American Horrors

I went through the American public school system at a time when it was highly regarded, at least in many states. In school, I learned about a number of important American historical events, including slavery and the Civil War. I also learned about American’s westward expansion and the concept of “manifest destiny.” But I was not taught about lynching (which, if it was mentioned at all, was only referenced in passing) or the massive genocide conducted against Native Americans.

Things didn’t improve much during my first year at the state university, where I read purported American history written by Samuel Eliot Morison and others of his ilk that elided many essential events and facts (I later transferred to a better school). In fact, it wasn’t until after college, when I discovered The Nation and Howard Zinn, that I began to piece together some understanding of this country’s genuine history, including long-running atrocities like lynching in America.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL. Photo: Audra Melton for the New York Times.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL. Photo: Audra Melton for the New York Times.

Late last month, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial is an astounding creation, documenting the true history of the racist terror campaign behind lynching like nothing else before it. A product of the Equal Justice Initiative and its extraordinary founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson, the memorial and its adjacent Legacy Museum catalog some 4,400 lynchings in total, including hundreds which had gone undocumented until now.

The memorial’s centerpiece consists of some 800 rusted steel columns suspended over a descending walkway. Each column is etched with the name of an American county and the people who were lynched there (many of the names are listed as “unknown”). Some of the killings are described in short summaries along the walk. For example (from the New York Times): Parks Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman; Caleb Gadly, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for “walking behind the wife of his white employer”; Mary Turner, who after denouncing her husband’s lynching by a rampaging white mob, was hung upside down, burned and then sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.

The body of Will Brown after being burned by a white crowd on 28-29 September 1919 in Omaha, Nebraska. Photograph: SeM/UIG via Getty Images.
The body of Will Brown after being burned by a white crowd on 28-29 September 1919 in Omaha, Nebraska. Photograph: SeM/UIG via Getty Images.

Stevenson took his inspiration in part from the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, believing that a single, national memorial was the most effective way to depict the scale of the horror. Germany and South Africa have done a far better job than the United States of confronting their horrific pasts, even if elements of those ugly legacies seem to be on the rise again in both countries. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a breakthrough first step for the U. S. in confronting the evils of its past—and its present too, of course.

But this particular evil had a distinctly local face as well. Whole families would make a festive outing of a lynching, the kids running around with horrific grins on their grimy little faces, the adults smiling malevolently. This was evil with a lasting legacy, still very much with us today.

Even so, the memorial offers some reasons for optimism. The site also houses duplicates of every one of the steel columns, which are intended to travel to the counties where the lynchings were carried out. People in those counties can request “their” column, but to do so they must demonstrate that they have made efforts in their communities to “address racial and economic injustice.”

Dozens of these requests have already been made.

 

 

Open Source Writing

I will acknowledge at the beginning that articles such as this one can be viewed as a distraction from, or evasion of, “real” writing. And God knows I have several projects I should be working on instead. But I find the tools writers use to be a fascinating subject (and I’m not the only one). Moreover, the focus of this piece—using open source tools to do your work—strikes me as especially timely in light of recent concerns about the intersection of commercialization, privacy and technology. I think most writers should find something of interest below.

This article, then, will provide a brief evaluation of a number of open source programs designed for writers. The one prerequisite for inclusion here is that such programs run on Linux. While I do much of my work on a Mac (which remains, in many ways, the “creative” platform), Linux has become increasingly important in terms of autonomy, freedom from commercial exploitation and privacy (Tim Cook’s protestations notwithstanding). The OS is in the process of becoming quite a decent platform for writers, as well.

My dual-monitor Linux desktop, showing various open source apps.
My dual-monitor Linux desktop, showing various open source apps.

 

 

 

 

I’ll mention a few commercial writers’ programs up front, just for contrast. One of the problems with proprietary software is clearly demonstrated by the recent decision of Ulysses to employ a subscription model. I regard this form of pricing as a kind of extortion: pay us a monthly fee, or else. Unfortunately, this model has become more prevalent in recent years. Blame Adobe, the company that started it all. Microsoft isn’t helping, either.

Another potential problem with proprietary software involves security and privacy. Not every software maker is as transparent as it could or should be, and there are times when you should be very cautious as a consequence. For example, I was initially  impressed by the program Write!, which I’ve mentioned more than once on this site. But the program’s developers have not offered any public transparency concerning their location and personnel (both are potential issues), and the program itself still requires you to log in order to use it, which is both unnecessary and quite dubious from a privacy and security standpoint. I no longer use this software and can’t recommend it.

Not every proprietary program is potentially hazardous or exploitative to use, though—Scrivener is generally exemplary in its pricing, customer relations and overall quality. As I noted in my recent review of Scrivener 3, the program looks as though it will run fine under Wine on Linux, and I will be happy to buy a license to use it there, as well as on my Mac. But Scrivener is arguably an exception. You’re likely to encounter pitfalls of one sort or another with much commercial software, not least an endless, too-frequent “upgrade” cycle. Free and open source software is another paradigm altogether.

OK, then. Let’s start our survey with LibreOffice Writer, an extremely capable word processor that in my opinion renders Microsoft Word unnecessary for the majority of writers. Yes, Word remains the publishing “standard” for both books and periodicals. But Writer is so adept at producing compatible .doc and .docx files that Word really isn’t necessary in this context. Writer’s Track Changes feature operates seamlessly with Word’s, at least in my experience, and formatting for novels, short fiction and poetry is straightforward enough that compatibility issues are a thing of the past. It wouldn’t hurt you to have Word available for some unforeseen contingency but as a writer you really don’t need it. And Writer is available on Mac and Windows, as well as Linux (the same is true for all of the software mentioned below).

What’s more, Writer can be customized for particular needs. There is a terrific plugin called Organon which turns Writer into a Scrivener-like tool for novelists which can organize your work by chapter, scene or section and also give you a place to store notes on characters, locations, etc.

Here's a novel first draft in LibreOffice Writer. The Organon plugin enables the book to be conveniently organized by chapter.
Here’s the first draft of a novel in LibreOffice Writer. The Organon plugin enables the book to be conveniently organized by chapter.
Organon's Organizer feature provides storage for synopses, character/location notes, images and more.
Organon’s Organizer feature provides storage for synopses, character/location notes, images and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For shorter work, look no further than Graeme Gott’s excellent FocusWriter. This is a very attractive distraction-free writing program that can handle switching between individual scenes or chapters and also offers basic tools like daily goals and the ability to save to .rtf and .odt formats. FocusWriter deserves a review of its own, which I’ll try to provide at some point.

The following three programs try to do what Scrivener does so well: provide an environment conducive to longer creative work, especially novels. None of them can yet equal Scrivener but they are surprisingly capable in their different ways.

Bibisco (I have no idea what this name means, but it sounds nice, like biscuits and cookies) is open source software from Andrea Feccomandi in Italy which is aimed at novelists. It is very much oriented toward planners rather than “pantsers” (as in “seat-of-the-pants” writing born of experience and instinct). The program asks you to define your characters and their desires in quite extensive detail before you begin writing, although of course you can choose to ignore this. Such extensive preparatory organization will suit many people; it doesn’t match the way I work (though I do appreciate having a section to define characters in briefer detail). Other sections are devoted to narrative strands and locations and the program does a decent job of exporting to .pdf and .rtf formats, though some after-export tweaking may be necessary.

Bibisco: various scenes in a short story draft.
Bibisco: various scenes in a short story draft.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibisco is Java-based and comes with its own runtime. It is the least attractive of the three programs we’re discussing here, in my opinion, and also the most rigid—there is no full-screen option, for example, let alone a distraction-free environment. The main editing/writing window is rather small and can’t be resized. Nevertheless, if you can work within the software’s current constraints it does offer all the basics that planning a long work of fiction requires. Many people seem to like it and I think it does show some definite promise.

Bibisco's editing/writing area, with chapters/scenes shown on the side.
Bibisco’s editing/writing area, with chapters/scenes shown on the side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Manuskript and Plume Creator are more to my taste, both in the way they work and in their appearance. Both of these applications also come from Europe and were developed by Olivier Keshavjee (Manuskript) and Cyril Jacquet (Plume Creator).

Let’s check Plume Creator first. The application is organized logically, with the editing/writing space prominent in the center and various tools located in panels to either side. The right panel can be hidden entirely and there is a distraction-free full-screen mode available. Many other tools in various stages of development are also available—for example, there is a “Workbench” view you can overlay on the main interface in which you can provide synopses, notes, POV and status for various scenes. Workbench is somewhat akin to the Organizer view in Writer’s Organon plugin.

There is also a separate, standalone Notes area—Plume Creator is in development and many features are still being sorted out. Despite this, the program seems quite stable and it offers a great deal of flexibility in how you arrange things.

The Plume Creator interface, with tools to either side of the writing workspace.

 

 

 

 

 

The program offers an attractive dark theme as an alternative to the light theme shown above, and as already noted there is a distraction-free mode. This lets you shift from scene to scene while still in full-screen view: quite handy.

Plume Creator lets you move from scene to scene while in distraction-free mode.
Plume Creator lets you move from scene to scene while in distraction-free mode.

 

 

 

 

 

BTW, that red highlight on the 4,052 word count is to let me know that the story’s draft exceeds its target of 4,000 words. Again, quite handy. Plume Creator does an excellent job of autosaving your work and a credible job of exporting to .pdf and .odt (minor tweaking may be required). Given that this software has yet to reach version 1.0, it is quite impressive—I like it a lot.

But my favorite of the three open source Scrivener-inspired programs we’re examining here is Manuskript.

Like Plume Creator, Manuskript is logically organized with the writing area centered between two side tool panels. In this case, the left panel can disappear entirely while the right panel can be minimized. There is an excellent full-screen, distraction-free mode (borrowed from FocusWriter) which can be customized.

The Manuskript interface, Note the diverse information in the Metadata panel at right.
The Manuskript interface. Note the diverse information in the Metadata panel at right.

 

 

 

 

 

Manuskript, again like Plume Creator, is still working toward version 1.0. But the program seems very stable and I feel pretty confident my work is safe while using it (likewise with Plume Creator). I prefer Manuskript for its somewhat more intuitive organizational scheme and its somewhat greater flexibility; the program just “feels right” to me and I also think it looks more attractive than the other two.

A customized distraction-free theme in Manuskript. The bottom status bar with word count appears on mouseover.
A customized distraction-free theme in Manuskript. The bottom status bar with word count appears on mouseover.

 

 

 

 

 

Where Manuskript does fall down somewhat is in its exporting performance; both Bibisco and Plume Creator do a better job at present. Manuskript uses Pandoc to export (or “compile,” as Scrivener does) to a wide range of formats, including .epub, .odt, .docx, .pdf and even LaTeX. But there seems to be some sort of mismatch with Pandoc when exporting from Manuskript’s graphical interface. I’ve discovered a workaround of sorts on a Manuskript GitHub page: simply export to plain .txt format, then use Pandoc on the command line, like so:

pandoc -s -o myprj-output.odt myprj-export.txt

where “myprj” is the name of your Manuskript project. This will give you a LibreOffice Open Document file that at least separates your scenes properly. A more direct solution is to simply copy-and-paste finished scenes from Manuskript into LibreOffice Writer. I feel confident the developer will improve the export function in future versions of the program.

And there you have it: a (relatively) brief overview of today’s most popular open source creative writing tools. Since all of these programs are available for both Windows and Mac you can easily try any of them that pique your interest. With luck, you’ll find a writing app that helps improve your workflow, provides some added privacy/security (as long as you download the software from the developers’ sites linked above) and saves you a bit of money in the process.

 

Wouldn’t It Be Nice?

So I wake up this morning to the cheery retro sound of the Beach Boys on my clock radio: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Hmm—it usually plays Handel. But the Golden Oldie turns out to be a harbinger of better things to come as I drift downstairs for my first cup of coffee and fire up Firefox to check the Times site for the morning news.

A worldwide change of heart. Photo: Wikipedia.
A worldwide change of heart. Photo: Wikipedia.

I can’t believe what I’m reading—it seems as though the whole world has had some sort of spiritual awakening overnight while I slept. I give my coffee cup a suspicious glance—is this my usual blend?—take a cautious sip, and try to assimilate what I see and hear in numerous video clips and read in various breathless reports.

Still dazed, I try jotting down some essential points from all this incredible news. Here, in no particular order, are my notes:

  • Donald Trump announces that he now sees a new way forward to Making America Great Again, and will appoint Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as his closest advisers. He implies that, while he will retain the title of President for the remainder of his term, Sanders and Warren will be running the country on a day-to-day basis.
  • Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan both decide to resign from their respective leadership positions in the Senate and the House, and call upon their Republican colleagues to do the same. “It’s time to make room for more progressive thinking in Congress,” they say in a joint press release.
  • Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un announce that both Russia and North Korea will abandon their nuclear arsenals at the conclusion of the upcoming summit with President Trump in May. “Nuclear weapons have cast a shadow of terror over the world for far too long,” the two leaders say in a coordinated announcement. Other nuclear powers suggest they will follow suit.
  • Benjamin Netanyahu announces his resignation as Prime Minister of Israel, and also presents a comprehensive peace proposal that includes restoring all appropriate Palestinian lands and making generous reparation payments for all who died at the hands of Israeli forces since the nation’s founding. The proposal is widely applauded in the West and the Muslim world alike.
  • Finally, I see that Wayne LaPierre, spokesman for the National Rifle Association, has decided to step down as well. He cites a profound change of heart as the reason, and urges people in general to turn in their guns and hunters to give up their sport. In a press release, P. J. Muddbottom of Barksplit, WI, a hunter, is quoted as saying he agrees with LaPierre and will henceforth stop hunting. “I never did like the way squirrel tasted anyway,” Muddbottom says.

Then I feel a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Wake up,” my wife says. “Here’s some coffee.” Puzzled, I try to point to the cup I already have but it’s not there. My laptop screen is dark. Have I really dreamt all of this?

I thank my wife and start up my computer for what seems the second time. I open the Times home page and see the world is conducting business as usual after all. I rub my eyes. My notepad with all its fantastic good news is nowhere to be seen. My coffee tastes bitter.

It’s April 1, 2018.

Wouldn’t it be nice?

A Lack of Control

This morning’s New York Times carried one of the most telling op-ed pieces I have read in quite some time. It enlightens all the more by its very predictability, coming right on schedule after the latest American mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. The piece is titled “Why Gun Culture Is So Strong in Rural America” and it was written by one Robert Leonard, who is news director for a couple of radio stations in rural Knoxville, Iowa. In it, Leonard attempts to make a case for “understanding” rural conservatives’ “first principles” and “ideals.”

Here’s a sample of Leonard’s argument:

“To my conservative friends, it’s a matter of liberty and personal responsibility. Even after a horrific event like the school shooting in Florida, where 17 people were killed, more gun control would be compromising those first principles. For them, compromising those principles would be even more horrific and detrimental to society than any shooting. What my conservative friends see is not gun control, but rather control, period.” (Emphasis mine.)

And there it is, plain as day: the “freedom” to own a firearm (a “first principle,” based on a distorted but Supreme Court-endorsed interpretation of the Second Amendment) is more important than the freedom to live for the children in Parkland or Newtown. Gun control would harm society more than any number of future mass shootings of children, toddlers, senior citizens and/or assorted men and women. Guns preempt people (at least the people unfortunate enough to be killed by them).

Leonard further explains that “Republicans think the fault lies with the person — the perpetrator of the evil. Bad choices result in bad things being done, in part because the perpetrator lacks the moral guidance the Christian faith provides.”

“The reaction to mass shootings highlights this difference,” he goes on to say. “Liberals blame the guns and want to debate gun control. For conservatives, the blame lies with the shooter, not the gun.”

This is so wrongheaded and simpleminded that it beggars belief. Rational people, liberals included, blame people for these shootings. People are imperfect—this is a universally acknowledged principle, yes? The basic reason that rational people want to impose gun control after these mass shootings is to prevent imperfect people from getting their hands on these weapons. As Britain and Australia have done. As the Scandinavian countries have done. All with demonstrably improved results, i.e., fewer mass shootings (none at all, in Australia’s case).

Grandpa and his gun—a misguided nostalgia. Photo: Reddit.
Grandpa and his gun—a misguided nostalgia. Photo: Reddit.

This is beneficent control. This is society coming together to produce a beneficial outcome for its members at large. It is the very opposite of the cult of the individual that has conservatives under its sway in this country.

There is no such control in America, and thanks to people like Leonard and his friends there likely never will be.

I despise the notion that someone’s “freedom” to own a gun is viewed as more important than someone else’s life.

I despise the fact that Democrats (“liberals”) consistently kowtow to these people, as Connor Lamb just did in Pennsylvania.

I despise the twisted nostalgia that romanticizes gun culture as heritage and a way of life. “It’s been many years since I hunted squirrels and rabbits with my Grandpa Leonard,” the writer says, before fondly recalling that “I retrieved the squirrel, still warm, in the cool Iowa summer morning, and laid it in the pile of four or five he had already shot.” What a tender childhood memory.

I despise our fragmented society for following its predictable path and normalizing the shooting in Parkland, just as it has all the others. You think March For Our Lives will make a difference? Dream on.

I despise the New York Times for running this fallacious argument from the heartland without comment or context.

I despise self-deluded Middle Americans like Robert Leonard and his “conservative” friends. I despise the Republican Party (and the Democrats as well; see above). I despise the National Rifle Association.

I despise rational citizens, including myself, for failing to devise a way to overcome this grotesque American sickness.

But, I do salute Mr. Leonard for his inadvertent public service—his op-ed has made the crux of our cultural divide crystal clear. (I’d like to think this is why the Times published it.) His side (40 to 50% of the country, by most accounts) believes that gun control (merely control, not a ban as many would favor) is more horrific and detrimental to society than any shooting could ever be.

This is what we’re up against. Good God, America—how did we fall so far, so fast?

Scrivener 3 Review

This is a somewhat belated review of Scrivener 3, which was released (for Mac only) last November. Scrivener is the dominant app for novelists and other long-form writers (not counting Word, which is still the publishing industry standard), and this latest update—which was years in the making—brings some important changes.

First, the program’s interface has been significantly improved. Scrivener simply looks better; it seems more modern and up-to-date. This is important, since competitors like Ulysses have long had an aesthetic advantage. Better-looking software seems more inviting and easier to use (even if it’s not), so Scrivener’s visual update is important. And Scrivener 3 is more inviting and easier to use (click the images below to enlarge).

Scrivener 3's 2-binder-page-view, with navigation panel, editor, synopsis and notes. Image: Literature & Latte.
Scrivener 3’s 2-binder-page-view, with navigation panel, editor, synopsis and notes. Image: Literature & Latte.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you might expect, this Swiss Army knife of writing programs has a lot of changes under the hood as well. Here are some of the more important ones:

  • The Compile function has been updated to be more flexible (although I’ve never had a problem with the previous version).
  • “Styles” have been improved (this will be important chiefly to those who self-publish).
  • Index cards can now be viewed on colored threads to differentiate them; this is more like a plot outline than anything Scrivener has offered before.
  • Outlining in general has been enhanced.
  • Up to four documents can be viewed in the main window using “Copyholders” features.
  • You can now see draft and session progress bars in the toolbar.
  • The new “Dialogue Focus” can highlight all the dialog in your text.
  • Scrivener’s codebase has been updated for 64-bit, making the program faster and more stable.
Scrivener 3 view showing navigation panel, outline and editor. Image: Literature & Latte.
Scrivener 3 view showing navigation panel, outline and editor. Image: Literature & Latte.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scrivener’s visual update is important (there’s even a spiffy new logo). But how does it feel to work with the new version?

The new Scrivener logo. Source: Literature & Latte.
The new Scrivener logo. Source: Literature & Latte.

 

 

 

 

 

Quite nice, actually. Scrivener has always had the ability to focus on just your words (it’s called “Composition Mode”), and this view is slicker and more useful than ever. It’s customizable, and it lets you access the Scrivener toolbar by moving your mouse to the top of the screen and access a word count and other helpful features by moving your mouse to the bottom. Plus, Composition Mode is very attractive at its default setting (which you can modify to your heart’s content).

Scrivener's Composition mode at its default setting. Image: Thomas Pletcher.
Scrivener’s Composition mode at its default setting. Image: Thomas Pletcher.

 

 

 

 

 

The chief complaint I’ve heard about Scrivener over the years concerns its complexity—there are so many tools available that the program can seem quite daunting, especially to newcomers. I think version 3 mitigates this to some extent with its compelling visual makeover. And in point of fact, you’re not required to use all the tools Scrivener provides. You can set up the program to simply work with chapters or scenes and forgo all the extras if this seems more appealing. This will give you a work environment much like Ulysses, but without that program’s unfortunate monthly subscription fee.

Actually, I suspect that for most professional writers Scrivener’s chief competitor is Word. Word contains its own universe of tools and options, but many people are accustomed to using it simply to outline and write. Scrivener can be used in similar fashion, but it provides a significantly more attractive environment for writing (and it exports to Word flawlessly when you’re ready to submit your work).

If you have Scrivener 2, an upgrade to version 3 costs $25. If you’re purchasing Scrivener for the first time, you’ll pay $45. In both cases, this is money very well spent.

Scrivener is cross-platform and version 3 for Windows is due sometime later this year. If you buy the current Windows version now ($45) the upgrade to version 3 will be free.

A couple of final notes. First, Scrivener 3 is not backward-compatible with the previous version, but this turns out not to be much of a problem—the program thoughtfully creates a backup in the old file format when it converts your work to version 3. You can go back and forth between the two versions, in other words. Second, there is a beta version of version 3 available for Windows now. I’m delighted to report that it works fine in Wine on my Linux system (and presumably on Windows itself as well). Scrivener originally had a Linux beta available, but as a small company Literature & Latte decided to suspend Linux development and focus on Mac and Windows (and iOS) instead. I commend them for taking pains to make sure Scrivener 3 can still be run on Linux, through Wine compatibility.

Scrivener 3 is an important upgrade and writers at every level should benefit from its improvements.

Love Poem

How does one cope with today’s endless stream of poisonous news? People have wide-ranging methods, none of which completely suffice. They console or goad one another on Facebook. They distract themselves with a binge-worthy streaming series or a good book. They (quite reasonably) decide to get drunk or high on occasion.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker tells himself, and us, that life is actually getting better in his new book, Enlightenment Now.

I decided to post this love poem, a bit belatedly after Valentine’s Day. The poem originally appeared in Antiphon’s Issue 21 last year.

New York's High Line. Photo: jharchitecture.
New York’s High Line. Photo: jharchitecture.

 

 

 

 

 

“High”

Sometimes I wish I were still back
in the city, astonished to find her
standing tremulous outside the door of
my fifth floor walk-up, radiating belief
and determination. Yes and yes and yes

and yes again, as a sudden cascade of
comprehension sweeps my wits away.
I feel my soft defenses dissolve
in a quickly rising light that seems to come
from everywhere as we embrace

and exchange our silent vows. The glow
envelops us and cushions us and lifts us up
to float on a stream of bodily joy
down the narrow stairwell to the streets below.

And now the city’s raucous throb drifts
outside as we walk hand-in-hand within our cloud
along the crowded sidewalk, awash in reflected
traffic lights, illuminated windows and the shimmer
of a thousand strangers’ eyes, who recognize us

and yet do not. We breathe in and leap up,
far above New York, to a night sky High Line
where our bodies feel free
to stroll forever
weightless and without pain.
We are amazed how time has flown.
We would do anything to fly again.

—Thomas Pletcher

Should Fiction Get Its Facts Straight?

This may be an aesthetic question, or perhaps it’s a question of craft. Maybe it’s both. Put simply, the question is: how important is it for a fiction writer to get the facts straight—particularly the technical facts?

As someone now writing fiction who has previously worked in technology, I probably have a special interest in the question. For me, flubbing a bit of technical description brings the narrative to a crashing halt. It also undermines the writer’s credibility to some degree, depending on the writer’s overall talent and the power of his or her narrative. (The same would be true, I believe, if a writer botched the terminology or tools of medicine or law.)

Granted, writers have a built-in license to modify anything in the interest of the story, so I should be clear: I’m speaking about inadvertent mistakes when describing technology in the course of the narrative.

Fortune Smiles—an exceptional collection with a few technical bobbles.
An exceptional collection with a few technical bobbles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I should also note that I’m not referring to the kind of genre fiction where facts already seem secondary. For example, I’m not speaking of a fantasy novel like The Book of Joan, where technology in general is lazily glossed over—the author doesn’t regard specifics or plausibility as important and her readers likely don’t, either.

The writer who raised this question of technical accuracy for me most recently is instead an extremely talented generalist, who has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. I’m speaking of Adam Johnson, and specifically of the story “Dark Meadow” from the National Book Award-winning collection Fortune Smiles.

“Dark Meadow” is a compelling and disturbing tale of a pedophile (“made,” not “born”; his own abuse as a child contributed to his sexual development) who is trying hard to purge his urges. The narrator (who was nicknamed “Dark Meadow” by his molester) works out of his home as a kind of jack-of-all-trades computer technician; people hire him to repair, troubleshoot and secure their systems. But in the meantime Dark Meadow himself has disconnected the internet in his own house, and is whittling down his collection of child pornography photos to almost nothing—he crops pictures so that only a pair of eyes, a hand, or some other non-sexual detail is all that remains. And before the story has finished he will dismantle his computer completely and destroy its hard drive.

The technical errors in Dark Meadow’s narrative could be viewed as minor—for one thing, a solid majority of readers probably won’t be aware of them at all. And even for those who are, the errors ultimately don’t wreck the story; Johnson’s work is too well-wrought in every other respect for that. Still, the errors are troubling.

Here’s an example: “I stopped using Tor, eDonkey and Fetch.” These are three different kinds of technology that don’t plausibly fit together for a child pornagraphy addict. Tor, which provides a degree of online anonymity, yes; though Tails would have been a more appropriate choice. eDonkey and Fetch, no. eDonkey is a file-sharing network but would have been risky to use; Fetch is an old Mac FTP client (though it’s since been updated) that dates all the way back to the 80s and would have been riskier still. Plus, the name itself seems dated. Several lines later, Dark Meadow references his “Fetch Dropbox,” conflating the FTP program with the popular online storage service. (You can set up Fetch to link to Dropbox, which I suppose is what Johnson means here. But Dropbox is not particularly secure either, unless you provide your own encryption.)

As I said, these are small errors. But, with a writer of Johnson’s stature, they bother me. “Dark Meadow” was published in Tin House in issue 60 (Summer 2014); apparently no one at the literary magazine had the technical chops to question these usages. And when the story was incorporated into the Fortune Smiles collection published the following year by Random House, no one there seemed to offer any suggestions, either. Did Johnson himself ask for technical guidance at any point? He’s based at Stanford, so nearby expertise is certainly plentiful.

To answer my own question, then: yes, writers should get their facts straight. And given the ubiquitous role technology plays in life today, that goes double for tech references.

Can AI Save Us?

In absolute terms, humanity hasn’t been around very long at all. From our own perspective, though, evolution seems to be taking an eternity. As a species, we remain profoundly stupid.

We haven’t learned to share, or to work toward our common interests. We befoul our own nest. We continue to develop weapons which threaten annihilation. With every small step forward made by an Einstein, a Beethoven, a Tolstoy, the species as a whole has trouble following. We lurch toward progress, then rapidly retreat again—witness the 2016 U. S. election.

Superintelligence, by Nick Bostrom (Oxford University Press, 2014). Is it the answer, or the end?
Superintelligence, by Nick Bostrom (Oxford University Press, 2014). Is it the answer, or the end?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do we need somebody—or something—smarter to step in and take charge? AI may fit the bill, especially artificial intelligence of the “superintelligence” variety discussed in Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s thought-provoking book of the same name.

But of course, as with all things human, the answer is not so straightforward. You may have read that scientific and tech luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have sounded warnings about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence technology. Indeed, Musk calls AI an “existential threat” to human civilization and has co-founded OpenAI, a non-profit, open-source AI research company, to try to foster collaboration in developing “friendly AI” as a result.

Bostrom sounds an alarm in Superintelligence, as well. The concern is that research into and continued development of AI might lead to an “intelligence explosion” that would create an entity or entities so much smarter than us that we would become redundant and dispensable. Bostrom has coined the term “Singleton” to designate such an all-controlling superintelligence. A “bad” Singleton would be the end of us.

However, a vein of optimism runs through Superintelligence, too. Bostrom believes, or would like to believe, that humanity has a potential “cosmic endowment” which could be realized through a benign superintelligence. He acknowledges that the odds would seem to be against this, and likens humanity and superintelligence to a child with an undetonated bomb in its hands. The core problem is one of control: how do we create a superintelligence that will not jettison humanity but rather work to enhance it?

We must, Bostrom says, “hold on to our humanity … maintain our groundedness, common sense, and good-humored decency even in the teeth of this most unnatural and inhuman problem. We need to bring all our human resourcefulness to bear on its solution.” This is, Bostrom maintains, “the essential task of our age.”

At a moment in history when bellicosity and benightedness are ascendant, this is a very tall order indeed. Yet contemplating Bostrom’s suggested cosmic endowment is a worthwhile exercise in staving off despair. One must hope there remain enough intelligent and altruistic people at work in the field of AI (and in every other important field) to make envisioning a better future viable.

Trump and Stalin

Below, the text of a speech delivered by retiring Senator Jeff Flake  (R-Arizona) earlier today. The occasion: Trump’s farcical announcement of “Fake Media Awards.” The Senator’s speech is a thoughtful, high-minded critique of Trump’s dangerous behavior requiring no further comment. Except: While I admire Flake for this speech, I feel his criticism of our sitting President could have been much harsher still. Trump is a reprehensible piece of shit* who is in the process of destroying this country. He needs to be called out as such, and stopped.

Senator Jeff Flake. Photo: U.S. Senate.
Senator Jeff Flake. Photo: U.S. Senate.

 

 

 

 

The speech:

Mr. President, near the beginning of the document that made us free, our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” So, from our very beginnings, our freedom has been predicated on truth. The founders were visionary in this regard, understanding well that good faith and shared facts between the governed and the government would be the very basis of this ongoing idea of America.

As the distinguished former member of this body, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, famously said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” During the past year, I am alarmed to say that Senator Moynihan’s proposition has likely been tested more severely than at any time in our history.

It is for that reason that I rise today, to talk about the truth, and its relationship to democracy. For without truth, and a principled fidelity to truth and to shared facts, Mr. President, our democracy will not last.

2017 was a year which saw the truth — objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine “alternative facts” into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted. “The enemy of the people,” was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017.

Mr. President, it is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies. It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase “enemy of the people,” that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of “annihilating such individuals” who disagreed with the supreme leader.

This alone should be a source of great shame for us in this body, especially for those of us in the president’s party. For they are shameful, repulsive statements. And, of course, the president has it precisely backward – despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him “fake news,” it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.

I dare say that anyone who has the privilege and awesome responsibility to serve in this chamber knows that these reflexive slurs of “fake news” are dubious, at best. Those of us who travel overseas, especially to war zones and other troubled areas around the globe, encounter members of U.S. based media who risk their lives, and sometimes lose their lives, reporting on the truth. To dismiss their work as fake news is an affront to their commitment and their sacrifice.

According to the International Federation of Journalists, 80 journalists were killed in 2017, and a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists documents that the number of journalists imprisoned around the world has reached 262, which is a new record. This total includes 21 reporters who are being held on “false news” charges.

Mr. President, so powerful is the presidency that the damage done by the sustained attack on the truth will not be confined to the president’s time in office. Here in America, we do not pay obeisance to the powerful – in fact, we question the powerful most ardently – to do so is our birthright and a requirement of our citizenship — and so, we know well that no matter how powerful, no president will ever have dominion over objective reality.

No politician will ever get to tell us what the truth is and is not. And anyone who presumes to try to attack or manipulate the truth to his own purposes should be made to realize the mistake and be held to account. That is our job here. And that is just as Madison, Hamilton, and Jay would have it.
Of course, a major difference between politicians and the free press is that the press usually corrects itself when it gets something wrong. Politicians don’t.

No longer can we compound attacks on truth with our silent acquiescence. No longer can we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to these assaults on our institutions. And Mr. President, an American president who cannot take criticism – who must constantly deflect and distort and distract – who must find someone else to blame — is charting a very dangerous path. And a Congress that fails to act as a check on the president adds to the danger.

Now, we are told via Twitter that today the president intends to announce his choice for the “most corrupt and dishonest” media awards. It beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle. But here we are.

And so, 2018 must be the year in which the truth takes a stand against power that would weaken it. In this effort, the choice is quite simple. And in this effort, the truth needs as many allies as possible. Together, my colleagues, we are powerful. Together, we have it within us to turn back these attacks, right these wrongs, repair this damage, restore reverence for our institutions, and prevent further moral vandalism.

Together, united in the purpose to do our jobs under the Constitution, without regard to party or party loyalty, let us resolve to be allies of the truth — and not partners in its destruction.

It is not my purpose here to inventory all of the official untruths of the past year. But a brief survey is in order. Some untruths are trivial – such as the bizarre contention regarding the crowd size at last year’s inaugural.

But many untruths are not at all trivial – such as the seminal untruth of the president’s political career – the oft-repeated conspiracy about the birthplace of President Obama. Also not trivial are the equally pernicious fantasies about rigged elections and massive voter fraud, which are as destructive as they are inaccurate – to the effort to undermine confidence in the federal courts, federal law enforcement, the intelligence community and the free press, to perhaps the most vexing untruth of all – the supposed “hoax” at the heart of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

To be very clear, to call the Russia matter a “hoax” – as the president has many times – is a falsehood. We know that the attacks orchestrated by the Russian government during the election were real and constitute a grave threat to both American sovereignty and to our national security. It is in the interest of every American to get to the bottom of this matter, wherever the investigation leads.

Ignoring or denying the truth about hostile Russian intentions toward the United States leaves us vulnerable to further attacks. We are told by our intelligence agencies that those attacks are ongoing, yet it has recently been reported that there has not been a single cabinet-level meeting regarding Russian interference and how to defend America against these attacks. Not one. What might seem like a casual and routine untruth – so casual and routine that it has by now become the white noise of Washington – is in fact a serious lapse in the defense of our country.

Mr. President, let us be clear. The impulses underlying the dissemination of such untruths are not benign. They have the effect of eroding trust in our vital institutions and conditioning the public to no longer trust them. The destructive effect of this kind of behavior on our democracy cannot be overstated.

Mr. President, every word that a president utters projects American values around the world. The values of free expression and a reverence for the free press have been our global hallmark, for it is our ability to freely air the truth that keeps our government honest and keeps a people free. Between the mighty and the modest, truth is the great leveler. And so, respect for freedom of the press has always been one of our most important exports.

But a recent report published in our free press should raise an alarm. Reading from the story:
“In February…Syrian President Bashar Assad brushed off an Amnesty International report that some 13,000 people had been killed at one of his military prisons by saying, “You can forge anything these days, we are living in a fake news era.”

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has complained of being “demonized” by “fake news.” Last month, the report continues, with our President, quote “laughing by his side” Duterte called reporters “spies.”

In July, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro complained to the Russian propaganda outlet, that the world media had “spread lots of false versions, lots of lies” about his country, adding, “This is what we call ‘fake news’ today, isn’t it?”

There are more:

“A state official in Myanmar recently said, “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news,” referring to the persecuted ethnic group.

Leaders in Singapore, a country known for restricting free speech, have promised “fake news” legislation in the new year.”

And on and on. This feedback loop is disgraceful, Mr. President. Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language. This is reprehensible.

We are not in a “fake news” era, as Bashar Assad says. We are, rather, in an era in which the authoritarian impulse is reasserting itself, to challenge free people and free societies, everywhere.

In our own country, from the trivial to the truly dangerous, it is the range and regularity of the untruths we see that should be cause for profound alarm, and spur to action. Add to that the by-now predictable habit of calling true things false, and false things true, and we have a recipe for disaster. As George Orwell warned, “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.”

Any of us who have spent time in public life have endured news coverage we felt was jaded or unfair. But in our positions, to employ even idle threats to use laws or regulations to stifle criticism is corrosive to our democratic institutions. Simply put: it is the press’s obligation to uncover the truth about power. It is the people’s right to criticize their government. And it is our job to take it.

What is the goal of laying siege to the truth? President John F. Kennedy, in a stirring speech on the 20th anniversary of the Voice of America, was eloquent in answer to that question:
“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

Mr. President, the question of why the truth is now under such assault may well be for historians to determine. But for those who cherish American constitutional democracy, what matters is the effect on America and her people and her standing in an increasingly unstable world — made all the more unstable by these very fabrications. What matters is the daily disassembling of our democratic institutions.

We are a mature democracy – it is well past time that we stop excusing or ignoring – or worse, endorsing — these attacks on the truth. For if we compromise the truth for the sake of our politics, we are lost.

I sincerely thank my colleagues for their indulgence today. I will close by borrowing the words of an early adherent to my faith that I find has special resonance at this moment. His name was John Jacques, and as a young missionary in England he contemplated the question: “What is truth?” His search was expressed in poetry and ultimately in a hymn that I grew up with, titled “Oh Say, What is Truth.” It ends as follows:

“Then say, what is truth? ‘Tis the last and the first,
For the limits of time it steps o’er.
Tho the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst.
Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,
Eternal… unchanged… evermore.”

Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.

 

* Were the President anyone other than who he is, I wouldn’t use this sort of language. But if he can use “shithole” to describe the home countries of many Americans, I feel free to use “piece of shit” to describe him.

 

 

An Incredibly Taxing Year

So, Doug Jones prevailed against the odds in Alabama. This is a legitimate reason to feel optimistic, but just for a while. The Democratic win in the Deep South came under unusual circumstances and against a spectacularly flawed Republican candidate—it is no reason for the Democratic Party to feel overly confident about its prospects next year. Besides, there are too many other problems out there that challenge our frayed two-party system to warrant celebrating one unexpected swing of the pendulum.

Trump: "A giant tax cut for Christmas." Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times.
Trump: “A giant tax cut for Christmas.” Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times.

 

 

 

 

 

A few days ago I received an email from MomsRising, a generally progressive pro-family group. It cited five actions its million-plus members should take this week. They were:

  • Tell FCC and Congress: Protect Net Neutrality! (Net neutrality was killed today, by a 3-2 FCC vote along party lines.)
  • Sign Up to Deliver a Tax Letter to Your Local Members of Congress’ office! (Well, I suppose anything can still happen but it’s generally conceded that some sort of favor-the-rich, screw-everyone-else GOP tax bill is going to be signed into law before Christmas.)
  • Urge NO on National Concealed Carry Reciprocity! (There is still some hope we can stop this insane House legislation.)
  • Be an #ACAdefender for Open Enrollment 2017! (This seems to be working; there is strong demand for Affordable Care Act enrollment before the December 15 cutoff.)
  • Protect DREAMers. (There remains a chance the 800,000 young adults in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program may be able to stay past the current March 5, 2018 deadline. Here is an instance where the Doug Jones victory may actually help achieve a concrete result.)

Needless to say, the MomsRising list is by no means complete. The Republicans continue to dismantle almost every government agency they get their hands on, with dreadful consequences for the environment and Americans’ general well-being, and the insufficiently publicized danger of a nuclear exchange continues to grow. (At least the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) won the Nobel Peace Prize this year.)

But, it’s the holidays! Enough doom and gloom, at least for the moment. Let’s try to look on the bright side, enjoy what’s good in our individual lives, and hope that some degree of civic sanity can be restored in the coming year.