A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. 

Harper’s has published A Letter on Justice and Open Debate that is signed by all sorts of important people from Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood to J.K. Rowling. The letter is critical of what might be called “cancel culture.”

The letter itself has been critiqued for coming from privileged writers who don’t experience the daily silencing of racism or other forms of prejudice. See the Guardian Is free speech under threat from ‘cancel culture’? Four writers respond for different responses to the letter, both critical and supportive.

This issue doesn’t seem to me that new. We have been struggling for some time with issues around the tolerance of intolerance. There is a broad range of what is considered tolerable speech and, I think, everyone would agree that there is also intolerable speech that doesn’t merit airing and countering. The problem is knowing where the line is.

That which is missing on the internet is a sense of dialogue. Those who speechify (including me in blog posts like this) do so without entering into dialogue with anyone. We are all broadcasters; many without much of an audience. Entering into dialogue, by contrast, carries commitments to continue the dialogue, to listen, to respect and to work for resolution. In the broadcast chaos all you can do is pick the stations you will listen to and cancel the others.

Sexism in the Gaming Industry

Once again we are reading about sexism in the video game industry. The New York Times has a story from June 23rd on how Dozens of Women in Gaming Speak Out About Sexism and Harassment. We have heard these stories regularly since GamerGate though many of these focus on behaviour of Twitch stars. One hopes there will be some change.

Kenzie Gordon, who is doing a PhD here at the U of Alberta described why we have this persistent sexism in gaming,

The gaming industry is particularly conducive to a culture of misogyny and sexual harassment, Ms. Gordon said, because straight white men have “created the identity of the gamer as this exclusive property.” When women, people of color or L.G.B.T.Q. people try to break into the industry, she said, the “toxic geek masculinity” pushes back in ways that often lead to sexual abuse and bullying.

One positive change is happening at Ubisoft. Endgaget has a story on how the Ubisoft CEO lays out a plan to change the company’s toxic culture. This is after complaints including an extensive post by Chelsea O’Hara on Breaking My Silence at Ubisoft Toronto.

These concrete developments at companies like Ubisoft are in contrast with what happened a year before in 2019 when there was a backlash against victims who called out their harassers after indie developer Alec Holowka committed suicide. As the Wired article by Laurie Penny Gaming’s #MeToo Moment and the Tyranny of Male Fragility points out, the trolls attacked the victims using the logic that they should have known Holowka was fragile and let him be.

The message is clear: Men’s mental health matters more than women’s. Men’s suffering and self-loathing is treated as a public concern, because men are permitted to be real people whose inner lives and dreams matter. Who cares, then, how many women they destroy along the way?

What is the TikTok subculture Dark Academia?

School may be out indefinitely, but on social media there’s a thriving subculture devoted to the aesthetic of all things scholarly.

The New York Times has an article answering the question, What is the TikTok subculture Dark Academia? It describes a subculture that started on tumblr and evolved on TikTok and Instagram that values a tweedy academic aesthetic. Sort of Hogwarts meets humanism. Alas, just as the aesthetics of humanities academic culture becomes a thing, it gets superseded by Goblincore or does it just fade like a pressed flower.

Now we need to start a retro Humanities Computing aesthetic.

The bad things that happen when algorithms run online shops

Smart software controls the prices and products you see when you shop online – and sometimes it can go spectacularly wrong, discovers Chris Baraniuk.

The BBC has a stroy about The bad things that happen when algorithms run online shops. The story describes how e-commerce systems designed to set prices dynamically (in comparison with someone else’s price, for example) can go wrong and end up charging customers much more than they will pay or charging them virtually nothing so the store loses money.

The story links to an instructive blog entry by Michael Eisen about how two algorithms pushed up the price on a book into the millions, Amazon’s $23,698,655.93 book about flies. The blog entry is a perfect little story about about the problems you get when you have algorithms responding iteratively to each other without any sanity checks.

Internet Archive closes the National Emergency Library

Within a few days of the announcement that libraries, schools and colleges across the nation would be closing due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, we launched the temporary National Emergency Library to provide books to support emergency remote teaching, research activities, independent scholarship, and intellectual stimulation during the closures.  […]

According to the Internet Archive blog the Temporary National Emergency Library to close 2 weeks early, returning to traditional controlled digital lending. The National Emergency Library (NEL) was open to anyone in the world during a time when physical libraries were closed. It made books the IA had digitized available to read online. It was supposed to close at the end of June because four commercial publishers decided to sue. 

The blog entry points to what the HathiTrust is doing as part of their Emergency Temporary Access Service which lets libraries that are members (and the U of Alberta Library is one) provide access to digital copies of books they have corresponding physical copies of. This is only available to “member libraries that have experienced unexpected or involuntary, temporary disruption to normal operations, requiring it to be closed to the public”. 

It is a pity the IS NEL was discontinued, for a moment there it looked like large public service digital libraries might become normal. Instead it looks like we will have a mix of commercial e-book services and Controlled Digital Lending (CDL) offered by libraries that have the physical books and the digital resources to organize it. The IA blog entry goes on to note that even CDL is under attack. Here is a story from Plagiarism Today:

Though the National Emergency Library may have been what provoked the lawsuit, the complaint itself is much broader. Ultimately, it targets the entirety of the IA’s digital lending practices, including the scanning of physical books to create digital books to lend.

The IA has long held that its practices are covered under the concept of controlled digital lending (CDL). However, as the complaint notes, the idea has not been codified by a court and is, at best, very controversial. According to the complaint, the practice of scanning a physical book for digital lending, even when the number of copies is controlled, is an infringement.

Obscure Indian cyber firm spied on politicians, investors worldwide

A cache of data reviewed by Reuters provides insight into the operation, detailing tens of thousands of malicious messages designed to trick victims into giving up their passwords that were sent by BellTroX between 2013 and 2020.

It was bound to happen. Reuters has an important story that an  Obscure Indian cyber firm spied on politicians, investors worldwide. The firm, BellTroX InfoTech Services, offered hacking services to private investigators and others. While we focus on state-sponsored hacking and misinformation there is a whole murky world of commercial hacking going on.

The Citizen Lab played a role in uncovering what BellTroX was doing. They have a report here about Dark Basin, a hacking-for-hire outfit, that they link to BellTroX. The report is well worth the read as it details the infrastructure uncovered, the types of attacks, and the consequences.

The growth of a hack-for-hire industry may be fueled by the increasing normalization of other forms of commercialized cyber offensive activity, from digital surveillance to “hacking back,” whether marketed to private individuals, governments or the private sector. Further, the growth of private intelligence firms, and the ubiquity of technology, may also be fueling an increasing demand for the types of services offered by BellTroX. At the same time, the growth of the private investigations industry may be contributing to making such cyber services more widely available and perceived as acceptable.

They conclude that the growth of this industry is a threat to civil society.

What is it became so affordable and normalized that any unscrupulous person could hire hackers to harass an ex-girlfriend or neighbour?

What Mutual Aid Can Do During a Pandemic

A radical practice is suddenly getting mainstream attention. Will it change how we help one another?

The most recent New Yorker (to make to my house) has an important article on What Mutual Aid Can Do During a Pandemic. The article looks at a number of the mutual aid groups popping up to meet local needs like delivering food to disabled people. It is particularly interesting on the long term political impact of this sort of local organizing. Well worth thinking about.

DARIAH Virtual Exchange Event

This morning at 7am I was up participating in a DARIAH VX (Virtual Exchange) on the subject of The Scholarly Primitives of Scholarly Meetings. This virtual seminar was set up when DARIAH’s f2f (face-2-face) meeting was postponed. The VX was to my mind a great example of an intentionally designed virtual event. Jennifer Edmunds and colleagues put together an event meant to be both about and an example of a virtual seminar.

One feature they used was to have us all split into smaller breakout rooms. I was in one on The Academic Footprint: Sustainable methods for knowledge exchange. I presented on Academic Footprint: Moving Ideas Not People which discussed our experience with the Around the World Econferences. I shared some of the advice from the Quick Guide I wrote on Organizing a Conference Online.

  • Recognize the status conferred by travel
  • Be explicit about blocking out the time to concentrate on the econference
  • Develop alternatives to informal networking
  • Gather locally or regionally
  • Don’t mimic F2F conferences (change the pace, timing, and presentation format)
  • Be intentional about objectives of conference – don’t try to do everything
  • Budget for management and technology support

For those interested we have a book coming out from Open Book Publishers with the title Right Research that collects essays on sustainable research. We have put up preprints of two of the essays that deal with econferences:

The organizers had the following concept and questions for our breakout group.

Session Concept: Academic travel is an expense not only to the institutions and grant budgets, but also to the environment. There have been moves towards open-access, virtual conferences and near carbon-neutral events. How can academics work towards creating a more sustainable environment for research activities?

Questions: (1) How can academics work towards creating a more sustainable environment for research activities? (2) What are the barriers or limitations to publishing in open-access journals and how can we overcome these? (3) What environmental waste does your research produce? Hundreds of pages of printed drafts? Jet fuel pollution from frequent travel? Electricity from powering huge servers of data?

The breakout discussion went very well. In fact I would have had more breakout discussion and less introduction, though that was good too.

Another neat feature they had was a short introduction (with a Prezi available) followed by an interview before us all. The interview format gave a liveliness to the proceeding.

Lastly, I was impressed by the supporting materials they had to allow the discussion to continue. This included the DARIAH Virtual Exchange Event – Exhibition Space for the Scholarly Primitives of Scholarly Meetings.

All told, Dr. Edmonds and DARIAH colleagues have put together a great exemplar both about and of a virtual seminar. Stay tuned for when they share more.

The Viral Virus

Graph of word "test*" over time
Relative Frequency of word “test*” over time

Analyzing the Twitter Conversation Surrounding COVID-19

From Twitter I found out about this excellent visual essay on The Viral Virus by Kate Appel from May 6, 2020. Appel used Voyant to study highly retweeted tweets from January 20th to April 23rd. She divided the tweets into weeks and then used the distinctive words (tf-idf) tool to tell a story about the changing discussion about Covid-19. As you scroll down you see lists of distinctive words and supporting images. At the end she shows some of the topics gained from topic modelling. It is a remarkably simple, but effective use of Voyant.

How to Look and Sound Fabulous on a Webcam – School of Journalism – Ryerson University

Now that all of us are having to teach and meet over videoconferencing on our laptops, it is useful to get advice from the professionals. Chelsea sent me this link to Ryerson professor Gary Gould’s advince on How to Look and Sound Fabulous on a Webcam. The page covers practical things like lighting, positioning of the camera, backgrounds, framing and audio. I realize I need to rethink just having the laptop on my lap.