Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Starless Night: A Reading

There are times in life when everyone feels lost. It's a state of mind, an existential thing. One can be lost in one's career, on a project, in a relationship, in the handling of a crisis, or in a far more subtle way that's not so easily defined. But as bad as it is to be metaphorically lost, being literally lost can be much more terrifying. Perhaps it's not so frightening to be lost on the way to an appointment in a familiar place, but to be lost on a distant shore can be an existential crisis in and of itself.

Picture yourself stranded in a city in a foreign land. You speak little of the language, you do not have a functioning cell phone or a map of any kind. You must find your way back to an apartment you've lived in for only about a week, and you've just taken the subway two stops too far...or did you get off early? Now the sun is gone, and night is setting in, and you need to find your way home without anything but your memory and your wile. Best not to think about what might happen if these aren't enough.

I've lived through this myself, and passed the trial successfully. Just a few months prior, I wrote a story about a stranded astronaut whose own fate wasn't so sunny. This was "Starless Night," my first pro-rated sale. I'd like to read it to you today.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Censorship, Propaganda and Storytelling as Mind Control

While I've been sitting here, waiting for the government's digital vivisectionists to turn the internet loose, I've had ample time to ponder the nature of information and attempts to control it. Mostly, I've been trying to figure out why any of this is necessary. Not in some above-the-fray moralistic way, mind you, but in a much more practical sense. Why would any sophisticated authoritarian body rest so much of its control on such a clumsy, antiquated tool when it has access to far more elegant techniques?

There's nothing new about censorship, especially here. The First Emperor's campaign against Confucianism - now known as the "Burning of Books and the Burying of Scholars" - was, if not the first instance of book burning in history, certainly the first of its scale. Ever since, there's been a simple understanding among despots the world over - if an idea threatens your order, then you can block that idea from public view.

I'm saying "ideas," but a better term might be narratives. Contrary to popular reckoning, the facts never speak for themselves - a fact can't say anything other than its own name. A fact gains meaning when it is linked to other facts and these links are interpreted. This is the narrative, and it's how humans think about nearly everything in life. We tell ourselves stories to understand how the world works.

(Read the rest on Find the Fabulist)

Sunday, June 14, 2020

On the Mundane Realities of Censorship

(Cross-posted from my other joint)

This is supposed to be a writer's blog, with writing advice and background notes on works in progress and the odd original story. It is not supposed to be about politics or current events. As it is, though, politics and current events are conspiring to prevent me from writing about those topics, so here we are.

I currently live in a country with probably the world's most well-known censorship apparatus. The extent to which the government censors the internet in particular has been discussed at length, usually by people who possess neither the technical expertise to speak with intelligence nor any meaningful first-hand experience. I can, at the very least, offer the latter:

The VPN that I use to evade censorship quit working on May 21st. This is not unusual - it tends to coincide with the kind of world events that evoke more scrutiny. It is unusual for it to last nearly four weeks. What's more, the blocks that killed my VPN also hit a broad swath of websites. This is easily the most aggressive blocking campaign I've seen to date, going far beyond the expected news sites, search engines and foreign services in competition with domestic ones. This time, it got downright weird.

The first block I noticed was my RSS feed reader, which was not a shock - I was anticipating that one for a while. The sites I use to manage my podcasts (such as Stitcher) are blocked, as are most of the podcasts themselves regardless of topic. The sites I used to double-check my word count are blocked. Some big freelancing sites are blocked, including the one I was using to source some work for other projects. Most Wiki-type sites are blocked, even those intended for trivial topics like comic books or video games. Speaking of video games, a number of ROM archives - the kinds of places one might find obscure games from the 90's - are blocked. However, by far the strangest block I've seen is random.org, a site used to generate random numbers and number sequences.

Already, I can sense you trying to find some thread here, some narrative to explain all this, but we're not done yet - for you see, there are many other sites that are partially blocked. This might be due to blocked APIs or servers or some other form of interference which results in the site loading in a largely nonfunctional form. Take this site, for example. The front end works fine, but the back end is mangled. I can't edit the layout at all - the editor fails to load every time - and I can't upload images or even attach images I've already uploaded. It loads slowly, too, and checking analytics is a crapshoot as it times out about about half the time. Slow loading and time outs are a real issue with a lot of writing markets, to the point that many of them are effectively blocked even though they are technically capable of loading.

From this chair, all I can do is speculate on what's going on. The government is blocking the world in such an indiscriminate manner that I can't imagine that there's a plan here beyond "shut out foreign influence." It might be that they're range blocking foreign IP addresses, taking out potentially tens of thousands of addresses with each one - very much a sledgehammer solution. Or they may be blocking sites from certain countries out of general policy and making case-by-case exceptions. I really can't say, but it is annoying.

Does "annoying" make this sound excessively trivial? I know, this isn't the way that people are supposed to talk about censorship, but the truth is much more mundane than bad fiction might have you think. Live in a world of controlled media, and that control becomes less an abuse of power and more a day-to-day aggravation - something to cope with, something to work around. Put it this way - you know how the onset of a pandemic ended up being decidedly more banal than it's usually depicted in apocalyptic fiction? How instead of fighting off raiding death squads as society crumbled, your most immediate problem was finding a TV show you hadn't already watched five times? Well, don't think of censorship as tyranny - think of it as software with extremely bad DRM.

It's this mindset that's going to prevent me from getting any personal essays published. Western new sources love to publish stories that make other countries look oppressive, but those stories are expected to follow a certain narrative. You know what I mean, the one in which the lone intrepid voice in the wilderness bravely defies the autocrats to report on the suffering of a fearful oppressed populace. But I'm not prepared to do that because it just ain't the way things are.

This is a funny old world, at least as far as storytelling goes. I find myself in a reality in which people can't decide what kind of stories they even want. It's a world where fiction is supposed to be more sophisticated than the old days (where "sophisticated" means "heroes" who are sociopathic monsters and villains who won't shut up about social problems), yet news narratives still favor the black hats and white hats. It's a world where people value "democracy" more as a brand name than a concept. Maybe if I was more willing to play the game, to be more shameless, I could actually get ahead.

In the meantime, I'd really just like to talk to my freelancers and watch my stupid little videos.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Second Mountain

So I bought The Second Mountain by David Brooks. I bought it and I read it (well, skimmed it if we're being honest) and then I took the better part of an hour to write a review.

Amazon wouldn't let me post it. Did you know that Amazon requires you to have made a minimum of $50 worth of purchases in the previous twelve months before you can review anything? I didn't. And I hadn't - I don't use Amazon that much.

I didn't need anything, so I had some stuff shipped to my parents just to get me over that threshold. Insane? Well, so was liveblogging The Second Mountain, but I did that. Then I went to post my review. Again, Amazon wouldn't let me post it. I went to bed, woke up - still rejected.

I sent a message to Amazon technical support, and they promised to get back to me in 24 hours. 24 hours passed, and nothing had changed. I sent another message.

24 more hours passed. I sent another message, and they promised that they would make the needed adjustments.

24 hours. 48 hours. 72 hours. Finally, a week after I finished the book, they unlocked the right to leave a review. Fantastic.

At this point I really don't give a shit. I don't really care about the review any more, it's bullshit, and the book is getting a lot of critical reviews - for real critical, not one-star bombing (those have been deleted already) or three-star "Brooks is brilliant, but this isn't quite his best work" nonsense. No, I'm talking fairly detailed breakdowns like the one I wrote.

But the top review? The top review is positive, and I can't abide by that. So even though it's irrelevant, and even though I can't bring myself to care all that much, I decided to post it. Why not? And if I'm going to post it after all of this, I want to be on top just for a moment. So please, head on over and vote this bastard helpful. Do it because it is helpful and not because it's me. Do it because it doesn't matter, but it's satisfying to jab a blowhard in the eye, if only virtually.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Tripping Up the Second Mountain

I don't use Twitter, but hell - it seemed like a perfect venue for this.

You will want to read the whole thread.