Sunday, July 24, 2011

On Loudness vs. Niceness

So there is this thread on BoingBoing just now, about sexism flame-wars and the woman's experience on the net.

It's here. Be sure to look at the whole comic, not just the BoingBoing excerpt.

The BoingBoing comment thread is closed, which may well be all for the best. It degenerated rapidly into name-calling, but I find I have stuff I want to get off my chest about it, and what better place than my practically-dormant blog?

The thing is, my initial reaction was one that is well-represented in the comment threads, namely, the defensive crouch -- "hey, you know, not all men on the net are neanderthals, most of us are decent and thoughtful." That's true, as far as it goes, but it's almost utterly irrelevant to the issue in the comic. The BoingBoing comment thread does this thing where some guys get defensive, and some others call them out on being blind to their privilege, and some others point out that the discussion is not about the nice guys, and some others point out that, if you're defensive, maybe you actually are part of the problem, and so forth. There's a dusting of Nice Guys(tm) who've been burned trying to defend women on the web, because it means they think the women can't defend themselves, and because they think the White Knight gambit is actually just another way into women's pants.

The thing I want to work through is twofold, firstly that almost the whole comment thread misses the point, and secondly that the mechanism at work in the comic is far from unique to the situation of women putting up with sexist crap just for being seen on the web.

Incidentally, it did not escape my notice that the title of the full comic, "In which we betray our gender", is a rather nice pun, offering "betray" in the sense of declining to fight the good fight, as well as in the sense of revealing or making known.

Many years ago, I tried my hand at net-copping on UseNet. (You young 'uns can go look that stuff up now, I'll wait...)

My particular pet peeve was binary messages on text newsgroups relating to the flight simulation hobby in which I was active at the time. UseNet servers had different retention times for text vs. binary newsgroups, binary posts tended to be large, and so it was considered at least courteous to restrict large binary posts (images, zipped archives of add-ons for software, etc.) to a few binary-specific groups. In particular, some sites took this split very seriously, and would actually block large binary posts in text newsgroups. Because of the automatic hierarchical peer-to-peer nature of the NNTP distribution scheme, if a post got blocked, it would fail to propagate to any of that sites "downstream" peers, "downstream" in this case being relative to the originating site, which defined the "upstream" direction.

So, it was simply obvious to me that people who posted binaries in text newsgroups were at best a bit thoughtless, possibly through simple ignorance of the rather arcane details of the underlying system. They were both mis-using storage space on peering servers, and (unintentionally, one assumes) limiting their audience, because of propagation issues associated with blocking sites.

What I actually did was, when I saw a binary post in a newsgroup I read, I sent a quick e-mail to the originating poster, advising them of the issues, and requesting that, in future, they refrain from this activity. I did not cancel the post, and I didn't respond on the group, only in a single private e-mail.

It is an understatement to say that I was amazed by the response. I didn't exactly expect people to like me -- nobody likes being told they're doing something wrong, after all -- but I suppose I actually did expect some kind of respect for the established and emerging community standards, and a desire to use the available resources effectively.

Maybe people thought that, too. I don't know, I never heard from them, which is of course precisely the point here.

The people I did hear from were very unhappy. The general theme was that brave American soldiers had killed and died for freedom of speech, and that it was treason for me to censor posts, that UseNet was every kind of free, and that tight-asses like me imposing stupid rules would ultimately kill it. The tone was always hostile, and frequently vividly obscene. One in particular expressed a continuing willingness to kill in defense of freedom of speech.

I was, as it happened, too thin-skinned to keep this up for long. I soon stopped, and gradually moved away from most UseNet groups, for different but related reasons. In the end, neither netcops nor discourteous posters mattered, the whole business was overrun with spammers and trolls.

The dynamic has to be similar for women content-creators with a mostly-male audience. The jerks and morons who can't see past your gender may well be a tiny minority of the audience, but they're a substantial fraction of your inbox, they're the ones whose obscenity-laden comments you're constantly modding out of your blog, and if there's threatening language in there, how the hell are you supposed to know if it's actually dangerous?

An appreciation of this dynamic is mostly missing from that BoingBoing comment thread. I take the comic as saying, "gosh, this dynamic is somewhere between discouraging and maddening". The fact that there are many nice sensitive guys who are not part of that dynamic does nothing to ameliorate it.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


A new link for the sidebar. I don't even know if it's updating anymore, but Joey Comeau is brilliant in a dark and scary kind of way.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


So I'm wandering through my favorite liberal elitist grocery store, helping a friend of mine with a perennial search for unscented organic grass-fed free-range shampoo, and I run the above bottle, with an actual scientific-type equation on it, and two things immediately jump out at me. (a) It's almost certainly irrelevant to the shampoo. The equation in question is an expression for the energy of a particle with a magnetic moment mu in a magnetic of strength B. It's a dot product, and it's negative, because the energy is minimized when the magnetic moment and the magnetic field are aligned, which is when the dot product itself is maximized. (b) It's trademarked. Now, I'm not an expert in trademark law by any means, but this equation, in this form, with this notation (and even in this nice, seriffic font) appears in textbooks and scientific papers and who knows where else, millions of times over. It's a pre-diluted trademark. Maybe it's pre-diluted shampoo, too, though I suppose that's unlikely.
We didn't buy it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


So I went down to the National Mall for the inaugural, and I'm glad I did. Partially I went as a way of making up for the fact that I didn't do any celebrating on election night itself -- I live within walking distance of U street in Washington, DC, and I could hear some of the cheering, but I didn't go out.
So, the inaugural presented me with another chance to be part of this history, however slightly, and share the moment with a bunch of other people.
Getting down there was straightforward, the various choke points didn't present any serious obstacles, and I found a place just west of 7th Street, within easy sight of one of the jumbotrons, and from where I could see the Capitol itself, as well. I could even make out movement from time to time, using my binoculars.
It was awesome. The crowd was warm and friendly, strangers chatted and joked amicably, and we all cheered mightily when Mr. Obama made any kind of appearance on the TV. I liked the speech, and in particular enjoyed his promise to put science back into the policy-making apparatus. It's a pleasant change indeed to have a President who thinks, who understands the uses of rationality, and who can deliver his speechwriter's words with grace and fluidity.
The experience reminded me very much of the optimism of 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, and we knew that the world had been transformed for the better. Like then, the Obama administration will surely have its problems and stumbles, and make mistakes, and irritate vocal core constituencies of the Democratic party, but still, it's hard not to think that here, again, has been a decisive transformation for the better.
It's also a fine lesson in the ability of the United States to reinvent itself. Really, there aren't a lot of countries where a member of a marginal minority could rise to such high office. When will Germany have its first black leader? Or for that matter, its first leader of Turkish ancestry? What about France? Even the UK, more of a melting pot than most European countries, and quicker to abolish slavery than the US, has a ways to go on that score.
Thinking of historical rather than geographic parallels, Obama reminds me of Canada's Pierre Trudeau -- he, too, was a member of a historically-marginal national minority, young, intelligent, and hopeful. And more than that, he didn't come from the Quebec political scene, just as Obama, though obviously sympathetic to it, does not himself come from the Civil Rights leadership.
Of course, Trudeau had his demons, too. But for now, I'm happy to just savor this unfamiliar sensation of optimism.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Pleasures of Complexity

In the spirit of the connectedness of things, an interesting coincidence has occurred. The first item is the appearance on newsstands (and with a surprisingly small web presence) of a journal called World Affairs. I picked one up, because I'm the kind of policy-wonk wanna-be that does such things, expecting neocon apologetics and Great Power nationalism. The introductory essay speaks admiringly of Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and there's a regular column by Christopher Hitchens, so I figured this would probably be primarily a forum for the folks who supported the concept of an Iraq war, but had in mind a better-planned, more humane war featuring a quicker and happier ending, prominently featuring the secular dreams of Hanan Makiya and Ahmed Chalabi, and were simply astonished, not to say mortified, when the incurious Mr. Bush and his technocratic defense secretary botched their historic opportunity. Who could possibly have known?

Well, I must say that I was very pleasantly surprised. The first issue of the journal seems to grasp the complexity of the world, as I might have guessed had I myself been less hasty and carried on down the author list at least as far as George Packer. Even the article about academics and the war declines to demonize Noam Chomsky. I am, generally speaking, a big fan of grasping the complexity of the world. It can be paralyzing, that complexity, and it's sometimes just an excuse for inaction, but it seems to me that, generally speaking, erring on the side of greater understanding is likely to serve us well in the long term.

The second item of the coincidence is an article in The New Republic, a book review of Jacob Heilbrunn's "They Knew They Were Right", about the rise of the neocons. And yes, the review begins by addressing the vital question, "do we really need another one of thses?". But that's not the interesting part, the interesting part is that the author of the review (Mark Lilla) mentions that he was, once upon a time, the editor of "The Public Interest", which, we are reminded that this journal was founded on more or less the same principles as the current incarnation of "World Affairs" -- to grasp the complexity, to address it empirically, to be grounded in reality (as distinct from ideology) in the debate of these issues.

So there's nothing new under the sun, I suppose is one lesson. It's interesting that the Lilla review describes the neocon trajectory as being reactionary (Lilla takes great pains to strip this term of its pejorative connotations and tries to use it descriptively) and in search of simplicity, so much so that its practitioners came unmoored from the world as it is, but "World Affairs" seems to me to be the complement to this, a reaction to the excessive ideological narrowness of American political discourse, and an attempt to appreciate the breadth of complex issues. Not as a call to inaction, at least not so far (there's only been the one issue), but as a service to the body politic.

Does this mean complexity enthusiasts like me are now reactionaries? As Robert Anton Wilson is supposed to have said, it only takes twenty years to go from a liberal to a conservative, without changing a single idea.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

We The Robots

There's a new link on the right-hand pane there, under "Links I Like", to the webcomic, "We The Robots". I really like the artistic style of this webcomic, they're all somber grays and gray-themed versions of other colors, the sort of thing you'd get if you did watercolor painting on gray paper. You don't have to imagine, you can go look. Feel free to mouse over the header bar while you're there. It's a small treat, but a treat nonetheless.
I have already forgotten where I found out about this, although it was only a few days ago. Might have been the Comics Curmudgeon, might have been bOING bOING.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

John Hockenberry on the media, via BoingBoing

See, this is why I like the inter-connectivity of the web. John Hockenberry, independent-minded reporter who I learned about from his bio, has some ruminations on the state of television news.
Here's the bOING bOING link, and a direct link.