On Twitter, Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others

“There continues to be meaningful public conversation about how we think about Tweets from world leaders on our service,” begins a post at the micro-blogging service’s non-micro-blog.

In summary, certain Super Very Important Special People (“world leaders”) are exempt from Twitter’s rules, but henceforth Regular Normal Completely Unimportant People (like you and me) are subject to new rules. We can’t like, reply, share or retweet rules-violating tweets from Super Very Important Special People.

“We understand the desire for our decisions to be ‘yes/no’ binaries,” the blog post continues, “but it’s not that simple …. Our goal is to enforce our rules judiciously and impartially.”

Well, yes, it is that simple. Impartiality in rules is the exact opposite of  dividing Twitter users into two classes, one of  them subject to the rules, one of them not.

In their great and unmatched wisdom, Twitter’s owners have over time moved to police speech on their platform in various ways.

They don’t HAVE to do that, at least in the US — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects them from legal liability for user-created content under most circumstances.

There’s not even any particularly good reason to police user content, since the service’s “block” option allows users to ignore (by not seeing) content from other users whose opinions or language offend.

But hey,  OK, fine — Twitter is a privately owned service, not a public square, and its owners are entitled to set any rules they care to set for its use.

On the other hand, it’s neither judicious nor impartial to make some rules, then announce exemptions from those rules for Super Very Important Special People while heaping new rules on Normal Completely Unimportant People to keep us from acting like Super Very Important Special People.

Not judicious. Not impartial. In fact, pretty [insert your preferred non-newspaper-safe expletive here] offensive.

The Super Very Important Special People already have their own bully pulpits from which to yell anything they like and be heard and obeyed. We Normal Completely Unimportant People don’t get to hold press conferences in front of news cameras on the White House lawn in Washington, or on the front stoop at 10 Downing Street in London, or on the steps of the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.

Twitter keeps making itself less useful to most of us in order to curry favor with a few. That’s not just injudicious and partial, it’s a bad business plan.

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Mao Is Murder

 

Mao Zedong’s most famous aphorism could well be, “Revolution is not a dinner party.”  But perhaps he should have said, “Revolution is a dinner party where the main course is human flesh.”  Here’s one gripping episode from Frank Dikötter’s The Tragedy of Liberation.

In April 1948, the communists advanced towards Changchun itself. Led by Lin Biao, a gaunt man who had trained at the Whampoa Military Academy, they laid siege to the city. Lin was considered one of the best battlefield commanders and a brilliant strategist. He was also ruthless. When he realised that Zheng Dongguo, the defending commander in Changchun, would not capitulate, he ordered the city to be starved into surrender. On 30 May 1948 came his command: ‘Turn Changchun into a city of death.’

Inside Changchun were some 500,000 civilians, many of them refugees who had fled the communist advance and were trapped in their journey south to Beijing after the railway lines had been cut. A hundred thousand nationalist troops were also garrisoned inside the city. Curfew was imposed almost immediately, keeping people indoors from eight at night to five in the morning. All able-bodied men were made to dig trenches. Nobody was allowed to leave. People who refused to be searched by sentries were liable to be shot on the spot. Yet an air of goodwill still prevailed in the first weeks of the siege, as emergency supplies were dropped by air. Some of the well-to-do even established a Changchun Mobilisation Committee, supplying sweets and cigarettes, comforting the wounded and setting up tea stalls for the men.

But soon the situation deteriorated. Changchun became an isolated island, beleaguered by 200,000 communist troops who dug tunnel defences and cut off the underground water supply to the city. Two dozen anti-aircraft guns and heavy artillery bombarded the city all day long, concentrating their fire on government buildings. The nationalists built three defensive lines of pillboxes around Changchun. Between the nationalists and the communists lay a vast no man’s land soon taken over by bandits.

On 12 June 1948 Chiang Kai-shek cabled an order reversing the ban on people leaving the city. Even without enemy fire, his planes could not possibly parachute in enough supplies to meet the needs of an entire city. But the anti-aircraft artillery of the communists forced them to fly at an altitude of 3,000 metres. Many of the airdrops landed outside the area controlled by the nationalists. In order to prevent a famine, the national­ists encouraged the populace to head for the countryside. Once they had left they were not allowed back, as they could not be fed…

Few ever made it past the communist lines.  Lin Biao had placed a sentry every 50 metres along barbed wire and trenches 4 metres deep.  Every exit was blocked.  He reported back to Mao: ‘We don’t allow the refugees to leave and exhort them to turn back. This method was very effective in the beginning, but later the famine got worse, and starving civilians would leave the city in droves at all times of day and night, and after we turned them down they started gathering in the area between our troops and the enemy.’

What was the point of this cruelty?  Victory:

By the end of June, some 30,000 people were caught in the area between the communists, who would not allow them to pass, and the nationalists, who refused to let them back in the city.  Hundreds dried every day.  Two months later, more than 150,000 civilians were pressed inside the death zone, reduced to eating grass and leaves, doomed to slow starvation.

[…]

Soldiers absconded throughout the siege.  Unlike the civilians who were driven back, they were welcomed by the communists and promised good food and lenient treatment.

And victory was indeed achieved:

Hailed in China’s history books as a decisive victory in the battle of Manchuria, the fall of Changchun came at huge cost, as an estimated 160,000 civilians were starved to death inside the area besieged by the communists.  ‘Changchun was like Hiroshima,’ wrote Zhang Zhenglong, a lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army who documented the siege.  ‘The casualties were about the same.  Hiroshima took nine seconds; Changchun took five months.’

Victory, however, was the basis for decades of tyranny and tragedy.  Why?  Because the Maoists, devoted followers of Lenin, only practiced “By any means necessary” when trying to gain and hold power.  Otherwise, their motto was, “Whatever strikes our fancy.”

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Straightforward Communication

The world is wild and zany these days.

Everyone is bombastic. The brands of public figures are extreme and do stuff that would once have seemed shocking. We’ve learned the rules of the internet and social platforms like Twitter and taken them near their logical ends.

When the three point line was introduced to the NBA, it took several decades for old talent and coaching to master the full implications of the rule change and take the game to its current state, the logical conclusion of spots on the court worth 50% more than others.

People master the incentive structures they’re in. But it takes time and sometimes generation shift.

Now that we’re fully exploiting the incentive structure of social media, we get what we’ve got.

Hot takes. Trolling. Subterfuge. Memes. Weird causes. Signaling. Outrage. Counter-outrage.

Every crazy sounding thing can be played as a subtle form of strategy, or a secret code for followers at the expense of noobs.

I don’t find this good or bad. But I do find it a bit boring.

What was novel and wild is now kind of tiring. Everyone sounds the same to me now. And they sound the same while not really saying anything. Or at least not anything interesting. They are shouting and flashing big neon lights but my senses are adapted to a noisy, bright environment.

It feels like a lot of pretend ideas, pretend concern, and scripted formats for communicating them for maximum punch. Which ends up having the reverse effect.

Maybe this is one of those “medium is the message” things, but I don’t think it likely. I think the message feels lost in the medium. I’m hungry for interesting messages, not just mastered mediums.

I’m not sure exactly what a less boring stream of discourse and idea would look like. I only know that I’m getting more bored by what’s considered controversial or provocative. Supposedly polarized people all sound the same to me.

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The Silver Lining of Social Media’s Negativity Obsession

Shockingly evil things + news often seem to defeat good things + good news in the war for human attention, especially on social media, TV, etc.

There’s one silver lining to all this, though:

The good is going to have to become that much better to stand out and win. Good people are going to have to work harder, and that’s probably a good thing.

To drown out the shockingly evil stuff, the people doing the good stuff are going to have to create and do things that are themselves *shockingly* good and moral and beautiful.

Our morality (if it survives) is going to pack on some serious muscle. And it’s going to emerge on the other end of this dark media/negativity monsoon as a stronger force in the world – if all of us do our part.

And what’s more, extraordinary courage, kindness, decency, honesty, and fairness are going to be rewarded with our attention like never before. There’s no clickbait like the clickbait of shocking, transcendent human goodness.

(P.S. I’m a big fan of small goodnesses, too. But I think we’re going to have to up our game in a few ways).

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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September 11, 2001

This year I wasn’t going to mention “9/11”. And I didn’t on that anniversary. I thought I had blogged about my own experiences of that day years ago, but apparently, I never have. Ammo.com had sent me their article on the event, and I wrote back saying I wasn’t going to mention it this year. But I guess I will after all. Just a little late.

In 2001 I was living in north-eastern Pennsylvania (“NEPA”), working in a small shop which built custom picture frames and framed art for Manhattan art galleries. New York City was about an hour and a half away, according to those who went there (I never did).

The shop sent a truck into NYC every Tuesday and Wednesday evening to deliver frames and framed art and pick up our work for the next week. Our schedule was always tight. On the morning of September 11, we were all working like we did any other morning.

A couple of people had radios at their work tables and one of them announced that she had just heard that a plane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center. I commented that it was an odd coincidence that such an emergency (a “9-1-1“) happened on 9/11. I had a radio in the room where I packaged the finished frames and art for the truck (my main job), so I turned it on to see what they were saying.

There wasn’t really much real news about it– they would just talk about “the accident” between songs, speculating on what went wrong and what kind of plane it was (there were differing reports).

Then they came back on and said a plane had just hit the second tower. I said to co-workers “that wasn’t an accident”. We all immediately suspected terrorism. Later they said a plane had hit the Pentagon and more planes had possibly been hijacked; they made it sound like there was a swarm of them (because at that point they just didn’t know anything)– and that there was one “missing” somewhere over PA. I got a little nervous. We were in the middle of nowhere– literally in a cornfield– but as it turned out, Pennsylvania fields weren’t completely safe either.

The radio stopped even trying to play music and went to constant commentary and reports from the scenes.

I was completely stunned to hear when the towers fell, one after the other– I hadn’t believed it possible. Only a little more than a year earlier I had gotten my only glimpses of them (and the Statue of Liberty) as I flew into, and then back out of, the airport in Newark, NJ, on my first trip to PA. To think that they were now gone was unbelievable.

I can’t remember how long it was before we got the first reports of the plane crash in southwestern PA, but it was a while.

At some point during the confusion, they announced that all flights had been grounded country-wide. That didn’t seem real, either.

Our manager updated us and said he hadn’t heard from, or been able to contact, any of our customers. The lines were either down or overwhelmed– maybe both. We were working blind. He said to keep working as though the truck was going out… for now.

On lunch break, some of us went outside to eat. I looked up and saw no contrails at all in the sky. Something I had never seen before in that area– there were always planes visible in the sky. I told my co-workers to look up at the sky and make a mental picture because they’d probably never see that again.

Soon we got word from some source unrelated to our customers that no trucks were being allowed into Manhatten. The trucks weren’t going anywhere that day. Or the next.

The mood at work was somber. And we were worried about our jobs.

As it turned out that was the last day I worked until the 13th of December (our workweeks always started on Thursday).

On a tangent: It’s almost callous to admit, but those 3 months I was unemployed were some of the most fun months of my entire life. Karaoke ’til 2AM when the bar closed– then the huge after-party at a friend’s house… 5 days per week. Going to bed at 8 in the morning– if at all. Much debauchery.

Soon after I got called back to work we started getting damaged art to re-frame from buildings next door to the WTC. Truckloads of it– anything that they thought could be salvaged. The broken frames all had a thick layer (an inch or more deep) of fluffy gray “dust” on (and especially behind) them. (I was as careful as I could be to not breathe it and to keep my hands clean, but I did save some.) The glass was shattered and the plexiglass was cracked. Some of the art had been pierced by flying debris. We kept the art at our shop until the insurance was all settled, then we began the repairs. We delivered the first repaired pieces back to NYC on September 10th or 11th (I don’t remember exactly) of 2002.

And there’s my story.

9/11 changed me, and not all in a bad way.

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E-Cigarettes: Media Bury the Lede, We Get to Bury the Bodies

“Walmart Inc. will stop selling e-cigarettes in its U.S. locations as the country grapples with a string of vaping-related deaths,” Bloomberg reports.

CNN: “Walmart said Friday [September 20] it will stop selling e-cigarettes as the number of deaths tied to vaping grows.”

Associated Press: “Walmart said Friday that it will stop selling electronic cigarettes at its namesake stores and Sam’s Clubs following a string of mysterious illnesses and deaths related to vaping.”

Nearly every national headline on the story emphasizes “vaping-related” illnesses and deaths.  Nearly every first paragraph associates Walmart’s decision with those illnesses and deaths.

“Burying the lede” is the journalistic malpractice of failing to mention the most important facts of a story in the first (“lead” or “lede”) paragraph. That’s what’s going on here.

One has to go to the second paragraph of most major media accounts, if not further, to learn Walmart’s real reason for its decision. Per AP:

“The move is due to ‘growing federal, state and local regulatory complexity’ regarding vaping products, the company said in a statement.”

And one can read most of the stories in their entirety without coming across a couple of other important facts.

Fact #1: So far, wherever a  specific “vaping” product has been linked to these “vaping-related” illnesses, that product has been a black market “street vape.” That is, a product  you can’t buy at Walmart, or at your local convenience store, or on the web sites of any of the reputable — and government-regulated — makers of e-cigarettes.

Fact #2: While questions remain as to the long-term safety of the relatively new practice of “vaping,” so far every credible study on the practice says it’s safer than smoking tobacco cigarettes.

Walmart isn’t abandoning e-cigarette sales because vaping is unsafe.

Walmart is abandoning e-cigarette sales because it doesn’t want to be left with a bunch of expensive inventory it can’t sell as local, state, and federal governments issue new regulations on e-cigarette products, up to and including complete bans.

American regulators and politicians are hopping on the bandwagon of a baseless moral panic, created by so-called “public health” advocates and promoted by the mainstream media.

The regulations and bans those regulators and politicians are proposing will increase, not decrease, the illnesses and deaths associated with “street vapes.”

People who want to procure and use nicotine (or cannabis) aren’t going to request permission from regulators or politicians and take no for an answer. They’re just going to go get the stuff.

They’ll buy it at  Walmart if they can. They’ll get it from a friend at a party or a stranger on a street corner if that’s their only option.

The regulators and politicians, urged on by promoters of moral panic in the mainstream media and “public health,” are trying to MAKE that their only option.

Mainstream media is burying the lede. The funeral home and cemetery industries should send thank you cards and increase their advertising buys. The longer this goes on, the more grave plots, caskets, headstones, and urns they’re going to sell.

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