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Pivoting to the Gumball Machine

Well, it’s the end of the month again, and I’m out of free articles from all the major newspapers. This happens toward the end of just about every month: I see an article in one of the papers linked by an aggregator, I go there through the link, and am told that I have used all my free articles and can now either subscribe to the paper or go away. I go away. This does not bode well for the newspaper in question, nor for newspapers generally.

The problem is dirt-simple: I do not want the whole damned Washington Post.

I might want five or six articles per month. I do not want the comics, the ads, the local news and gossip (unless something really important is going on there locally) nor the constant obsessive eyes-rolled-back-in-the-head drumbeating against Trump. I hate politics. I want ideas and analysis of interesting things, people, and phenomena, from a neutral point of view. And I am willing to pay for them.

Individually.

People who have been following me for a long time may remember an idea piece I did in this space way back in 2005, with a followup in 2014. I called it a “digital content gumball machine” because that’s what it was: A storefront with an easy payment system that downloads a digital file to your hard drive. In 2005, these really hadn’t been perfected, but Amazon came along and did it, followed by other firms like Audible. As with my 1994 prediction of Wikipedia, the details turned out a little different, but for music and ebooks, my vision was fulfilled. When I hear a piece of music I like, I go to Amazon, search for it, click a couple of things, and clunk-clatter! An MP3 appears in my Downloads folder. Ditto for ebooks. Yes, discovery is still a challenge, but it’s a separate challenge that I’ll take up another time.

Having pivoted to video without success, Big Media seems on track pivoting to dust, as Robby Soave said on Twitter and Megan McArdle quoted in a WaPo article I can’t even link to now that January’s freebies are gone. (If you subscribe or have freebies left, read it.)

One of the reasons that the print news media giants (as well as print magazines like The Atlantic) are pivoting to dust is that unlike music, ebooks, and audiobooks, they don’t have gumball machines. You can’t buy a gumball. You need to buy the entire jar. So my suggestion to them is the following: Create a consortium to finance the construction of a periodical media gumball machine.

It would work someting like this: The gumball machine is a payment processor back end to which publishers can connect under contract. Publishers add small scripts to each one of their articles, which display the title and first 500 characters of the article in a window with a message like “Continue reading this article for 50c.” Another button might offer a downloadable copy for $1. When the consumer clicks a button, he or she is charged the appropriate amount and the window poofs, revealing the full article or download link.

Consumers would create an account not with any individual publication but with the gumball machine itself, providing a charge card or coin wallet or some other means of payment. Readers could then seamlessly flit from The Washington Post to The Chicago Tribune to The Atlantic, picking up an article gumball here and an editorial gumball there. The back end would keep the the accounting straight, and would wire money to all publishers using the system on a weekly or monthly basis, keeping some pre-agreed margin for its own expenses. Publishers would leave some freebies on their sites to keep people from forgetting about them, or perhaps have articles age-out to free status after some set period of time.

Publishers would have razor-sharp data on what writers and what topics are their biggest draws. They could adjust prices to find price points that maximize their income. They wouldn’t have to abandon ads altogether, but would no longer be at the mercy of advertisers. They could stop pivoting from one damfool technofad to another, and just do what readers expect them to do: provide interesting reading at competitive prices…and do it by the piece.

After all, get enough people to pay you fifty cents for an article, and sooner or later you’re talking real money.

That’s the whole gumball machine concept for periodical publications. I know enough of the required tech to be quite sure it’s doable. In truth, it’s not even rocket science. So would it work?

Alas, no. There’s way too much ego on the table. Consider the pompous-ass motto WaPo puts on its masthead: “Democracy dies in darkness.” Uhhh, no. Democracy dies in tribalism…with you idiots leading the charge off that particular cliff. Newspapers have talked themselves into believing that they are the sole protectors of our freedom, and that we all gaze upon them with sighs of thankful reverence. They may have fulfilled that role to some extent decades ago, when investigative reporting was actually done, and done to standards held by all genuine journalists. Now, the big papers have abandoned careful investigative reporting for clickbait and partisan advocacy, which in fact is the opposite of journalism.

Anyway. I’ve thrown the idea out there and would be curious to get your reactions. As always, no partisan arguing in the comments. That’s what Twitter is for, heh.

Taming Twitter

I knew Twitter was mostly useless before I ever got an account there. I got the account because the service seemed insanely popular, which I simply could not understand. My account is now four years old, and having mostly lurked in that time I think I finally understand what Twitter is for, and why it’s a problem.

This past week saw another instance of what many call a Twitter lynch mob: Hordes of tribalists, intoxicated with their own outrage, descended upon a group of Catholic high school boys who were waiting for a bus in DC when various kinds of hell broke loose around them. I won’t go over the details here; you can google as much as you like. The incident itself isn’t my point, and I will delete any arguments in the comments over whether they “deserved” the ill-treatment they got. (They did not. If you disagree, disagree in your own space, not mine.)

The point I’m actually making here is that this incident (and countless others like it) would not have happened without Twitter. I’ve been on LiveJournal since 2005, and on Facebook since 2009. I’ve never seen an online lynch mob on either service. I’ve seen plenty of arguments, some of them quite heated, a few of them absolutely insane. None of them “went viral” the way that Twitter lynch mobs go viral.

Part of the underlying problem is a lack of discipline among many journalists. Most of the money has gone out of mainstream news journalism over the past twenty years, and with it went the sort of disciplined, methodical reporting I took for granted before 2005 or so. When you have to get clicks to keep your job and pay your bills, “methodical reporting” means all the other starving journalists will get those clicks before you do.

But bad journalism is mostly an enabling factor. The real mechanism is Twitter’s ability to act as an amplifier of emotion. Until very recently, tweets were limited to 140 characters. That’s room enough to post a link to an Odd Lot (which is most of what I do) and not much else beyond quips, brief questions, quotations, short descriptions of photos and videos, and so on. This means that rational discussion doesn’t take place very often on Twitter. There just isn’t room. Sure, some people make their case using a number of independently posted tweets intended to be read in sequence. Megan McArdle of the Washington Post is very good at this. Alas, the process of creating such a thread sounds mighty tedious to me.

What’s left? Emotion. And what’s the emotion of the day, year, and decade hereabouts? Outrage. And while Twitter can amplify things like humor, cuteness, and gratitude (and occasionally real beauty) what it does best is outrage.

From a height, Twitter is an outrage amplifier. It starts with somebody posting something calculated to outrage a certain demographic. (Innocent posts sometimes trigger Twitter mobs, but they are uncommon.) Then begins a sort of emotional feedback loop: The outraged immediately retweet the reactions they’ve seen, so that their followers (who would not otherwise have seen the outrage tweet) get to see it. They retweet it to their followers, and so on, until millions of gasping outrage addicts are piling on without knowing anything at all about the original issue that caused the outrage.

The word “amplifier” may not be quite the right metaphor here. Most of us in the nerdiverse have seen videos of a common science demo consisting of a room full of set mousetraps, each with two ping-pong balls carefully placed on the bar. Toss a single ping-pong ball into the room, and it sets off whatever mousetrap it lands on. That moustrap launches two more balls, which set off two more mousetraps, and a few seconds later there is this chaotic cloud of ping-pong balls flying around the room, until the last mousetrap has been spring. This metaphor is a nuclear fission chain reaction, and I think it describes a Twitter mob very well.

So what do we do about Twitter mobs? We could encourage the victims to lawyer up and start suing the news organizations that tossed the original ping-pong ball, and perhaps Twitter itself. That process is evidently underway with the Covington Kids. But preventing Twitter mobs is simple, if difficult: All it would require is a single change to the Twitter software:

Eliminate retweets.

That’s all it would take. Really. The retweet function is like a neutron emitted by an unstable nucleus. (There are a lot of unstable nuclei in the Twitter system.) Chain reactions are easy to kick off, and difficult to suppress. But without the ability to instantly retweet some expression of outrage, the issue never goes critical. Sure, you can manually copy and paste somebody else’s tweet and tweet it to your own followers. But the sort of people who participate in Twitter mobs are impatient, and lazy. If copy/paste/tweet is work, well, their ADHD sends them on to something else.

Basically, eliminating retweets would turn Twitter from U-235 to U-238. U-238 is non-fissionable. Without retweets, Twitter would be non-fissionable too. Problem solved.

Of course, Twitter won’t voluntarily disable retweets. Without retweets, Twitter becomes just another microblogging social network. People would abandon it in droves. However, if a class action against Twitter mounted by victims of Twitter mobs ever got any traction, part of the settlement might include requiring Twitter to disable retweets. If I were the victim of a Twitter mob, that’s what I’d demand. Money wouldn’t hurt. But to fix the problem, retweets would have to go. If that in fact became the end of Twitter, I for one wouldn’t cry too hard.

Twitter is not a common carrier. It attempts to police its own content, though that policing is sparse and rather selectively applied. If it isn’t a common carrier, it can be held responsible for the actions of its members. If its members set out to deliberately destroy private citizens by retweeting slander and doxxing, Twitter should face the consequences. If it were forced to confront the possible consequences, who knows? Twitter might eliminate the Retweet button all by themselves.

Don’t wait up for it. But don’t count it out, either.

Revisiting The All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything

24 years and some months ago, I published an article in PC Techniques, on the END. page, which was where I put humor, crazy ideas, and non-of-the-above. The article was “The All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything!” and as I recall it generated a lot of mail. The idea was this: We should create a way to capture knowledge, even highly eccentric knowledge, in a browsable online encyclopedia. Remember that I had this idea in 1993, when the Web was not so much in its infancy as still in utero, and broadband outside of an office or university was practically unheard of. That’s why I imagined the Encyclopedia as a central index with pointers to encyclopedia articles hosted on machines owned by the authors of the articles, with caching for popular items. You browse the index, you click on an article link, and then retrieve the article text back to your machine as a file via FTP, where it would be rendered in a window in a standard layout. (The now-defuct DMOZ Web directory worked a little like this.) HTTP would work even better, but in 1993 I’d barely heard of it.

I chewed on the idea for several years, and then went on to other things. In 2001, Wikipedia happened, and I felt vindicated, and even though the vision had an utterly different shape, it was still an all-volunteer virtual encyclopedia.

Of absolutely everything, well, not so much.

As good as it is, Wikipedia is still trying to be a paper encyclopedia. You won’t find articles on pickled quail eggs in a paper encyclopedia, because paper costs money, and takes up space. These days, with terabyte disk drives going for fifty bucks new, there’s no reason for an online encyclopedia not to cover everything. Yet Wikipedia still cleaves to its “notability” fetish like superglue; in fact, in reading the discussion pages, I get the impression that they will give up almost anything else but that. My heuristic on the topic is simple and emphatic:

Everything is notable to somebody, and nobody can judge what will be notable to whom.

In other words, if I look for something on Wikipedia and it’s not there, that’s a flaw in Wikipedia. It’s a fixable flaw, too, but I don’t expect them to fix it.

Several people have suggested that my Virtual Encyclopedia concept is in fact the Web + Google. Fair point, but I had envisioned something maybe a little less…chaotic. Others have suggested that I had at least predicted the MediaWiki software, and if Wikipedia won’t cover everything, that’s their choice and not a shortcoming of the machinery behind it.

Bingo.

Some years back I had the notion that somebody should build a special-purpose wiki to hold all the articles that Wikipedia tosses out for lack of notability. I thought about some sort of browser script that would first search Wikipedia for a topic, and if Wikipedia didn’t have it, would then look it up in WikiDebrisdia. I never wrote this up, which is a shame, because something similar to that appeared last year, when Theodore Beale (AKA Vox Day) launched Infogalactic.

It’s a brilliant and audacious hack, fersure: When a user searches Infogalactic (which, like Wikipedia, is MediaWiki-based) for a topic, Infogalactic first searches its own articles, and if the topic isn’t found, then searches Wikipedia. If the topic is available on Wikipedia, Infogalatic brings the article back and serves it to the user, and retains it in a cache for future searches. This is legal and fully in keeping with Wikipedia’s rules, which explicitly allow re-use of its material, though I’m guessing they weren’t imagining it would be used in fleshing out the holes in a competing encyclopedia.

There’s considerably more to Infogalactic than this, but it’s still very new and under active development, and its other features will have to wait for a future entry. (Note that Infogalactic is not concerned with Wikipedia’s deleted articles; that was my concept.) One of the things I find distinctive about it is that it has no notability fetish. Infogalactic states that it is less concerned with a topic’s notability than it is about whether the article is true. That’s pretty much how I feel about the issue: Notability is a holdover from the Age of Paper. It has no value anymore. What matters is whether an article is true in all its assertions, not how important some anonymous busybody thinks it might be.

I’m wondering if the future of the All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything is in fact a network of wikis. There are a number of substantial vertical-market wikis, like WikiVoyage (a travel guide) and WikiSpecies, which is a collection of half a million articles on living things. I haven’t studied the MediaWiki software in depth, so I don’t know how difficult this would be, but…how about a module that sends queries to one or more other wikis, Infogalactic-style? I doubt that Wikipedia has articles on all half a million species of living creature in WikiSpecies, but if a user wanted to know about some obscure gnat that wasn’t notable enough for Wikipedia, Wikipedia could send for the article from WikiSpecies. Infogalactic already does this, but only to Wikipedia. How about a constantly updated list of wikis? You broadcast a query and post a list of all the search hits from all the wikis on the list that received the query.

This is the obvious way to go, and it’s how I envisioned the system working even back in 1993. Once again, as I’ve said throughout my career in technical publishing, the action is at the edges. It’s all about how things talk to one another, and how data moves around among them. There’s a distributed Twitter clone called Mastodon with a protocol for communication between servers. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.

Bottom line: I admit that “absolutely everything” is a lot. It may be more than any one single encyclopedia can contain. So let a thousand wiki encyclopedias bloom! Let Wikipedia be as much or as little of an encyclopedia as it wants to be. The rest of us can fill in the gaps.


Note well: Theodore Beale has controversial opinions, and those are off-topic and irrelevant to this entry. I mentioned one of his projects, but the man and his beliefs are a separate issue. Don’t bring them up. I will delete your comments if you do.

Odd Lots

Contra Turns 20

Egad. Contra turned 20 when I wasn’t looking. Actually, I was looking. What I wasn’t doing was breathing. Enough. At night. I think I have a handle on that problerm now, and with any luck at all I’ll be writing more of everything going forward. I’m 50,000 words into my new novel Dreamhealer, and tinkering the last bits of my free ebook FreePascal From Square One. There’s much to be done, now that my energy is starting to come back.

The anniversary was this past June 5. On June 5, 1998, the very first entry in Jeff Duntemann’s VDM Diary went up on the Coriolis Web server. That first entry was nothing grandiose. I didn’t have permalinks on those early entries, so I’ll quote it here in its entirety:

Spent most of this past week in Chicago at Book Expo America, and saw two remarkable “book on demand” operations of interest to small software developers. Both IBM and Xerox have developed super hi-res, high-speed laser printers that print on continuous roll paper, almost like miniature offset printing presses. Both firms have set up subsidiaries to act as service bureaus, capable of producing high-quality perfect-bound books with glossy four-color covers, quantity one, at a unit price of between $2 and $4, depending on the size of the book. They’re targeting the service at small press, and to keep low-volume books from going out of print entirely. But you and I know the real application here is going to be software documentation for small developers, especially shareware developers whose volumes are smallish and unpredictable. Go take a look: IBM and Ingram’s partnership LightningPrint is at www.lightningprint.com.

Those early entries didn’t have titles, and were not the long-form essays that evolved over time, but instead short, newsy items much like I later came to publish as Odd Lots.

For those who didn’t know me back then, “VDM” was our (carefully chosen) acronym for Visual Developer Magazine, published by The Coriolis Group from 1990-2000. By 2000 most of our energy went into books. The magazine, in competition with increasingly sophisticated (and free) Web pages, ceased to be viable toward the end of 1999. The March/April 2000 issue was the last, and VDM Diary closed down with Visual Developer itself.

By that time, however, I was hooked. On July 25, 2000, I created Contrapositive Diary on my own Web hosting space, where it’s been ever since.

So let’s go back to Contra’s secret origins. Without realizing it (and years before that truly ugly word came to prominence) I had invented blogging. Now, others invented it as well. There is such a thing as independent invention, and in truth the idea seems kind of obvious to me. I’m not sure Slashdot is a blog (I’ve always considered it a news site) but it launched in the fall of 1997, though I don’t remember seeing it until a couple of years later. Justin Hall is almost certainly the first blogger in the sense that we use the word today, having invented the concept back in 1994. Still further back in time, I remember reading a periodic (weekly?) posting on Usenet from Moonwatcher, a chap who posted about the phases of the Moon, eclipses, meteor showers, visible planets, and other things relating to astronomy. This was in 1981 or thereabouts, when I worked at Xerox and had a login to ARPANet. So yeah, it’s an old idea, and an obvious one.

Still, I think of it as the best idea I never had.

Huh? It’s true: Contra was someone else’s idea. My ad sales rep for VDM was Lisa Marie Hafeli, and in the spring of 1998 she approached me with a request: Find a way to publish something short online every day, or close to it. What she wanted was more product mentions, which helped her sell ads to industry firms. I wasn’t entirely sure that such a thing would work as an ad sales tool, but the notion of a daily diary online intrigued me. It took until June to get to the top of my stack. At the time I wasn’t in direct control of our Web presence, so (almost) every day before I went home from work I emailed the text to my webmaster Dave, and he added it to the tail end of the HTML file stored on our Web server.

I didn’t post every day, and not every post was a product mention, but the vehicle proved popular with our readers. I wasn’t surprised over the next couple of years when others did the same thing. As I said, it’s a pretty obvious idea. What did surprise me was the scope of its adoption. By the time the company itself shut down in the spring of 2002, the word “blog” had been coined, and blogs were all over the place.

I edited the HTML files by hand as the sole format until 2005, when I created an account on LiveJournal and used it as a mirror of the manually edited month files. I never really liked LiveJournal as a platform, but it did the job until I installed WordPress on my own hosting space in late 2008, launching on 1/1/2009. I later backported the 2008 month files to WordPress, found it more trouble than it was worth, and stopped there. My LiveJournal account still exists, but I get almost no comments on it and assume the platform is no longer as well-used as it was ten years or so ago.

I don’t post on Contra as often as I used to. I get a lot more traffic and exposure on Twitter and Facebook, and I periodically gather short items originally published on Twitter into Odd Lots. (I invariably add a few bullets that never went to Twitter for various reasons, so you won’t see all my Odd Lots on Twitter.)

That’s the story. I enjoy social networking a lot less than I used to, because so much of what goes around online is flat-out political hatred. Still, it’s one of the few ways to get above the noise and be heard. I’m trying to earn a reputation for not being crazy, but alas, the crazy stuff seems to get the most mileage these days. There are insights in that fact somewhere (a lot of insights, for what it’s worth) but I’m not entirely sure I want to be the one to describe them. I’d prefer a peaceful retirement, whatever it takes. Mostly what it takes is not talking about politics.

That’s been my policy for a long time, with only very occasional lapses. It will be my policy going forward, for as long as I can write at all.

The Domain Name Ambush

Yeah, I know: I been away a long time. Why is complex, but house issues, health, and a surprisingly difficult WIP (not to mention a Caribbean cruise) all conspired to eat March. I’ll have more to say about the health issues once there’s more to say about them. The house is coming along well, and although I’m not in truth feeling a whole lot better (hint: it’s an oxygen issue) some time is at least opening up, hence today’s big story.

I’m working quietly with a number of people on a joint project that I can’t talk about right now. However, I promised the group that I would contribute a domain for it. The project is not new, and my promise was made literally years ago. At the time, I looked at what we all considered the perfect domain–and someone else already owned it. No biggie; it happens all the time. The project itself has been on again and off again, but it seems to have gained a little momentum in recent weeks. Yesterday, almost three years later, I checked for that perfect domain…and it was available. So I grabbed it. I registered it precisely the same way I registered the last couple of domains I registered.

Now, apres domain, le deluge.

I’ve gotten at least thirty emails soliciting site design, logos, PHP programming, shopping carts, artwork, SEO, and other Web folderol. I’ve gotten nine calls to my mobile, same thing. And a text message.

This has never happened before, and I’ve been registering domains since 1995. I’m not sure what’s changed. However, I noticed after only a little inspection that most (and possibly all) of the solicitations are from India. (As with most spam, a lot of them are cagey about where they actually are.) Every single person who left voicemail sounded Indian, and several were quite honest about their locations.

So what’s going on here? Has the same thing happened to any of you? My first guess is that some sort of scraper service is offering lists of recent domain name registrants to Indian Web shops. Maybe the Indians have made Web dev a big priority in the three or four years since I last registered a domain. I don’t know. In truth, I don’t care that much, except perhaps for the calls to my mobile. That’s supposed to be illegal, but if they’re in India, it would be hard to sue them for breaking a US law.

As I said, the spam doesn’t bother me, and I don’t generally answer calls from numbers I don’t recognize. I suspect that after a few days, they’ll move on to more recent registrations and get out of my hair. We’ll see.

Now I have to get back to that Odd Lots I’ve owed you guys since February. Tomorrow fersure.

Odd Lots

Why I’m Not On Twitter

On more than one occasion, a reader has emailed me to ask why he or she couldn’t see me on Twitter. My answer might have seemed inconceivable to them: I’m not on it. I never have been. I’ve researched it and thought about it and waffled about it almost since there was a Twitter. I still haven’t gone there. And at this point, I’m unlikely to.

One reason has always been that I don’t think in 140-character text bites. I’m a careful and methodical writer on both the fiction and nonfiction side, and being methodical (not to mention fair) requires more than 25 words, or five words and a hotlink. I’ve recently experimented with what I call nanoarticles on Facebook. I’m currently on Day 13 of a 50-entry meditation on writing over there, with individual entries running from 40-100 words or so. I’m still not sure it’s useful.

I like epigrams, and I’ve written a few. I’ve gotten hundreds of Twitter posts and retweets of my statement: “A good tool improves the way you work. A great tool improves the way you think.” A few have liked “If you see a pinata, remember that somewhere close by is a blindfolded person swinging a stick.” I’ve gotten some pushback on “Self-esteem is confidence without calibration.” (This leads me to believe it may be truer than I thought.) It might be in the family; my father said, “Kick ass. Just don’t miss.” I guess I’m good enough at epigrams to post them publicly, and Twitter is epigram-sized. That said, I don’t think I want to be known primarily for my epigrams. On Twitter, you pretty much have four choices:

  • Epigrams.
  • Forwarded links.
  • Retweets.
  • Shouting.

Note that novels, technical books, and long-form journalism are not on the list. I already do Odd Lots here on Contra. One cannot retweet without tweeting.

So then there’s Number Four.

“Shouting” is the short form. It’s almost always indignant shouting, self-righteous shouting, or outright hateful shouting. The basic Twitter mechanism is a sort of amplifier, and once the person doing the shouting gets above a certain level of popularity, a runaway feedback mechanism ensues. Boom! (Squeal?) We have a mob. And far oftener than you might think, we have a lynch mob.

It struck me a few months ago: Almost all the current Internet wars are Twitter wars. Gamergate could not have happened without Twitter. Neither could Donglegate. Mobs require the sort of immediate feedback that only immediate presence provides. Twitter is as close as you come online to immediate presence.

Twitter wars would be mere popcorn fodder (low comedy, actually) and easy to tune out if there weren’t real-world consequences. There are. Adria Richards eavesdropped on two dorks making dumb jokes at a conference, took photos without permission, and tweeted them. One of the two dorks was fired from his job, as (a little later) was Adria herself. People have objected angrily to a Twitter lynch mob’s reducing Rosetta mission scientist Matt Taylor to tearful apology over his dopey Hawaiian shirt. I have a suspicion that he had no choice but to apologize. It’s not easy getting a probe to a comet, and it wasn’t easy for Dr. Taylor to be part of the team. Had he not made obeisance to the lynch mob, he might well have lost his job, and in fact his entire career. Employers can be cowardly in this fashion without much cost to themselves: There are always 400 people waiting to fill the void that you make when your company shows you the door.

We have a phenomenon here related to what I call “comment harpies.” There is a psychology that feeds on outrage and hate. Comment harpies are this psychology’s manifestion in blog comment sections. On Twitter, the psychology is amplified way past absurdity, and becomes an online lynch mob. It’s so easy to join in: Are you an umbrage vampire? A recreational hater? Choose your hashtag and join the mob!

I don’t associate with such people, and I don’t want my participation on the Twitter system to be seen as validating what might well be the Internet’s most efficient hate machine. Whether Twitter would be good for my writing career is still an open question, and while Twitter leaves an ugly smell in my nostrils, I rarely say never. Attention amplifiers are very good things, if they can be controlled, and somehow prevented from melting down or blowing up in your face. This happens; there is an SF writer I once respected who has frittered away much of his reputation on laughably rabid Twitter attacks. This may be a calculated strategy: Is he deliberately trading the broad but shallow support of his casual readership for the slobbering adulation of a Twitter mob? If so, he may not be as smart as he looks.

I strive to always be smarter than I look. The smart path may be to avoid Twitter entirely. Time will tell. In the meantime, watching the Twitter lynch mobs at work has put new steel up my back. If some jackass umbrage vampire ever calls me some sort of ist or phobe, I will reply: “No, I’m not. Now back off.”

I might be thinking worse of them inside my head, but…civility matters. And civility is the exception on Twitter.

Comment Harpies

Every so often I moderate a comment, and the commenter objects: “You’re censoring me!” (Most of the time I just nuke it, and that’s the last I hear.) Granted, it isn’t often, though it’s happening more and more over time. I’m discussing it today because of an interesting phenomenon that other bloggers may have seen, one I call comment harpies. It works like this: Some whackjob swoops in and tries to post a nasty comment on Contra, generally to an entry that happened months or even years ago. I’ve never seen the poster before. The comment is invariably angry, often insulting, and sometimes obscene. The general impression I get, however, is one of out-of-control desperation.

I picture a person awash in cortisol sitting at a machine, googling topics that the harpy’s tribe disagrees with, plowing through long lists of blog hits with shaking hands and attempting to post condemnations anywhere the blogs will let them. This is the terminal state of the “someone, somewhere on the Internet is wrong” psychology. Disagreement used to be a learning opportunity. Then it became insult. Now it appears to be declaration of total war.

Sad, sad.

I moderate all comments from newcomers, and I pay attention to everything said by everyone. I began moderation to throttle comment spam, which tries to come in five or six times a day, sometimes more. You’ve probably seen these slightly surreal cookie-cutter posts on unmoderated blogs, invariably accompanied by one or more links:

“It is of nothing enjoyed to be better apart than reading insights of distinction sourced with your sight. Links are of to be permitted, yes? I make a mind out to return of oftener.”

Links are of to be permitted, no. Lost, get apart now forever and my sight out of.

The harpies are different. The English is good, and the posts generally pertain to whatever topic the target entry discusses. There’s rarely any link. Though usually short, there’s an occasional multi-hundred-word rant. As a general policy I delete them immediately. Now and then the indignant harpy emails me and demands an explanation. When asked, I answer: “I don’t allow angry/abusive/obscene comments.” End of story, usually. Sometimes the cortisol-tripper reponds again, claiming that I’m engaging in censorship. At that point, their having crossed the bright line into delusional, I delete and forget them.

Some comments fall into a gray area. A year or two ago, when I began talking about my research into ice ages for my caveman novel, I got a one-liner:

“Don’t be an idiot. There will never be another ice age.”

This is less angry than most, and I’ve certainly been called worse. With faint hope that he/she might have something interesting to say, I wrote back and suggested a politer comment with factual content, links permitted. The email address (which was qwertygargle and suspicious to begin with) turned out to be fake.

So what can we make of this? Some of my friends have suggested that posts like these are paid compaigns intended to discredit the blogger or the topic the blogger is discussing. That seems unlikely to me. Anger and insult won’t change anybody’s mind except perhaps in the direction opposite the harpy’s intent. And when someone calls you a “Foux News watcher,” what else can you do but giggle? I wonder if these people have any least idea how utterly pathetic they make themselves and their ideologies look.

Are they bored? Unemployed? Crazy? Are they crawling with toxoplasma gondii? As with all manifestations of tribal fury, the comment harpy phenomenon probably has deep roots in our primate past, where the addled tribal footsoldiers throw poop at each other while their alphas live the good life at their expense. If you have any better explanations, I’ll certainly hear them.

The Weather Channel as Weak King

Back in mid-January, the Weather Channel went dark on DirecTV. There’s been a great deal of drama since then. Losing 20M viewers is one helluva kick in the crotch when you have, at best, 100M viewers and are struggling to keep the ones you have. If online comments can be believed, they’re bleeding eyeballs bigtime.

Carol and I are two of them.

I’m not a big fan of TV, which eventually turns everything it touches to crap. Carol and I never even had cable until we moved to Colorado ten years ago. The Weather Channel was a pleasant surprise. It was founded by John Coleman (of “thunderboomers” fame in Chicago) and Frank Batten in 1981. We appreciated having a detailed forecast with radar every ten minutes, and some of their people were inexplicably likeable, especially Mark Mancuso, Mike Bettes and Stephanie Abrams. We’d put it on during breakfast or anytime it looked like things were getting ugly outside.

In 2008, NBC bought TWC. That was the beginning of the end. They fired about 10% of their on-air staff, started airing content-free MSNBC news, began pushing weather/climate hysteria of every species every chance they got, and then…the coup de gras…went to the Reality TV Model. They weren’t the first; Discovery Channel and others had pounded that unmistakable path in the grass long before TWC ever found it. One lame series after another began airing anytime there wasn’t a storm that they could get breathless about. I almost understand “Storm Stories,” which at least had photos of things you’d just as soon not see every day, or maybe ever. After that, each season got weirder and weirder. “Turbine Cowboys” croaked early, because there are only so many shots you can get of daredevils repairing 100-foot-tall wind turbines. But…”Prospectors”? It’s “Duck Dynasty” with pickaxes. Now their big deal is “Highways Through Hell,” which is about roughneck Canadian tow-truck operators pulling semis out of ditches in the Canadian Rockies and getting in arguments. There’s no Local on the 8’s during any of these increasingly irrelevant reality shows. Nor, I’ll tell you with fair confidence, is there a great deal of reality.

That’s my big gripe. There are others. People online seem peculiarly agitated by TWC’s recent gimmick of naming winter storms. After Creon and Dion I was expecting Eon, Freon, Leon, Neon and Peon, and perhaps Xenon before this long, cold, ugly winter peters out. No luck so far. (After all the high-end mythological characters, the “W” storm is named “Wiley.” The hell?) Naming winter storms may be dumb. Getting upset about it is dumber.

The business model puzzles me a little. Is it cheaper to buy episodes about trash-talking Canadian truck drivers than just present the weather? Perhaps it is, once you lay out major cash for irritating New York celebrities like Al Roker. However, the people are on staff, the studios are paid for…where’s the win in reality TV? TWC seems to think that people turn on their TVs and sit down to watch The Weather Channel as a species of entertainment. For the most part, they don’t.

Anyway. DirecTV replaced TWC with WeatherNation, which resembles what TWC was when they first started out. The formula is simple: all weather, all the time. The cameras are on tripods rather than dollies, the studio is small, and there are no expensive celebrities. The computer graphics are good, and if I could get it on cable I’d wave bye-bye to TWC. I’ve begun to experiment with streaming video, now that our local Blockbuster has closed down. Said experiments have shown that I can stream WeatherNation, and once the new technology is all in place (more on which in an upcoming entry) I will.

Most of this wouldn’t even be worth mentioning at length if The Weather Channel had not begun to throw increasingly desperate tantrums, slandering DirecTV by name in house ads and claiming to be some sort of essential disaster management information service; i.e., if we don’t have a monopoly on weathercasting, people will die.

Puh-leez.

This is typical behavior of the Coastal Elite: We know what’s good for you, and if you don’t like it you’re an evil something-or-other funded by the infinitely rich Koch Brothers, or maybe the Illuminati. NBC has long had that sort of internal culture. I smell the presence of one or more Right Men–and maybe a few Right Women, though women are generally too smart for that sort of BS. Leaders earn our respect by acting with calm confidence. Calm confidence is what wins. Leaders who throw tantrums are the archetype of The Weak King. Once the tantrums start, those wooden-wheeled gallows carts can’t be far away.

What broke it all open for me was this video, which shows some guy acting like a Jack Nicholson-class psycho, tearing his DirecTV dish out by the roots and beating it with a baseball bat, until the neighbor kids run screaming and local mothers start to cover their toddlers’ eyes. C’mon. I’m supposed to flee back to The Weather Channel after seeing a revenge fantasy like this? Not fracking likely.

Being a strong king means taking your lumps, learning from your mistakes, and turning the situation around by setting ego aside and just making things work–all with calm confidence. In TWC’s case, this means dumping the unreality shows, firing Al Roker and Sam Champion, and just presenting the damned weather.

Sheesh. How hard could that be?