S. into submission via the superior power they wielded as a result of the missile gap, sent nuclear weapons to Cuba, from where they could strike the U.S. in minutes. But John F. Kennedy stood tall, refusing to make any concessions to the Russian bullies. JFK went toe to toe with the Soviets, and demonstrated he was tough enough to risk nuclear war. Finally, the other side blinked first and surrendered, taking the missiles out of Cuba. America won!

The hard reality, however, is that everything about this is false, both in its specifics and implications. It is, as James Blight and janet Lang, two of the top academic specialists on the crisis, have put it, “bullshit.” The even harder reality is that October 27 was a far more petrifying moment than U.S. and Soviet participants understood at the time — and they were terrified. Blight and Lang estimate that if the crisis were run under the same conditions 100 times, it would end in nuclear war 95 times. We are living in one of the five alternate universes in which humanity survived.

The roots of the Cuban missile crisis can be found in three main factors: America’s overwhelming nuclear superiority; the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961; and the stationing of U.S. intermediate nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey early on during the Kennedy administration.

During the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy attacked the Eisenhower administration for allowing the development of a “missile gap” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. There was indeed an enormous gap in the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles possessed by each country — but in favor of the U.S. As of 1962, the Soviets only had 20, and they were of such poor quality that they might not have managed to accurately reach the U.S. The U.S. had hundreds. This made the Soviets believe a nuclear first strike by the U.S. — something genuinely supported by factions of the U.S. military and hard right — could leave them unable to retaliate. The Soviets did have missiles, however, that could reach the U.S. mainland from Cuba.

The Soviets were also motivated to send the missiles to Cuba because they believed they would deter another invasion attempt.

Finally, the Soviets reasonably saw it as leveling the playing field. The American nuclear missiles in Turkey could hit Moscow in 10 minutes. Now, the Soviet missiles in Cuba could do the same to Washington, D.C.

The U.S. did not perceive it this way when American reconnaissance discovered the Cuban missiles on October 14. The Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended an immediate invasion of Cuba. Kennedy instead chose to blockade the island. But by October 26, he had come to believe that only an invasion could remove the missiles. The administration began planning for a replacement government in Cuba. All the while the U.S. was acting in the dark, with the CIA concluding that Soviet nuclear warheads had not yet arrived in Cuba to arm the missiles. They had.

Shortly after midnight, in the early morning of Black Saturday, the U.S. informed NATO that it “may find it necessary within a very short time” to attack Cuba. At noon, a U-2 flight over Cuba was shot down, killing the pilot. On all sides, war — potentially nuclear war — seemed likely, if not inevitable.

But that night, Kennedy made the most important presidential decision in history: He accepted an offer from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to remove the U.S. missiles in Italy and Turkey in return for the removal of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. But the U.S. part of the bargain was kept secret from Americans. The administration maintained that Kennedy had forced the Soviets to give in, giving them nothing.

That was, of course, more than frightening enough. But here’s the rest of the story.

On October 27, A U.S. Navy ship participating in the blockade dropped depth charges on a Soviet submarine. It was only discovered years later that not only was the submarine armed with nuclear torpedoes, but also was out of radio contact with the Soviet government and believed that the war had begun. The captain wanted to use the torpedoes, which almost certainly would have led to the U.S using nuclear weapons in response. However, according to Soviet protocol, the torpedoes could only be launched with the approval of all three officers aboard. One of them refused.

The U.S. also had no idea that in addition to the missiles, the Soviets had brought tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba and the troops on the ground had received permission to use them against a U.S. invasion without further authorization from Moscow. This, too, would have led to a U.S. nuclear response and Armageddon. McNamara first learned this when attending a Havana conference organized by Blight and Lang in 1992, on the 30th anniversary of the crisis. McNamara had also come to believe by Black Saturday that an invasion might be necessary. Blight and Lang report that McNamara turned pale and was temporarily speechless as he listened to an aged Soviet general describe the existence of the tactical nuclear weapons. When he spoke, it was to ask the translator to repeat himself.

Castro, too, had his preconceptions shattered at the conference. He had come to believe that the Kennedy administration was determined to invade Cuba again, nuclear weapons or not, and this time crush its young government and society. Cuba’s only choice was either to accept its destruction, or be destroyed and take America with it. Castro had therefore written a telegram to Khrushchev that arrived on October 27, beseeching him to use the Soviet Union’s full nuclear might against the U.S. if an invasion took place. But this was all wrong, McNamara told Castro: After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy had decided that another invasion attempt was foolish.

So in the end, we’re not here to think about the 56th anniversary of Black Saturday because of our overweening military might, or because we forced our adversaries to bend to our will. It’s just the opposite, plus an extraordinary run of serendipitous flukes.

17 July 2018

Why I think Trump loves the Russians

It's not just that they bought him, though they did.

It looks like for the last two decades at least, Trump has been a bagman laundering money for Russian mafia & oligarchs (& government, to the degree that this is a distinct category at all). This has enabled him to keep his empire afloat and play Mr. Rich Bigshot despite most of his endeavors being catastrophes.

To a pathological narcissist like Trump, this doesn't mean that they own him. This means that these Russians are really great guys who are smart enough to recognize how awesome he is and help him be awesome.

So he develops an affinity. Russians are great. They tell him Putin is great, so there it is. He learns to parrot all of their ideas, not because he's trying to impress them but because he's a pathological narcissist who doesn't have ideas, he just makes mouth noises which get people to praise him, and when he echoes them he gets his narcissistic supply.

And Putin is a Winner: everybody does what he tells them! That's how you know Winners are Winners. And he knows that Winners are all in the club of telling each other how awesome they are. That's what the Winners he hangs out with do, and so he returns the favor not out of obligation but because they tell him again that he is awesome when he does it.

24 June 2018

Final solution

Last week I tweeted a link to an article in The New Yorker.

The Government Has No Plan For Reuniting the Immigrant Families It is Tearing Apart

In the past two months, under the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance policy, the government has taken some two thousand immigrant children away from their parents.

I captioned it thus:

I am sure they will come up with a solution, finally

A few people have warily told me that the comparison to the Nazis' genocidal Final Solution is too rhetorically strong. I understand why they would say that; we should keep our powder dry on accusations of genocide.

Let me expand on my allusion.

There are two major schools of how the Nazis came to the point that they were building murder factories.

One is that their leadership fundamentally had mass murder in mind all along, and it only took them time to secure sufficient control that they could implement their designs. Many scholars hold to this view, and it was my own for a long time.

But many others have another read, and seeing events in the US unfold in the last year has me leaning more to it.

The other thesis says that the Nazis effectively painted themselves into a corner. They want to rid the nation of undesirables — Jews, communists, homosexuals, Roma, et cetera — and they hoped that just making life difficult enough for them would mean that the undesirables would emigrate and the problem would solve itself. But that doesn't work, or at least not fast enough. So the Nazis start rounding people up to keep them from poisoning the society: kill off a few along the way, throw some in jail. But we are talking about a lot of people, so that doesn't scale well. The Nazis start building specialized facilities, to pack undesirables in a few areas while figuring out what to do. Hence “concentration camps”: concentrating unwanted people out of the way, in a camp. They use the people in the camps as slave labor, because so long as you are going to the trouble to manage a facility full of monsters you cannot expose to the populace, you might as well, right?

But again, this doesn't scale well. And by this time the Nazis are hard at work conquering Eastern Europe, so the they end up with even more Jews and communists and other undesirables on their hands. All of this gets to be more elaborate and expensive to run. Concentration camps prove not to be much of a solution, they are themselves a problem. They drain resources that should be devoted to winning the war and building autobahns and monumental architecture and developing scientific wonders and so forth. The attempt to get Jews to emigrate has already shown that repatriating millions of people to some other country is no kind of solution, either. Heck, other countries have been sending shiploads of Jewish refugees back for years and you're stuck in this stupid war because the British stubbornly refuse to help you to claim the space you need. Maybe you can quarantine all those undesirables on the island of Madagascar when you're done conquering Africa, but the war is taking a long time, and even that is not a real solution; then you have an island full of Jews plotting to overthrow you.

Golly, you just hadn't thought it through.

These partial, temporary solutions are no good. You need a final solution.

And there you are.

Knowing this, reading this article about the lack of a plan gave me a chill. The architects of this policy aren't thinking ahead. What do they do when they have camps and prisons with millions of undesirables? What do they do next?

03 June 2018

David Brooks

I have been meaning to compile a proper index of critiques of New York Times columnist David Brooks. This improper one will have to do.

Driftglass, who is a master of David Brooks takedowns, sums it up:

I will remain one of those cynical, vituperative, foul-mouthed bloggers of the Left who does not trust Republicans like Mr. Brooks as far as I can throw an angel food cake on a neutron star. Because having examined Mr. Brooks' work in detail for more than 13 years now, I can say with absolute confidence that whatever bunting and balloons Mr. Brooks may pick out during any given week to adorn his awful column, the real subject of virtually every single David Brooks column going back to the almost the beginning of recorded history is always the same: Both Sides Do It.

Everything else but his consistent, core message -- that Both Sides are to blame for all excesses and atrocities, and that the entire, well-documented history of his Republican party simply does not exist -- is nothing but Beltway gingerbread and sleight-of-hand.

And not even competent sleight-of-hand!

Driftglass again:

Because when Mr. Brooks' Whig fantasies go all sideways and another one of his beloved elite hierarchies goes horribly wrong or his Crazy Biggit Jebus Party once again decides to smash something precious to make some ludicrous point, David Brooks always, always, always weasels up a way to unload half or all of the blame for the catastrophe onto imaginary hippies or “the 60s” or Al Gore or woman or Barack Obama or some-damn-body else who is a not a member in good standing of Mr. Brooks' Invisible Army of Reasonable Conservatives.

Jonathan Chait:

Note that solving actual problems is besides the point here. Brooks is almost explicit about this. He begins with the need for initiatives that he thinks will lead to happiness and comity between the parties in Washington, and then comes up with policies that might fit the bill. Not surprisingly, viewed from the standpoint of an agenda designed to make life better for Americans in some way, shape or form, Brooks’s proposed agenda is strange.

Me, back in 2005, offering a quote from one of his articles and a set of vigorous takedowns of that one in particular.

We hate him because he has a knack for somehow sounding reasonable, thoughtful, and concilliatory when in fact, if you take a minute and walk through his reasoning carefully, you see that his comments are full of poison.

Brad DeLong (echoing a critique of conservative thought described in John Holbo's long, instructive essay about David Frum)

The worst of all is his closing line: "This is a moment to feel deeply bad, for the dead and for those of us who have no explanation [for why the tsunami happened]." No. This is not a moment to feel bad for those of us who have no explanation for the tsunami and so wallow in existential despair. This is not a moment for that at all.

Charles P Pierce on Brooks' oblique prose:

David Brooks concocted what may be “The Perfect David Brooks Paragraph.”
Most of the advocates understand data is a tool, not a worldview. My worries mostly concentrate on the cultural impact of the big data vogue. If you adopt a mind-set that replaces the narrative with the empirical, you have problems thinking about personal responsibility and morality, which are based on causation. You wind up with a demoralized society. But that's a subject for another day.

Pierce again:

This may be the most shameless passage of political journalism I have ever read. It contains more of the elements of passive-aggression, self-absolution, historical amnesia, and outright falsehood in the same place than any other single location this side of the author's own frontal lobes.

Corey Robin, who knows as much about the history of conservatism as anybody in the world, on Brooks lamenting the state of contemporary conservatism.

So let’s take it apart, piece by piece. Brooks says the rot set in 30 years ago, in the wake of Reagan. Let’s see how today’s conservatism compares to those loamy vintages of more than three decades past. The bolded passages are all from Brooks’ column.

The capstone: Brooks lying outright:

15 May 2018

The knack of interaction design

Ganked from a Twitter thread I ranted in March 2017. I should turn this into a proper article someday.
Via @vgr I learn that some people cannot visualize things in their “mind's eye”

I am reminded of something I realized years ago about the Secret Talent Behind Interaction Design

When I present an IxD (interaction design) solution to clients or colleagues, they often challenge me with “but what if the user does XYZ instead?”

After showing slides with a walkthrough of some key behaviors, I answer questions about other paths with quick sketches at the whiteboard

“Oh, if a user clicks here in this situation, then these things light up, and this comes up in X case, or that comes up in Y case.”

For a while I thought clients were so often astonished at this because of the obvious brilliance of my design solutions.

Not so.

Then I thought they were astonished at my facility at quickly communicating IxD solutions through simple whiteboard sketches.

Not so.

(For the record, my whiteboarding hand is inelegant, though I know a lot of little tricks for using whiteboards well)

I finally realized that what astonished my client was that I had the behaviors of the system in my head at all

Then I saw @MrAlanCooper's early dialogue with @KentBeck with its astonishing disjoint of ideas

I realized:

Most people cannot picture the interaction design of a software system that does not exist. They must build it to “see” it.

As someone with the knack for it, it had never occurred to me that most people in the software industry could not “visualize” IxD.

And of course if you don't have the knack for picturing IxD, it would never occur to you that someone could.

Many software industry practices are predicated on the assumption that attempting to do too much planning of projects inevitably fails

(And I do not want to overstate the level of planning I think is possible. Software development is an unruly process.)

I don't want to make IxD visualization sound easy. It is hard work. It takes several weeks to lock down good IxD solutions in my mind.

And keeping even a moderately complex IxD solution in my head “fills” it; I cannot remember the details of past IxD projects

But I can really have the whole system in my head.

Part of how I know an IxD solution is good is that its logic makes this possible.

I think much of the skepticism about IxD and UXD in tech comes from a reasonable but wrong assumption that the core work is impossible

If UX designers’ “knack” were properly understood, I think it would radically transform the entire software industry

@archslide suggests that visualizing IxD is more skill than talent.

There is definitely a skill one cultivates doing the work ...

Good balance doesn't make you a tightrope walker. But if you don't have good balance, no amount of practice will make you one.

RT Chris Doyle <@archslide>:
I have the same skill wrt code. Probably v difficult to succeed as a dev w/o abstract visualization/organization ability
Ability to visualize deep software logic and interaction are similar skills, but don't seem to be coupled

I think many UXD projects are stillborn by not having enough time committed to them, leading to We Tried Baseball

RT @exiledsurfer
took me years to understand what i could see in my head & drew / explained to others was invisible to them until it was manifest.

12 May 2018

Some history of trans politics

This isn't a post, more like a goad to myself to make a post.

A few times recently I have encountered people opposed to the current moment of acceptance for transgender people, and they had a telling of history that took me by surprise. According to them, the terrible trans women who showed up suddenly and demanded to barge in to every private women's space, harassing cis women from the very beginning, blah blah blah. This is, of course, pretty much the opposite of how things went down, given my second- and third-hand understanding.

Since my knowledge is fragmentary, facing this line of critique I want to be able to think and speak from a more grounded sense of the history. So I'm collecting some resources I have picked up from people much better informed than I will ever be about trans cultural politics. I hope to turn this post into a survey of those resources at some point, but for the moment, it's a pile:

  • An archive of articles about the early emergence of trans-exclusive radical feminism (I'm told that the interviews with Sandy Stone and Robin Tyler merit especially close attention)
  • More from Sandy Stone
  • Early articles from Emi Koyama
  • I'm told that Susan Stryker's book Transgender History has a particularly instructive chapter on Beth Elliot and the Daughters Of Bilitis and the West Coast Lesbian Conference. I'm told that Beth Elliot had helped to organize the conference but then Robin Morgan called a vote on Elliot could stay ... and when the vote went in Elliot's favor, Morgan's group threatened to shut down the conference.
  • An article about Margaret O’Hartigan has some more leads.
  • Perspectives on PantheaCon 2011 (note that I played a small part in some discussions about related events at PantheaCon the following year)

I also cannot resist capturing this little dialogue between a pair of experts, which I will anonymize:

All I can really say is that it was obvious that MWMF's organizers were deliberate and very much premeditated in causing as much pain as they could get away with.

There is a direct connection between MWMF and what we saw in the pagan world too, not least due to Ruth Barrett and her followers being active in both scenes. Same people, same TERF bigotry in both cases.

Yup. MWMF served as an incubator, a radicalizing center, and a rallying point in both propaganda and organizing.

28 December 2017

Fascism is speaking in bad faith

It is important to understand that fascism is not a political ideology in the same way that communism is. Communists have a detailed policy program which they espouse and pursue. Fascists do not; their policy prescriptions are often outright incoherent.

Fascism is better understood as a political method. And a key part of that method is speaking in bad faith: falsely describing what they want and care about, as a way of disrupting the process of political discussion itself. The vigor with which fascists do this is difficult to understand unless one has encountered it.

I have talked about this before, when talking about Milo Yiannopoulos, the Alt Right, and free speech:

We should not defend that as free speech; we need to recognize it as an attack on free speech.

This is a method and it has a purpose.

If we look at the history of far right movements, we can recognize the basic pattern. These movements are not simply opposed to liberalism-as-in-the-Democratic-Party; they are opposed to liberalism-as-in-liberal-democracy. They oppose universal human rights and equality. They aim to discredit liberalism by turning its systems against itself, making them impracticable, perverting the meaning of words like “free speech”.

In this we see a continuity between the fascists of the early 20th century and the fascists and para-fascists of today. Sartre's Réflexions sur la question juive describes this pattern in a troublingly familiar way.

Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play.

They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.

This is not restricted to the specifics of anti-semitism. It is a general rhetorical style. Here is Harry Frankfurt, the author of the wonderful short book On Bullshit summing up the method.

The distinction between lying and bullshitting is fairly clear. The liar asserts something which he himself believes to be false. He deliberately misrepresents what he takes to be the truth. The bullshitter, on the other hand, is not constrained by any consideration of what may or may not be true. In making his assertion, he is indifferent to whether what he is says is true or false. His goal is not to report facts. It is, rather, to shape the beliefs and attitudes of his listeners in a certain way.

I bet you can guess who Frankfurt was talking about in the essay where he said that.

To get a feel for how this works in governance, I vigorously recommend the (exceedingly fun) party game Secret Hitler, in which players pretend to be a parliament where fascists are trying to pass legislation and get their leader elected Chancellor. In the game, the fascists know who each other are but the liberals don't; this makes the gameplay include the fascists lying about their intentions and pretending to be liberals. The player who is their secret leader tries the hardest to appear to be a liberal.

The game is structured such that the fascists are always outnumbered. But they usually win.

23 December 2017

Do your best

This is a story about doing your best.

So like a lot of people I have a certain ambivalence about Ms Amanda Palmer, but I love this thing she did, not so much for the thing (though it is delightful) but for the story behind it. So first check this out:

If you don't know, Palmer is a musician who does very lively stage shows, is wildly narcissistic, and has a vigorously cultivated network of fans. So she is interesting in part as a creature of our particular media age. She has gotten crowds of people for her music videos by saying on social media, “Hey, we are shooting a video in such-and-such place on Thursday. Show up wearing something cool.”

Her original plan had been to simply perform the difficult Tchaikovsky piece, despite being a pianist who plays by ear. You should read her telling of how she failed — except she didn't. The Boston Pops hadn't sent for the most technically proficient pianist, they sent for her, so she wised up and delivered what only she could have done.

Whatever it is you are doing, the gods didn't send someone else. They sent you. Do your best.

14 August 2017


The Wild Hunt asked for a quote.

I got carried away.

My patron god is Hermes, god of communication, magic, and the agora, who sings to us in the packet-switched networks of the Internet. I ask him for clarity of speech and wings to bring these words where they are needed.

The god of my tribe, I inherited from my father. After the usage of the Chasidim, I call that god “Ha’Shem”, which means literally “the name”, because it is the tradition of my tribe never to speak its name. Ha’Shem has a well-deserved reputation for not playing well with others. But (after some negotiation) this god who does not accept icons and images has accepted an empty space of honor on my altar—the space above the space where I keep my offerings to Hermes, because Ha'Shem will brook no other gods before him.

Each year when the moon is right I do a magical ritual of my tribe called Pesach, or “Passover”. It celebrates the story of how Ha’Shem gave Moses a magic staff and told him to use it to liberate me from slavery. I say “me” because it is an important part of the ritual that I tell the story not as something that happened to other people but as something that happened to me. Pesach is not a Pagan observance but it has a flavor that speaks to my pagan sensibilities. We re-tell myths about magic, terror, and great deeds. We drink enough wine to elevate our spirits. We explain secret symbols. We sacrifice and eat symbolic ritual foods, the most famous of which is matzoh, the flat cracker which reminds me of one of the lessons of the myth: when the time comes to run from oppression, one should not wait long enough for the bread to rise.

A century ago my grandparents—perhaps mindful of that lesson—left the shtetls where they were born and sailed across the Atlantic to find a new life. No doubt they had cousins whose names I will never know who did not heed the lesson and would die in a genocide a few decades later.

I have been White all my life, but my father taught me his parents never were and that when he was young, neither was he. He told me this meant that it was something that could be taken away. And I read history, and learned about my lost cousins and millions more people in my tribe and countless others in other tribes and saw that this was true. I think about this every year at Pesach.

I think about this every day when I read the news.

Reading the news that way is not a new development since an election or a speech or some other thing. I have done it all my life because of what my father taught me. I think all American Jews, whether consciously or not, read the news asking themselves if it means that they don't have time for the bread to rise.

Today we are talking about Americans in Charlottesville who marched speaking the words and carrying the banner of my lost cousins' murderers. As they promised, they drew blood. As police stood by.

My nation fought in the bloodiest war in history against soldiers who stood under that banner, but strangely as I write this the supposed leader of my nation has not found the words to condemn that banner or what it stands for.

You may be shocked by this; I understand if you are. I am not. I have known for a long time that these people who will have my blood too if they get their way have been gathering strength. I have scented it in the wind for years. There are millions of them, and millions more Americans who will be untroubled if they succeed.

If you are reading the Wild Hunt there is a good chance that they want your blood too. They won't come for Pagans first, they think we are too silly. And frankly they won't come for Jews first either.

That they have such a long list of people to kill that we would have to wait is no comfort.

Despite this I am letting the bread that will nourish me and my community rise, because several years ago I swore an oath to another god, the Morrígan, that I would fight fascism in my nation. As is so often true of the important oaths, I did not know the implications of what I swore.

The priestess who invoked the Morrígan that day later marked my skin with a symbol of that commitment, a white rose commemorating Sophie Scholl, a German who stood in resistance to the Nazis. Marking my skin is a violation of Ha’Shem's laws for my tribe, and though he is accustomed to me violating those laws, this is one of special significance because Nazis forcibly marked the skin of my people in their murder factories.

As the priestess did the work and the rose took shape, she told me that she felt that my ancestors were awake to what was happening, conferring amongst themselves, and deciding that they understood.

I have no doubt that they do.

So, my Pagan brothers, sisters, and non-binary siblings, whom I know are far from silly, today I offer you the wisdom of my ancestors, and I offer you Hermes, Ha’Shem, the Morrígan, and two other gods I love.

One is the god Thomas Jefferson talked about despite not worshiping or believing existed. Our brilliant, monstrous, visionary American patriarch told us at least two things about his god. It endows us with inalienable rights. And Jefferson rightly trembled for his country when reflecting on this god's justice.

The other is Aphrodite. Most of us know her for her love for the lovers, but I recently learned another aspect of hers which I have come to adore: Aphrodite Pandēmos, god of all the people, whom I unverifiably personally gnosis as a god of democracy. Those who would levy war against her may benefit from reading the Illiad more carefully.

Hold fast. Love the gods and each other. And fuck fascism.

Some footnotes:

My friend Tori Egherman has another meditation on Jewishness, Whiteness, and America: A Home Safe From Fear.

“We were all seen as black,” my father explained to me. All those dark-haired children of immigrants.

His mother, my beloved grandmother, called Black people Schwartzes — black, in Yiddish. Despite her prejudices, she herself was often mistaken for “colored” and more than once was asked to ride at the back of the bus. In this day and age, the only place anyone would think she was black is Spokane, Washington or Ukraine.


And that’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s just what I can see. There have been so many ways I benefited with my apple cheeks and my Shirley Temple curls and my light skin. Most of them invisible to me. I still struggle, even with my privilege. It's not as though I have no fears. It's not as though I face no injustices.

A Twitter thread from Rabbi Dayna Ruttenberg

So “Jews” and “race” is complicated, esp in a world where white supremecists consider us not-white and those of us of European descent collect white privilege every day in America. I self-ID as white bc of privilege, I don't let Nazis define me. But it's not straightforward.

A Twitter thread from S. I. Rosenbaum:

oh my god ok


03 July 2017

Free Speech is hard

Sam Theilman's essay You're Asking The Wrong Questions does some deep digging into the principle of free speech, looking at some hard cases. I suspect that I am a few ticks more sympathetic to the social justice advocates he references than he is, but I land pretty much where he does on principle.

Anyone who thinks the examples he points to are easy scares me.

The question of whether the cover is in poor taste is a settled one: Yes, absolutely. On a book that is not very good? You got it. On a book that is not worth defending?

Well, now, see, those are fighting words.

His failure to link the Lindy West essay he references is odd, so I have it here: Save Free Speech From Trolls.

19 February 2017


I am fascinated with Thomas Jefferson. I love him. He is my favorite of the Founders.

The first reason is the Declaration of Independence, which kicks off with two hundred words explaining liberal democracy with bracing clarity, then embodies those liberal-as-in-liberal-democracy values by submitting facts to a candid world so that he may justify an improvement to the political order. The Declaration is by my lights one of the greatest achievements in all of history. Jefferson was not truly its sole author — it is, after all, the shared statement of a committee — but his voice is integral to its greatness.

The second reason is the rest of his writing: clear, thoughtful, and inquisitive about every corner of the world. One might almost say the same of Franklin, but Franklin was earthy, practical, and grounded, while Jefferson was airy, intellectual, idealistic. The Library Of Congress began as Jefferson's personal library. In our mythology if not in fact, Jefferson is our First Nerd. And as I am an American nerd, Jefferson is my grandfather.

The third reason is that he was a monster. A profoundly and specifically American monster.

Jefferson was monstrous in owning slaves and profiting from their labor. We know he raped at least one of his slaves. (Any relationship we can imagine between Jefferson and Hemings does not make it rape any the less; she was a slave, bound to obedience by pain of death and worse.)

Jefferson was monstrous in advocating for and enacting genocide against American Indians.

And Jefferson was monstrous in hypocrisy, championing equality and liberty, calling American Indians his equals ... and yet still keeping slaves and pursuing genocide even as he wrote with conviction that these were evils.

So what is this love I have for Jefferson, the monstrous hypocritical genocidal slave rapist?

I hope my disgust at Jefferson is clear. I cultivate this disgust, deliberately summon it every time I speak his name. But I love him in his monstrosity, and I love him for being a reminder of the monstrosity to which I am heir, both in the way that all Americans inherit the consequences of those crimes and in the way that as another nerdy American White guy I inherit an ownership of those crimes.

To love truly is to embrace the whole of the beloved without delusion, to see clearly and love anyway, to know the worst and support the best. I would do that for my country, and for that there is no better symbol than Jefferson, who embodied so much of our very best and our very worst. We cannot understand the American condition or the human condition without recognizing that all of these things were the same person.

Jefferson — so much a skeptic that he took a scissors to his Bible to cut away every mention of miracles — said he trembled for his country when he reflected that God is just. As he should. As do I. Trembling in terror and in anguish and in awe and in awesome responsibility as I invoke his name.

29 January 2017

Art & politics

At the time, I tweeted a kind word about Meryl Streep's speech referencing the (then forthcoming) Trump administration, though I had mixed feelings about it.

For instance, her opening assertion that the glamorous and successful Hollywood people in the room constituted “the most vilified segments in American society” lacks perspective, to say the least. So I thought that — bracing as that was — I didn't need any more earnest actors talking about our national moment of dread.

I was wrong.

Because David Harbor's speech given tonight is a marvel: it talks about the news without talking about the news, by reaching down to fundamental things about the craft of acting, the nature of art, and (dear to my heart) the virtues of genre stories.

On behalf of this fearless and talented cast ...


I would just like to say that in light of all that's going on in the world today it's difficult to celebrate the already celebrated Stranger Things.

But: this award from you — who take your craft seriously and earnestly believe, like me, that great acting can change the world — is a call to arms from our fellow craftsmen and women to go deeper ... and through our art to battle against fear, self-centeredness, and exclusivity of our predominantly narcissistic culture. And through our craft to cultivate a more empathetic and understanding society by revealing intimate truths that serve as a forceful reminder to folks that when they feel broken and afraid and tired: they are not alone.

We are united in that we are all human beings, and we are all together on this horrible, painful, joyous, exciting, and mysterious ride that is being alive.

Now: as we act in the continuing narrative of Stranger Things we 1983 midwesterners will repel bullies. We will shelter freaks and outcasts, those who have no home. We will get past the lies. We will hunt monsters. And when we are at a loss amidst the hypocrisy and the casual violence of certain individuals & institutions we will, as per chief Jim Hopper, punch some people in the face when they seek to destroy the weak and the disenfranchised and the marginalized.

And we will do it all with soul, with heart, and with joy.

We thank you for this responsibility.

A few things I feel I must underline:

  • He opens by giving his castmates the highest compliment I think an actor can give another actor: fearless
  • This is the case for seemingly trifling art in times like these. And it is correct.
  • That last word: responsibility. Bingo.

28 December 2016


So a while back I spat out this story on Facebook and now I'm posting it here.

There's this skinny young guy I run into on an irregular basis in downtown SF in the late afternoon. He sells snacks out of a little box to commuters on their way out of their office jobs. I never buy a snack from him.

But a few years back, after the first few weeks of saying “no thanks” to him as warmly as I could, I complimented his necktie because of Dapper Solidarity. And it became our habit that when he had a moment we would do a little howyadoin' and when he didn't have a moment I would give him a wave or a little salute. He started giving me dap because he knows White guys love that shit and I am so not above loving that shit and so I try to join in with the minimum of White gracelessness that I can muster.

I still know almost nothing about him other than that he has an open face.

So the day before I originally post this to Facebook I see him and it's a howyadoin' day and he says he's doing well and has a birthday coming up and I wish him Happy Birthday In Advance and he likes today's tie and it's one of my favorites, a tie I paradoxically don't wear very often because I like it so much, and I take off the tie and give it to him and he gives me dap and I roll into BART.

I don't know what this story is about. It's like a Harvey Pekar story that may not even be about anything.

It is definitely not about me being a swell guy. When I posted it to Facebook, I threatened that if someone even hinted at that in the comments I might well unFriend them because sweet suffering Sartre I hate even getting close enough to that thought to have to say that it's wrong.

It's not a story about what I did. It's maybe a story about something that happened to me. I suspect that it isn't even that much about me. But it's a story I felt I had to tell.

18 December 2016

RPG toolbox

Because I am that kind of geek, I have constructed a sort of EDC solution for tabletop roleplaying games.

For a long time, my only supply solution was a plastic case with dice and counters:

But that was never really quite adequate, and I wanted to be better prepared to leave home and run a game. I looked at toolboxes, but they didn't have quite the right compartments. I considered a tackle box, because those have lots of little compartments, but the options there are frankly overwhelming. Then I found a sturdy makeup case at a discount, and have assembled this:

In the upper right that's a GameMaster's Apprentice deck. (Actually three of them, including a couple of the neighboring trays, with different genre themes.) It's a surprisingly handy tool. Each card is packed with all sorts of randomized stuff that a GM might need in the course of a game: character names, memorable details, surprise encounters, et cetera. Plus of course die rolls. The graphic design is frankly a little hokey, but it is legible enough to work well in play. If I had to run games on a desert island with no other play aids, I'd bring the main deck.

The upper left corner is a stash of wound PennyGems, including a set of the jumbo 5/10 counters, specifically designed for counting hit points et cetera. I haven't used them all that much, but when I have they've been really handy, and they are nifty. The gray bag half-visible in the bottom right of the lowest rung of the case is a jewelry bag with lots of interior chambers, full of more different PennyGems. The creator of PennyGems has a fascinating site about their design: the graphics subtly representing different numbers are cunningly chosen. You can find comparable jewelry bags or as dice bags.

You can see glass beads and dice. I have a few sets of polyhedra dice (including one in metal, my favorite), enough matching d10s to play a character in a Storyteller or other game that uses dice pools of those, and a few sets of Fate dice which the sharp-eyed will recognize are actually old school Fudge dice, cast before Evil Hat released Fate. I need to rearrange things at some point to have more d6es because there are plenty of games that require throwing big handfuls of them.

In the tray on the lower left you will see some exotic dice of my own design. They are d6s painted with nail polish: matte black on three sides, silver on the other three, good for playing Lady Blackbird style games that rely on a coin-flip dice mechanic.

I have a ton of blank 3x5 cards in the bottom tier because I use them a lot in all kinds of games, especially Fate, which is my go-to generic system. There are some dry-erase cards in there, which are pretty great. They don't erase perfectly cleanly, so eventually they give up the ghost, but they make me feel less guilty than throwing out a bunch of cards at the end of the game. The binder clips in the upper tray are there to get cards to stand up, a trick I learned from Zed Lopez. Not pictured are some dry erase name tents I keep in the bottom tray.

The section with the organizer tabs has a few different decks of Fate play aids: Fate rules summary cards, an It's Not My Fault deck (which show up colorfully because I've color-coded the edges to make the different types of cards easier to keep track of), a pack of common aspects, blank Fate Accelerated character cards, and Backstory cards. Frankly, I've not yet experimented with the Backstory cards, which provide a formalized version of collaborative backstory chargen that I learned from folks at my old table., but I have them in the kit because I'm itching to use them.

On the right side in the middle is a stack of a few other generic play aid card decks I like. There are turn tracker cards, which I've used a few times to good effect, plus a set universal score cards that sometimes turn out to be useful.

Plus dry erase and regular pens, of course ....

15 December 2016

Milo Yiannopoulos, the Alt Right, and free speech

If you have the good fortune to not know who Milo Yiannopoulos is, you have my envy ... and my apologies for ending your innocence. He is a gadfly critical of both the broad left and the mainstream right, notorious as a skillful troll, arguably the most visible figure in the pop segment of the “Alt Right”.

One is tempted to dismiss him as just an even more mean-spirited and erratically witty version of P. J. O'Rourke for the era of reality television, to try to avoid feeding his narcissism and transparent hunger for fame. But I think he is interesting and important. We must talk about him, to clarify some important things.

When I first heard that Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter a few months ago, I was ready to hold my nose and defend him on free speech grounds. My interest in understanding conservative politics had me watching his jokey, offensive provocations with one eye for a while, his range of racist, sexist, authoritarian, liberal-hating pronouncements positively begging to inspire outrage. (Homophobia has an peculiar role in his oeuvre, since Yiannopoulos is emphatically out as gay, which he deploys as a shield against social justice criticism of him and his allies.) Had the offensiveness of this stuff been Twitter's case against him I would call it wrong for them to remove his access to their system because Twitter has become a unique part of our public discourse, with sufficient influence that they have a free speech obligation to avoid picking which ideas they do and do not allow people to express, even if they have a legal right to deny service to whomever they choose.

But a little digging reveals Yiannopoulos doing more than just saying ugly things. As an early booster for the GamerGate movement which systematically harassed women in a cascade of insults, threats, and doxxing, he implicitly endorsed the use of those tactics ... and as his fame grew, engaged in them himself, identifying with a wink and nod targets for his numerous followers to harass. Twitter explicitly identified this — and not the ideas he expressed — as the cause of the ban.

People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter. But no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.

Yiannopoulos has relished the ban which he was transparently courting, playing the martyr to the cause of free speech. He has turned to undertaking a speaking tour, doing talks at college campuses wherever local organizations invite him. Just a couple of days ago, I got a ping from an activist friend; he and some other activists were thinking about how to respond to a planned appearance at a local school, and he had been reflecting on my recent post expressing concern over the misuse of No Platform tactics to stop controversial speakers. I said that while I supported the Twitter ban because he was using that platform for abuse, trying to prevent Yiannopoulos from talking about his ideas at a college was probably skirting too close to being opposition to free speech, and they should consider other tactics instead.

I was wrong. Today I see a report of Yiannopoulos engaging in further harassment on the speaking tour.

Content warning: Yiannopoulos being a transphobic asshole

In critiquing leftist criticism of the phrase “man up,” Yiannopoulos said around the 49:52 mark, “I’ll tell you one UW-Milwaukee student that does not need to man up.” He then showed the student’s photo. “Have any of you come into contact with this person?” he asked. “This quote unquote nonbinary trans woman forced his way into the women’s locker rooms this year.” He went on:

I see you don’t even read your own student media. He got into the women’s room the way liberals always operate, using the government and the courts to weasel their way where they don’t belong. In this case he made a Title IX complaint. Title IX is a set of rules to protect women on campus effectively. It’s couched in the language of equality, but it’s really about women, which under normal circumstances would be fine, except for how it’s implemented. Now it is used to put men in to women’s bathrooms. I have known some passing trannies in my life. Trannies — you’re not allowed to say that. I’ve known some passing trannies, which is to say transgender people who pass as the gender they would like to be considered.

He then referred to the photo, which was still onscreen, and said, “Well, no. The way that you know he’s failing is I’d almost still bang him.” The audience laughed.

(More on the fallout from that talk from UWM student Cary Gabriel Costello and a reprint of the harassed student's letter to the university.)

Yiannopoulos wants outrage at the odious transphobia he expresses here, in part to misdirect you into missing the second layer of what he is doing. Consider the context he brings with him: the reputation which put him on that stage was born from his support for and organizing of systematic, targeted group harassment. When he does this, Yiannopoulos points his finger at a target. We should not defend that as free speech; we need to recognize it as an attack on free speech.

(Update: Similarly, at the UC Berkeley talk that was prevented by riots, Yiannopoulos planned to suggest that people report undocumented immigrants in the campus community.)

Driving women off of Twitter through harassment is an attack on their capacity to speak plus a move to discredit the idea of free speech. And then Yiannopoulos walked away decrying Twitter's ban as a demonstration that they — and liberals who he claims hold institutions like Twitter in thrall — do not respect free speech.

All this invites protest from counter-activists whom he places in a bind. Do they attempt to starve him of attention ... allowing his campaign of harassment? Do they give him the opportunity to paint himself as the victim of intolerant liberal opponents of free speech? Do they take the bait and accept his misrepresentation of “free speech”, coming to genuinely reject it because they understand “free speech” only as assholes' shield? Do they get drawn into debate, implicitly lending credibility to him as representing a legitimate position which must be considered? Do they simply mock him, letting him claim that they have no substantive objections?

Yiannopoulos chooses forums like Twitter and college campuses in part because their scale and openness offer opponents who stumble in threading the needle of how to respond to him, further helping him to cast himself as heroically standing athwart a tide of liberal foolishness.

This is a method and it has a purpose.

If we look at the history of far right movements, we can recognize the basic pattern. These movements are not simply opposed to liberalism-as-in-the-Democratic-Party; they are opposed to liberalism-as-in-liberal-democracy. They oppose universal human rights and equality. They aim to discredit liberalism by turning its systems against itself, making them impracticable, perverting the meaning of words like “free speech”.

One of Yiannopoulos' signature moves here presents particular interest. He exemplifies the Alt Right's jokey, coy, hyperbolic aspect. Call him out on his worst comments and he shrugs it off as his accuser being humorless and taking him too seriously. This is a variant on oblique winking we might recognize from previous hard- and far-right media stars like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, married with jokey vulgarity-for-its-own-sake internet culture that runs deep in the roots of GamerGate. Watching Yiannopoulos for long enough, one feels struck by the transparency of his nihilistic insincerity, and this is characteristic of many other Alt Right figures like him.

Many say that we should understand the Alt Right as nothing other than neo-Nazis, and that points to the cold truth of what they really stand for, but the Alt Right's stacked layers of irony mark a style difference with significant consequences. Nazis regard speaking in bad faith as righteous political pragmatism, as we see in Yiannopoulos and other figures of the Alt Right, but Nazis have a demeanor of earnest sincerity. This makes the natural enemy of Nazi not violent counterprotestors — because violence is a language Nazis understand and embrace — but clowns who make them look buffoonish rather than scary. The Alt Right does not share this vulnerability; their own clowning makes them an effective foil to both leftist pomposity and leftist absurdity.

I don't know what Achilles heel Yiannopoulos and his crew have instead. And that gives me the cold spooky.


Berkeley antifa have a statement indicating that they were operating under the principle above:

Ultimately, the bloc’s actions against Milo Yiannopoulos were not in response to the things he says, but the things he does. Yiannopoulos has a history of targeted harassment of transgender, Muslim and undocumented students at his campus speeches. On the night of Feb. 1, he planned to use his platform to teach the crowd how to report undocumented students to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It was also rumored he planned to out undocumented students.

This is not protected speech. You can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater and you can’t out undocumented students on a sanctuary campus.

Despite all of this, the UC Berkeley administration chose to put their students in danger. We decided this was unacceptable. You may disagree with our actions, but if it protected even one student from being targeted, then we are not ashamed.