[Amazon Link]

True story: I paid the full $24.95 list price for this book in August 1998 while on vacation in Bar Harbor. Maine. How do I remember that? Ah, because it's signed and dated by the author, Kim Stanley Robinson, his own self. I had happened to notice that a local bookstore was on his book tour stop, and popped in. (He's a pretty nice guy, at least I remember he seemed to be in 1998.)

I had previously read his famous trilogy Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, which gathered a bunch of awards, including two Hugos and one Nebula.

Unfortunately, Antarctica got zero awards. And (for no good reason) it's been sitting on my bookshelf, unread for over 20 years. That's why, readers, I implemented my book picking system, which at least gives such neglected tomes a chance at being read, eventually.

So enough prelude: Antarctica is a big book, clocking in at over 500 pages. And, at least for me, it should have been at best a 200 page book. Explanation One: I'm a Philistine, KSR is a professional writer, he wrote exactly the book he wanted to, and if I wasn't impressed, that's on me.

Explanation Two: he had a book contract that demanded 500 pages, and he larded up a decent plot with endless digressions and irrelevancies.

I don't know which explanation is more on target.

Anyway, there are three main characters: "X", a "General Field Assistant" working for the oppressive corporation that runs official Antarctic operations; Val, an Amazonian guide, responsible for shepherding adventure-seeking tourists on treks through the frigid landscape; and Wade, a researcher for a US Senator, on a fact-finding mission. Things kick off when X is the only human accompanying a robotic caravan of tractors delivering supplies to the interior; he is surprised when unseen pirates manage to grab one of the tractors.

A promising, intriguing beginning. But then… pretty much nothing happens for the next 200+ pages. Then there's (spoiler) an exciting, harrowing story of near-disaster triggered by a quirky avalanche and some ecological saboteurs. And there's a cool climax which caused me to think: "Ah. Blimpi ex machina!

And then nothing much interesting happens for the rest of the book. Eh.

The novel is set sometime in the future when the Ross Ice Shelf has melted away, thanks to Global Warming. This doesn't appear to be likely to happen anytime soon. KSR is also a "democratic socialist" and that, I'm afraid, is part of the reason I found this book tedious in many spots.

Network Propaganda

Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics

[Amazon Link]

Not sure why I got this from the University Near Here Library. Maybe some recommendation I read somewhere a few months back? Anyway, it's outside my usual non-fiction diet, which slants libertarian/conservative. Probably a good thing.

Consumer note: you can by the book at Amazon via the link at your right (as I type: $88.18 hardcover, $25.16 paperback, $11.11 Kindle) or you can apparently read the whole darn thing for free here.

The authors contend that, thanks to the Internet and its participants, we are in an "epistemic crisis", where voters are going to the polls "knowing" things that just aren't so. They blame primarily the right-wing media for pushing stories that are based on rumor and innuendo. Their primary examples: Pizzagate, the Seth Rich murder, Uranium One. (On the other hand, they're relatively dismissive of Russian influences via their Facebook ad buys.)

Their claims are based on exhaustive analysis of linking behaviors on Facebook and Twitter. They assign a central importance to Breitbart, Infowars, Gateway Pundit, and Zero Hedge, which (they say) played a major role at pushing fake news out to their readers. On the broadcast side, Fox News is claimed to be guilty of similar bad behavior.

Oh yes, there are also lefty sites. But (it's claimed) they aren't as bad. The attitudes toward truth are linked up with the standard "journalistic norms" exhibited by the respectable news outlets: the New York Times, the Washington Post, ABC, NBC, CBS, … basically anything not called "Fox News". Hence the information consumed by American left and right wings is "asymmetrical", with the right far more likely to believe delusional stuff.

And Politifact is not biased.

This goes on to influence their recommendations for reform: since the "problem" is on the right, the proposed solutions are predictably skewed too. Their only criticism of what we right-wing loons call the Mainstream Media: ah, they take that whole this-side-said/that-side-said model of fairness as flawed: How can that be fair when the right side lies all the time?

Obviously, I had a number of problems with the book's analyses. In no particular order:

  • Not that it matters, but this came up in my feed today from the Daily Wire: Reuters Admits They Sat On Bombshell Beto O'Rourke Story For 2 Years. This true story about O'Rourke's hacktivist past could have negatively impacted his chances in his race against Ted Cruz. Violation of journalistic norms? I'm afraid the authors of Network Propaganda would consider it, at best an aberration.

    Unfortunately, this is just today's example. The authors turn a deaf ear to what by now is substantive conservative/libertarian criticism of the MSM.

  • Which (in turn) means that they don't really understand the evolution of right-wing sites, many if not most of which were formed to fill a niche in the media ecosystem in response to MSM failings. "Asymmetry" shouldn't be surprising—it's exactly what you'd expect from essentially dissident media, voices that exist specifically in reaction and opposition to the dominant narrative.

  • Since we are all human beings suffering under the same cognitive biases, it would be surprising if the right wing was uniquely under the spell of fakery. You don't have to have a very long memory to recall the heyday of 9/11 Trutherism, in which a good-sized fraction of the populace were led to believe the WTC buildings were brought down by explosives secretly planted in the two buildings and/or that the government knew about the attacks ahead of time and consciously decided to let them happen.

    There are also the JFK assassination conspiracy theories: he wasn't shot by a Russia/Cuba-loving commie, but a shadowy cabal of right-wing plotters. (One variety of the theories even got a movie devoted to it, gathering eight Oscar nominations.)

    And also unconsidered is the oeuvre of Michael Moore, at least as truth-challenged as anything at Breitbart, but much more "respectable".

    The authors ignore this sort of lefty propaganda, with the implied excuse that it's conveniently outside the time window they concentrated on. I think the resulting "asymmetry" in their analysis is the book's biggest flaw.

  • I'm probably biased and maybe unrepresentative, but my personal experience with right-wing media differs strongly from what the authors picture. I had given up on Breitbart by early 2016. I don't watch Fox News much, never got into any of the wackiness at Infowars or Gateway Pundit. Zero Hedge was not a habit either (but it seems OK to me).

    The authors claim that their analysis shows that these sites are uniquely influential on the right. Uh, fine, but I'm not convinced.

There are other quibbles, but I've babbled long enough. Anyway, feel free to check it out for yourself. I feel virtuous for being "outside the bubble", having looked at a book that I disagree with so strongly.

Last Modified 2019-03-18 6:22 AM EST

The Phony Campaign

2019-03-17 Update

[Amazon Link]

The big phony news: Beto O'Rourke announced his 2020 candidacy and (in an almost certainly causal sequence) his Google phony hits exploded by over a factor of 13. Impressive! With an even bigger collapse in phony hits, President Trump is in third place phony-wise, trailing both Beto and Kamala badly.

Beto also improved his lot at Betfair slightly over the week, with a 0.9% bounce in his win probability. That's nice, Beto, but not as nice as Biden's 1.2% increase, or Andrew Yang's 1.1% increase.

We bid farewell to Mike Pence and Amy Klobuchar this week, but welcome Julian Castro back into contention, at least for a while.

It's interesting to note that Yang is doing Betfair-better than career pols Warren, Castro, and Booker. And far better than the career pols who Betfair considers to be even longer shots: Gillibrand, Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Gabbard, Hickenlooper, Inslee,… What do the Betfair bettors know that we don't?

And, since Pun Salad is not above making childish jokes about people's names: if Yang wins the Democratic nomination, could he find a running mate named Yin?

Candidate WinProb Change
Beto O'Rourke 8.3% +0.9% 13,000,000 +12,042,000
Kamala Harris 11.9% -0.6% 5,900,000 -820,000
Donald Trump 33.1% +0.6% 2,110,000 -12,190,000
Bernie Sanders 12.5% -0.3% 357,000 -116,000
Elizabeth Warren 2.3% -0.2% 208,000 -4,552,000
Joe Biden 12.4% +1.2% 205,000 -14,000
Julian Castro 2.0% --- 103,000 ---
Cory Booker 2.2% -0.3% 71,500 -3,000
Andrew Yang 3.6% +1.1% 9,060 -11,940

Standard disclaimer: Google result counts are bogus.

  • Linkwise, we are Beto-heavy this week. First up is Matt Welch at Reason who wonders: Has Phony Betomania Already Bitten the Dust?.

    In retrospect, the biggest surprise was that Beto O'Rourke did not announce his long-expected (though recently denied) presidential candidacy last week in his native habitat of South by Southwest, while he was promoting an HBO documentary about his stirring failure to unseat one of the most reviled incumbents in American politics.

    But then, the former El Paso congressman, whose occasionally moody Gen X uplift has almost completely overshadowed his unusual political path and heterodox policy beliefs, probably knew he was about to get the full Vanity Fair Annie Leibovitz cover treatment:

    And about that Vanity Fair cover, some juxtaposing genius noticed:

    Reagan wins (among other things) the belt competition.

  • In case you were not sufficiently braced, Jim Geraghty advised his readers to Brace Yourselves for Betomania.

    Ah, here we go again.

    The magazine covers and posters . . . [click through for a montage]

    . . . the graffiti murals . . .

    . . . the gushing media profiles, the adoring interviews with late-night hosts, the hagiographic documentary, the t-shirts, the celebrity endorsements and appearances, the social-media mania, the volunteers creating their own designs for posters and logos and campaign imagery . . . we’ll probably get the flash mobs from 2018 restarted, too.

    Except the last time we did this, all of the hype and hoopla was for a once-obscure slender guy in his mid-to-late 40s who had been in the legislature for a while, hadn’t been able to get many pieces of legislation passed whether his party was in the majority or minority, who boasted about his across-the-aisle friendships but who had never really defied his party’s orthodoxy, who had little or no executive experience, who could do mundane tasks such as driving or sweating and have them described by political reporters like he was completing the 12 labors of Hercules, who was full of charisma but vague enough in his answers and agenda to be a blank slate to everyone looking for an ideal candidate. Same script, slightly different leading man.

    Gosh, it's almost as if the media (and a large fraction of the electorate) are easily gulled by good looks and charismatic patter.

  • Kyle Smith has a more cynical take on Weirdo O’Rourke.

    Friends of the young Bill Clinton and Barack Obama spoke of the special glow of promise they had about them, even back in their early twenties. Angels sat on their shoulders. History gave them a wink and said, “Hey, good lookin’, I’ll be back to pick you up later.”

    Robert O’Rourke? Not so much. He was just a weirdo. That isn’t my word, it’s how his friends saw him. “You’re supposed to make friends with future secretaries of state, not weirdo musicians,” one O’Rourke pal, Adam Mortimer, told the New York Times. “It’s like, wait, one of the weirdo musicians might run for president.” One contemporaneous photo accompanying the Times story about O’Rourke in his New York City years (four at Columbia University, three reenacting Reality Bites afterwards) shows him with what appears to be a food stain on his crotch, sitting between his girlfriend and a dog who is obviously possessed by Satan. The other picture has O’Rourke wearing a moustache and a ladies’ floral dress.

    The former El Paso congressman’s spastic “Hey, I’m still figuring out these new hands” presidential-kickoff video, in which his upper limbs appeared to be subject to mad random yanks by an angry puppeteer, was merely the latest odd detail in the saga of Weirdo O’Rourke. It was even weirder than Elizabeth Warren’s “Greetings fellow earthlings, I too enjoy fermented malt beverages!” video. Robert/Beto is a man so apart from other human beings that he recently thought nothing of ditching his wife and three kids so he could drive around the country, alone, accosting unsuspecting dentists to help him apply Novocaine to his aching soul. He might be the first person ever to run for the White House on a platform of asking the nation help him figure out who he is.

    As a recovering computer geek, I noticed that one of Beto's long-hidden talents was computer hacktivism, as a member of the "Cult of the Dead Cow" (CDC).

    Good news? At least he was skilled at something other than dreamboatery? Not so much. The linked article claims that he "was more focused on writing screeds for the CDC's text-file essays than hacking." Even as a hacker, he was more of a wannabe.

  • And the hits just keep on coming, this one from Jack Shafer at Politico: The Semigoguery of Beto O’Rourke.

    If O’Rourke promised to seize all the tendrils of power, encouraged race or class war, blocked dissent or promised the impossible, we wouldn’t hesitate to call him a demagogue, which he isn’t. President O’Rourke is more likely to host the bands from the Vans Warped Tour in the Rose Garden then he is to order the 3rd Infantry Regiment to dissolve Congress at bayonet point. Think of him instead as a semigogue, a temperate politician who exploits the naiveté of the mob with his hollow yet passionate appeals to goodness, light and possibility. A demagogue traffics in fear. A semigogue peddles hope. A demagogue hoses gasoline onto a fire. A semigogue pours milk or maybe a craft brew. A demagogue bangs the table with a closed fist. A semigogue talks with fluttery hands. Because he never issues genocidal orders or establishes totalitarian regimes, the semigogue can also escape our deep scrutiny. Instead, he lulls his targets into political sleep with his eternal kindness, his overdone decency and his endless speeches.

    Shafer goes on to ask: Will it work? Geez, I hope not. (And given my lousy track record, I'm taking myself out of the prediction business … until I lose my good judgment and get back in.)

  • At the Bulwark, Jonathan V. Last advises us to be afraid. Very, very afraid. For Biden, Beto, or Biden-Beto Is the GOP's Worst Nightmare.

    Let’s try to put our arms around how dangerous Biden, Beto, or Biden-Beto would be for Trump.

    The Trump theory of reelection is essentially this:

    • He starts out 3 million votes in the hole.
    • He gets lucky and draws a challenger who is either a radical leftist, deeply unlikeable, or both.
    • He holds his 2016 states with similar margins.
    • Maybe he flips New Hampshire.

    Last goes on to detail how a Biden/Beto ticket might pop this strategy like a balloon.

  • But there are other candidates still technically alive, and (at the Federalist) Mitchell Blue looks at the policy proposals from one of them: Warren Floats 19th Century Policy For 21st Century Tech Problems.

    Elizabeth Warren made headlines last week for her Medium post entitled “Here’s how we can break up Big Tech.” In the piece, Warren laments that Facebook, Amazon, and Google have grown too big, and suggests government must break up the companies to encourage competition.

    Warren is clearly trying to position herself as a protector of consumers who is hip to the internet age (WhatsApp! Instagram! A joke about Bing! Hold on, I’m so excited, I’m going to git me a beer!). But when you delve into the details of her plan, you quickly realize that Warren is using 19th century solutions for 21st century problems.

    Click through for the details, with a bonus section that describes how Andrew Yang's proposals are (somehow) even worse.

    I've recently started listening to podcasts on my walks with my dog. In a recent offering from Reason, Todd Zywicki noted how Warren is a direct ideological descendent of Louis Brandeis. (Although Brandeis was arguably a bigger friend of free speech tnan is Warren.)