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.

Free speech (n.)

Since so many peopleclassseem to be confused on this point:

free speech is the right to express ideas without coercion

We must protect freedom of speech both because it is an aspect of individuals’ right to liberty and dignity and because it is good for society to have a rich exchange of ideas.

It is important that we understand free speech broadly and protect it vigorously. But common misunderstandings inspire me to outline what free speech is not:

  • Free speech is not just law, it is a principle, a social norm.
  • Free speech is not just protection from government censorship, it is protection from coercion of all kinds. If there are things you cannot say because it might cost you professional opportunities in work unrelated to what you said, or it might lead to harassment or even violence, or it might prevent you from finding housing or medical care or other essential services, then that is no less coercive than a law. (It is important to distinguish this from professiional consequences for saying things related to one’s work.) The rest of that famous XKCD cartoon is correct, but that first panel is dangerously wrong: where it says “free speech” it describes the First Amendment, not the principle of free speech.
  • Free speech is not only a protection for nice speech, it is and must be a protection for icky speech too. Free speech is a right to say things that discomfort others.
  • Free speech is not a right to speak in every space. It is a right to speak in the public sphere. One may also be invited into private spaces, and what one says there is subject to the same free speech principles, but that does not mean one has a right to barge into any space you want and demand to speak. Private spaces may set their own rules for participation.
  • Free speech is not a right to freedom from criticism. The whole point is that one’s critics are free to speak, too.
  • Free speech is not a right to say anything, it is a right to express ideas. It is not a license for lies, deceit, and fraud. It is not a license to conspire to commit crimes. It is not a license for slander, harassment, and threats. There is no legitimate personal right to those actions, they do not contribute to the public sphere of ideas, and there is a significant public interest in curtailing them. Disingenuously defending these on “free speech” grounds is an attack on free speech.

This is not hard to understand. But things being what they are, I expect that I will have to expand and clarify this list over time.

From a very long word about free speech protections in the workplace, and the implications for people with very bad politics.

I am vexed that so many social justice advocates do not just legitimize but actively court the exercise of this unaccountable power over people, shaming employers of bigots and other villains. I respect their frustration at having so few means to deter antagonists against social justice, but history teaches us who suffers most when employers fire employees because of their political views … or other things they have said … or fear public pressures over their employees. This knife cuts reactionary white male professionals the least.

My rule is more specifically don’t fire people for ideas they share outside the workplace, if the ideas are irrelevant to their job.

In this I do not want to legitimize the most visible critics of “Cancel Culture”, who are profoundly wrong. I am pushing back against a part of what we talk about when we talk about Cancel Culture, but not their part.

I call shenanigans on culture industry professionals decrying other culture industry people losing jobs — or most often, just having to change jobs and move to another platform — for the ideas they publish. If one’s day job is offering ideas, then of course one may lose their job over the ideas they share to the world.

More generally, one’s employer has a legitimate interest in what one says outside the job about the kind of stuff one does on the job. On Twitter I talk about design, because I work as a designer; if I say something stupid or smart about design on Twitter, then of course it will affect my livelihood.

Similarly, for a manager or executive with significant power and authority, especially over other people, a wide range of ideas that person expresses reflect on the fitness of the leadership judgment which they exercise. If an airline executive advocates for the Flat Earth theory, then that suggests they might not be right for, ah, global responsibility. If a manager expresses racist bigotry, then that indicates that they are unfit to manage people, who may be people of color … or who may not be, because the bigoted manager drove them away.

And of course an employer has an unmistakable interest in the ideas which a worker voices at the workplace. A bigoted machinist working a lathe alone who keeps their mouth shut about their bigotry well enough that their colleagues do not know what they think is one thing; if that bigoted machinist wears a swastika T-shirt and spews offensive epithets in the lunchroom, their colleagues are harmed and the employer has not just a right to kick them out, but a responsibility.

11 December 2016

Talking with and about monsters

Since well before the current crisis I have been worried that too many people don’t know the difference between No Platform and Not My Megaphone, and are not careful enough in thinking about when they are appropriate.

And now we are in a moment when we need to re-think these fundamentals.

Not My Megaphone is a refusal to engage with a person or organization or idea. They don’t get the use of your megaphone: you will not put their quotes in your article, or let them speak on your stage, or debate them in some third party’s venue. You do this in order to prevent them from getting attention, and to identify the range of legitimate discussion which you recognize. So a newspaper may refuse to cover a publicity stunt, an astronomer may refuse to debate a would-be “scientist” offering proof that the Earth is flat, and so forth. This isn’t a form of censorship, since the folks you refuse to favor with your megaphone have other ways to speak. Indeed, there is no way not to make choices about what you allow on your own platform, since the platform is finite. And any platform must exercise some form of editorial judgment: a newspaper that will print any story becomes a joke. There are hard tactical questions — when is addressing a point implicitly helping it? when is ignoring a point leaving it dangerously unchallenged? — but they are tactical questions about what is effective in the moment for your mission.

No Platform is a stronger and more profound move: not just refusing to engage on your platform but fighting to prevent a person, organization, or idea from appearing on any other platform. It is a form of censorship. I say that not to dismiss it as always wrong; No Platforming is an essential part of the immune system of liberal democracies, preventing attacks on the foundations. It is paradoxically a defense of free speech if it is used exclusively to block those who would destroy free speech. In order for that to be true it must be used very, very sparingly, reserved for cutting out sources speaking deceitfully, in bad faith (like fascists) … and cutting out positions which have been already thoroughly and publicly discredited as illegitimate because they attack free speech and other deep liberal democratic principles. There aren’t many of those people, but when you find them you hound them to the point that they can only share their poison on the shitty parts of the internet because if you don’t, they a cancer on a free society which will break free speech and everything else.

We have seen several miscalculations in recent years which have weakened our ability to use these tools effectively.

It must be said that we have had a few leftists who have been too eager to reject ordinary conservative ideas — and even some liberal ideas — as not merely wrong, not merely unworthy of their debate and response, but illegitimate, worthy of No Platforming and comparable tactics. A noisy few among them reject the principle of free speech root-and-branch: “your freeze peach is not more important than the harm your speaking does”. This gives trolls of various stripes an opening to claim that they are defenders of free speech when they are only opportunists who want to abuse the principle of free speech to claim the right to speak on any platform without criticism.

More importantly, we have failed at discrediting the authoritarian-fascist axis. These folks are the classic examples of the speech that should be No Platform’d because it is a cancer on the discourse. Authoritarians want to end free speech. Part of what makes fascists fascists is their embrace of speaking in bad faith as a method. Were our public discourse’s immune system healthy, people would be able to recognize them when they show up so that when we No Platform them, and everyone would understand why. But we have enough Americans unable to recognize them that they just won a huge electoral victory.

And so the cancer has metastasized. The Overton window has come to include authoritarian and fascist ideas. Like it or not, they have a megaphone and cannot be No Platform’d. It is time for chemotherapy on the discourse: doing some stuff that is normally poisonous but necessary now in hopes that it kills the cancer before it kills us. So we need to re-think when and where and how we make Not My Megaphone and No Platform moves. There are things we need to address directly in this environment.

This post was proximately inspired by my frustration at seeing people on my social media feed saying that it was wrong for Trevor Noah to interview Tomi Lahren on The Daily Show because it only legitimizes Lahren and helps her spread her poison. And were Lahren a figure scrambling to be heard, I would agree. Two years ago I would have said without hesitation that someone like her was a good example of a voice that a major media platform like The Daily Show should respond to with Not My Megaphone, and would have been willing to entertain arguments that she should be No Platform’d. But it is not two years ago. Her movement has platforms so effective that they just won a huge political victory. So while I think the jury is still out on whether Noah’s interview was a good move and a tactic worth imitating, it was an interesting experiment in revealing the monster for what it is and so legitimate for Noah to try. We need more experiments like that in fighting this thing that has come upon us.

I do not think that means that in our current world Not My Megaphone and No Platform are dead as tactics. But I do think we need to revisit how and when and why we use them. The time has come for chemotherapy.