WLAMF

Some (more) thoughts on cancel culture

Okay, so. Let’s talk about cancel culture.

Cancel culture isn’t what a lot of folks think it is.

You can’t reasonably address the notion of what “cancel culture” is until you first address what it isn’t. Cancel culture is not saying “I don’t like the way that company does business, so I’m not going to shop there.” Cancel culture isn’t “I don’t like what that person did, so I’m not going to watch her movies.” Cancel culture isn’t even “I don’t like what that company or that person did, so I’m going to tell others how I feel about them.”

All those things are simply you making your own choices. No company is entitled to your money; you’re not taking something away from a corporation that rightfully deserves it by not shopping there. No movie star is entitled to you seeing their movies. No TV comedian is entitled to have you watch their shows. No author is entitled to have you read their books.

Cancel culture, if we are to be intellectually honest, is something else. Cancel culture is the idea that someone or some company did (or you think they did) something wrong, so you aren’t going to patronize them, and you are going to try to force other people not to patronize them either.

Probably the classic example of cancel culture in United States history was McCarthyism, where the government used political witch hunts to force people out of their livelihoods because someone said their brother overheard their hairdresser telling someone else they might be Communist.

Anyone who stood by someone accused of Communism was also branded a Communist. Anyone who defended someone accused of Communism was also driven out of their jobs. Anyone who stood up and said “hey, wait a minute…” was branded a traitor and publicly hounded.

The most dramatic recent example of cancel culture was probably what happened to the Dixie Chicks, who incited the wrath of right-wingers by criticizing the Iraq war.

Many people stopped buying their albums. That’s not cancel culture.

However, they also demanded radio stations stop playing their music. They stalked and harassed managers of radio stations that played their music. They sent death threats to radio DJs who played their music. They phoned firebomb threats to venues that hosted their concerts.

That’s cancel culture.

Cancel culture is not “I will not patronize this person.” Cancel culture is “I will make sure nobody else patronizes this person.”

There are a lot of moving parts to cancel culture; while it predates the Internet (and possibly human civilization), the Internet has made it a flash phenomenon, able to incite enormous fury at the slightest breath.

And while in the past it has frequently been dominated by the political right — I laugh every time an American conservative accuses liberals of “cancel culture,” given the Dixie Chicks thing and the Starbucks thing, cancel culture is neither a left thing nor a right thing. Folks of all political persuasions do it.

What makes cancel culture different from simple boycotting?

Some of the key elements of cancel culture include:

Mass outrage. “Look what they have done! They have criticized our President/sold us out to Commies/said a bad thing/whatever! Outrage!!!” Often, the outrage comes with scanty supporting evidence, and frequently it’s presented with the most emotionally laden spin possible.

Appeal to popular narratives. Narratives are powerful. Human beings are a storytelling species; we understand the world through stories. The stories we tell ourselves — ”the government is bad and trying to harm me,” “men are abusers; women are victims,” “nothing an opposing politician says is ever true,” “gay men are pedophiles” — shape our understanding and perception of the world. Stories we hear that fit our narratives tend to be believed without question. Stories that contradict our narratives tend to be rejected without consideration.

These two things often work in synergy. Something that contradicts or violates a narrative we accept will often generate a disproportionate emotional response…not only because it introduces cognitive dissonance, but also because these narratives are:

Tribal markers. The narratives we accept become the way we tell in-groups from out-groups. They are, in a literal sense, virtue signaling and identity politics; the people who believe the same narratives are ‘us,’ while those who reject our narratives are ‘them.’

A clearly defined Good Guy, clearly defined Bad Guy, and clearly defined crime — often, a crime against whatever values once made the Bad Guy a Good Guy. In the political right, this tends to be defiance of authority figures the Right accepts (President Bush, Donald Trump); in the political left, this tends to be perception of or accusation of sexual or social impropriety.

This is why the US left and US right accuse one another of “cancel culture” but don’t see what they themselves do as “cancel culture.” We didn’t cancel the Dixie Chicks; we responded to their unacceptable disrespect of our President! We didn’t cancel that comedian; we responded to defend disadvantaged groups from his attack!

Targeting not only of the person being canceled, but anyone nearby. Cancel culture is, by its nature, an attempt to coerce everyone into shunning the person or entity being canceled. The best way to do this? Target anyone who stands by that person or entity. Doing this sends a clear and unmistakeable message: Defend the person we are canceling and we will ruin you, too. People like to think of themselves as upstanding moral entities who will do the right thing under pressure. Threaten someone’s livelihood or reputation and I guarantee, guarantee, the overwhelming majority of those who think of themselves as good, stand-up people will fold like wet cardboard. There’s no percentage in having your own reputation ruined and your own livelihood destroyed for the sake of someone else.

Intolerance of dissent. This same targeting happens to people who say “hold up a second, are you really sure this is what you say it is? Are you certain this person did what you think they did? Should we hear from this person?” Reminding someone in the throes of a full-fledged righteous wrath that stories have more than one side invites you to be cast out, set on fire, and nuked from orbit.

Rejection of nuance. Cancel culture thrives on self-righteousness. The people who engage in canceling truly, absolutely, 100% believe they are truly, absolutely 100% right. They truly believe they are on the side of the angels, casting out unutterable darkness itself. The idea that there might be anything other than a purely good side and a purely evil side lets the air out of that self-righteousness, and that invites in feelings of shame and guilt.

The trouble with all of this is it allows for no self-reflection and once started, cannot be recalled. The people who phoned bomb threats to Dixie Chicks venues continue, to this very day, to believe that what they did was right…because once you’ve taken that step, how can you sleep at night if you tell yourself ‘no, actually, I was over the top, I shouldn’t have done that’? Once you’ve accused something of some wrongdoing, even if on some level you know it isn’t true, you can’t take it back without the risk of that same outrage machine turning on you; you have to keep going.

In 1937, Winston Churchill wrote:

Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount.

He was talking about populism, but where populism is the politics of human tribalism writ large, cancel culture is the politics of human tribalism writ small, and the same idea applies. When you’ve saddled up that tiger, you don’t dare dismount lest it stop eating your enemies and eat you instead.

So what does this have to do with political correctness?

“Politically correct” is a fudge phrase. It’s like “respect” that way.

In 2015, a Tumblr user on a now-deleted blog wrote

Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority”
and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and they mean “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person”

So when you hear the word “respect” in a political conversation, that should raise the small hairs on the back of your neck. Odds are good someone’s about to pull a lingusitic switcheroo on you, and if you don’t pay attention, you’re gonna get snookered.

Sometimes people use “politically correct” to mean “treating other people with decency and compassion” and sometimes people use “politically correct” to mean “adhering to a rigid dogmatic orthodoxy.”

And sometimes people will go into a conversation using it the first way, and when you agree you think that’s a fine idea, they’ll point at you and say “See! You’re just trotting out your identity-politics dogmatism!”

And then whatever idea you’d been advocating gets dismissed as empty virtue signaling.

It’s easy, oh so very easy, to pick up the torch and the pitchfork when you hear something that presses your emotional buttons. And yes, you do have buttons, and so do I, and so does everyone.

Outrage is the enemy of reason. It’s easy to get swept up in the righteous fury of outrage. I’ve done it. I struggle to name anyone who hasn’t. That outrage makes you a tool, a weapon in someone else’s hands…and sickeningly often, if you scratch the surface of justifiable moral outrage over some clear and obvious moral wrongdoing, you’ll find something cheap and tawdry beneath.

Something like money. Or influence. Or political power.

The irony is that political correctness of the first sort — compassion, empathy, a sincere desire to see things from many perspectives, a rejection of the easy and convenient narrative — is actually the antidote to cancel culture, which rests on a foundation of political correctness of the second sort.

But political correctness of the second sort feels better. Picking up the torch and the pitchfork feels good. You feel like you’re in the right. You feel like a superhero. You feel like you’re riding into battle against evil itself. And best of all, you can do it easily, from home, without risking anything!

Funny thing about that. If what you’re doing makes you feel heroic without risking anything…maybe it’s not as heroic as you think it is.


WLAMF

How Facebook convinced me democracy is in trouble

Today, in The Street Finds its Own Uses for Things:

I noticed something funny when I logged into Facebook last week. My feed, which is normally filled with ads for video games, photography gear, and complicated kits for Stirling engines you can build at home, was absolutely jam-packed with ads for far-right pro-Trump merchandise, antigovernment T-shirts and posters, gun holsters, and "conservative news" sites.

And I mean jam-packed. I've never seen this quantity of advertising on Facebook before; literally an ad following every single friend post.

The whole secret of advertising on Facebook is you can target your ads. You can specify exactly who you want to see your ads; for example, when we ran ads for the first porn novel we co-authored, Eunice and I targeted people with an interest in reading who were 35 or younger and lived close to a university, figuring this would likely be the sort of person interested in far-future, post-scarcity science fiction smut.

So why would Facebook, that giant creepy Hydra in the cloud, show me alt-right ads when it knows I'm a lefty Portlander?

Because the advertisers know I won't buy their products. They don't care. That isn't why they're spending tens of millions of dollars on Facebook advertising.




So first, the ads.

I've gotten in the habit of aggressively blocking these ads when they appear, and blocking the companies that place them. Doesn't matter. There are a zillion other companies placing near-ident0cal ads for near-identical products, and sometimes (this is a telling bit) even with the same stock photos.

The ads look lik e this:







If you ask Facebook "why did I see this ad?", Facebook will show you the demographic the ad was targeting. And these ads are completely ignoring the laser-focused demographics Facebook likes to brag about. They're shotguns, not sniper rifles.





So why? What's the point? Why target so broadly, when it increases your spend without generating sales?

So here's the thing:

I don't believe they're trying to generate sales.

That's not the point. They aren't interested in selling you gun holsters or T-shirts. I mean, if you buy some, that's a bonus, but I believe these ads are a propaganda effort. The purpose is to put right-wing slogans and ideas in front of as many eyeballs as possible. They're advertising ideas, not T-shirts.




The American political right is very, very good at propaganda. Liberals sneer at "Let's Go Brandon," the right-wing oh-so-clever "fuck Joe Biden," but the thing is, it works. The people who use it don't care that it's juvenile. It makes them feel part of something. It's a tribal identity marker.

And human beings like feeling like part of a tribe.

The hoodie up there that says "Proud member of the LGBFJB" community? It means "Let's Go Brandon Fuck Joe Biden." VClever? Not really. A great identity brand for a certain kind of person? Oh yeah.

And this brand is everywhere.



Branding and marketing and propaganda matter in political discourse. Arguably they matter more than policies and proposals and all that other wonk stuff.

They want this branding everywhere, and they're willing to pay to make that happen.



People don't make rational decisions. People make emotional decisions and then rationalize them. Often, those emotional decisions are predicated on feelings of belonging and inclusion. The right gets that, in its creepy way. The left? Not so much.




The thing is, the political left is doing nothing to counter any of this.

Do I think this Facebook propaganda is working?

Yes. Yes, I do.

It creates the illusion that right-wing ideas are more popular than they really are. It paints a false picture of what Americal looks like and what Americans want. It lets the right dominate the discourse in ways that the left won't even try to counter.

The modern American right is intellectually and morally bankrupt, a seething cesspool of reactionary hate. But they get propaganda. They get it on an instinctive level, in ways that confuse lefties.

And that makes them far more effective than their numbers and policies alone would suggest.
WLAMF

So long, 2021, and thanks for all the fish!

Only a few days out from the end of 2021, and man, what a ride. I don't usually do restrospective years-in-review, but this year...fuck me sideways.

I'm not saying it's been a bad year, mind. On the contrary, this has been the single most productive year of my life, creatively speaking. My co-author Eunice Hung and I wrote, not one, not two, but three novels this year, in two unrelated genres: far-future post-scarcity science fiction theocratic erotica, and near-future dystopian post-cyberpunk. (Well, near enough, anyway. We have about two thousand words left to go on the cuberpunk novel. Might juuuuust squeak by.)

Two of those novels are slated for publication in 2022, the third in 2023. Yes, we've got manuscripts that are two years out.

One of the novels coming out in 2022, The Hallowed Covenant, I am more proud of than anything else I've ever written.

The Hallowed Covenant
Isn't the cover gorgeous? I love the way it calls back to classic book covers from the Golden Age of science fiction.

It might seem a little weird to be so ferociously proud of what is, at its core, a porn novel, but Eunice and I do some (I think) really interesting explorations in this book on themes of commitment, wrongdoing, redemption, and acceptance. Plus it's filled with really hot sex involving fetishes so obscure they don't even have names.

A tall, striking woman wearing nothing but a simple wrap of translucent red fabric around her waist greeted them. The left side of her body was black as darkest midnight, the right side as pale as new-fallen snow. Complex fractal patterns of light and dark swirled slowly down the center of her body where the two shades met. Her long, straight hair was black on the right side and pale on the left. As she moved, her hair changed color, so that the division between black and white always remained still. “Welcome! My Festival name is Rainshadow,” she said in a low, throaty grumble that made Yaeris’s mouth water. “Would you like to play a game of chance?”

Lyrin tilted his head. “What kind of game?”

“It’s simple, really,” Rainshadow purred. “You spin the wheel like this.” She sat gracefully in one of the chairs and spun the large wheel set into the table. With each fluid motion, Yaeris felt her heart hammer.

Rainshadow dropped a ball onto the wheel. It bounced around for a bit, then, as the wheel slowed, fell into a red slot. “If the ball lands on red, you drink a red vial. If it lands on black, you drink a black vial. Then you allow me to tie you to my bed, where I do wonderful things to you.”

Lyrin shivered, his expression dazed. “What happens then?”

“If you land on red, I give you pleasure beyond imagining. I am a skilled practitioner of the erotic arts.”

“And if I land on black?”

Rainshadow smiled. “I offer you the most exquisite pain. I worship the Lady by making pleasure into art and worship the Wild by making art out of intensity.”

Yaeris’s heart lurched. “That sounds magnificent.”

Rainshadow rose. “Which one?”

“Both!”

“Oh, you sound like fun. Do you want to play? You must promise to follow through before you spin.”


We've also written some short stories in that same universe—all in all, we've produced somewhere around 290,000 words of porn in the world of the Passionate Pantheon, plus a whole lot of words of meta-analysis of those porn words. Seriously, nothing about this world is accidental; we have, quite literally, had six-hour conversations that turn into two sentences in one of the stories. You can read and enjoy them on a surface level—they aren't lectures—but if you want to, you can also read them as extended meditations on consent, agency, and what a world might look like with radically different ideas about sex and sexuality.

And sometimes terrifying ideas. The odd-numbered books are post-scarcity Utopias; the even-numbered books are dark erotic horror.




Podcast!

Skeptical Pervert podcast

Holy shit! This year I finally launched a podcast I've been thinking about for over a decade! My wife Joreth and my co-author Eunice and I finally, after all these years, sat down and got serious about The Skeptical Pervert, a sex education show that takes an evidence-based, factual, empirically supportable look at ideas, myths, and ttopes about human sexuality.

We plan on putting out one episode a month, and right now we have episodes recorded to February and planned out to April or May.

You can find it on Apple Podcasts, Libsyn, Spotify, Amazon, and most other podcatchers, plus of course on Facebook and Twitter.

Skeptical Pervert hosts

You can find the spiffy Team Tentacle T-shirt Eunice is wearing here.




Also, cats!

If you read my Twitter feed, you'll know this has been a year of cats. A feral cat had a litter of kittens beneath our front porch, which means, of course, we've been caring for them. Earlier this year we caught the ferals, took them to the vet to be checked for FIV and vaccinated and fixed, and we've been caring for them since. They're still not pets (or as close to pets as cats ever are), but they've become friendly and allow me to pet them.

Mama cat is totally feral; she's allowed me to pet her only once, when squishy food was involved, but mostly you can't get near her. We trapped her with a live-catch trap and took her to the vet for shots and spaying, then let her go after she recovered.



Some of the kittens the day they went to the vet:



I really, really like the tortie. Zaiah calls her "Eclipse." I've been working to try to get her to trust me, and she's allowed me to pet her several times.



They all come to the porch for food, and live beneath the porch when it's wet and cold outside. Here's three of them, hitting me up for food:



The orange boos are the most tame. They're basically not even feral at this point--they'll frequently try to push their way into the house when I open the door. A few days back, one of them ran into the house, and while I was trying to chase him out, the other one ran in too.



When we first started caring for them, they were skittish and would flee at the slightest movement. Now they won't even get out of my way when I come home with a bag of groceries; they make me step over them.






I've still been grinding away at the massive archiving job scanning all the 35mm film from my days as an amateur photographer. I thought I'd be done by the end of the year, but that was before I found two more boxes of negatives. I have, no exaggeration, thousands of frames left to scan.


This shot dates from the late 90s or early 2000s, somewhere thereabouts. I foolishly didn't think to record dates when I filed the negatives.




This year hasn't all been good news. I had high hopes that a long-running legal feud with my ex that started right after I left her would finally be over this month.

Quick recap: I left my former partner and co-author Eve Rickert in March of 2018 after steadily escalating physical violence that finally culminated with her hitting me. (Throughout our relationship she often smashed things, hit the wall next to me, and broke things in front of me, but it wasn't until late 2017 that she actually hit me.)

I got on the bus to leave Vancouver for the last time, completely numb, emotionally shell-shocked, and saw this:



I don't know who scrawled it on the edge of the window, but you, unknown person, helped me more than you will ever know.

Soon thereafter, Eve demanded that I give her (not sell her) my shares in the publishing company we co-founded. When I refused, she hired a lawyer to try to bully me into giving her my shares. When I got a lawyer of my own, she started a scorched-earth social media campaign accusing me of abusing her.

She had a client of hers pose as a journalist to contact nearly every female-identifying person who'd ever posted on my LiveJournal blog saying she was doing research about me, and would they be willing to say bad things about me? I found out about this when scores of people, some of whom I hadn't spoken to in many years, messaged me to say "do you know someone named Louisa? Because she says she's a journalist and she wants me to trash you."

The silver lining around this is that it re-kindled friendships with some lovely people I had lost touch with over the years, a couple of whom have come back into my life in some truly wonderful ways.

Anyway, the whole thing's really reminded me of the power of narrative in shaping reality. Trump supporters who buy into the Big Lie that Biden stole the election will say "thousands of affidavits! Thousands of sworn affidavits say there was election fraud!" But if you actually read these "affidavits," you'll find statements like "I saw a van parked a block from a polling place. That proves election fraud!" or "I saw ballots marked in Sharpie. That proves election fraud!" (Seriously, those are actual "affidavits.")

Thing is, the details don't matter. People believe what fits their narrative. "Thousands of sworn affidavits" is a simple story. "Thousands of bogus affidavits unsupported by evidence" isn't. And hey, where there's smoke there's fire, amirite? There must be something to these thousands of affidavits, right?

So the narrative my ex spun became "eleven of Franklin's exes have come forward to say he abused them."

Thing is, this ignores (a) I don't even have eleven exes—many of the "stories" collated by the person claiming to be a journalist are from people I've never dated, had sex with, or even talked about dating or having sex with—and (b) many of the stories are "Franklin never said or did anything wrong to me, but gosh, if lots of other people are saying he's an abuser, I must've been lucky!"

But hey, eleven exes! All saying abuse! Where there's smoke there's fire, amiright?

Anyway, while this has all been going on with lots of sound and fury, behind the scenes, a long legal fight has been happening, where my ex has tried to take basically everything we did together and claim it for herself: the publishing company we co-founded, the books we wrote together, everything. [Additional information redacted after a demand from Eve's lawyer.]

It's interesting...one of her complaints about me is that I "take credit for the work the women around me do" (when she isn't calling me a rapist because, as her friend "Nora Samoran" says, I emotionally withdrew from her after she hit me, and when a man withdraws from a woman that's a form of gendered violence just as bad as rape)...and she's spent the last three years fighting to take our company, take our book, take my Web site.

There's even, apparently, a story on Reddit that she created the Web site and I took it from her...which is, unless I'm a Time Lord with easy access to a TARDIS, physically impossible. Not that that matters to a narrative...after all, there are folks who believe Democrats run a secret child sex slave ring from the basement of a pizza shop that doesn't have a basement. People believe pleasing narratives, not facts. Liberals tend to sneer at right-wing Trump and QAnon supporters, but we are just as prone to accepting stories that fit our own view of the world.

Apparently, according to a friend of a friend, some random person I don't know has been "researching" me and is planning a video "exposé" of some sort for next February. A lot of folks use that word "research" these days. I do not think it means what they think it means.




Looking ahead to 2022:

Eunice and I wrote three novels in 2021, which made it the most productive year of my life, but we're planning to write four in 2022, in two different unrelated genres. Writing with her has been an extraordinary experience. We mesh better than anyone I've ever created with before. In fact, so many people have asked us how we write together we're planning to live-stream the start of one of the novels, which should be a ton of fun.

The extended polyamorous network was supposed to go to Barcelona in 2019 for a group vacation. COVID, of course, scuttled that, but we plan to try again in 2021. A dozen kinky people in a castle in Barcelona sounds like a blast.

Plus visiting the Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi's Gothic masterpiece, has been on my bucket list for decades.

Joreth and I are also planning a cross-country trip in her RV, photographing abandoned amusement parks. In the late 90s and early 2000s, the bottom fell out of the industry, and a lot of operators just walked away. These parks have been left to decay for the last couple of decades, and many of them are now in a glorious state of ruin. We plan to put up an Instagram or maybe even publish a coffee table book of photos of amusement parks quietly returning to nature.

We also plan to drive the Dalton Highway, the world's northernmost road, in 2023. It runs from Fairbanks, Alaska to the Arctic Ocean, and should make for a spectacular photo tour.

I also have been invited to participate in a couple of projects and started a third project I'm not quiiiiite ready to talk about yet. Stau tuned!

So as extraordinarily creative as this year has been, next year will, I think, be truly marvelous.
WLAMF

What a long strange trip...

Let's set the Wayback Machine to December of 2004. My then-partner Shelly, at the time a big fan of video games, said "hey, there's a new MMO out, we should play!"

"Cool!" said I, "what's an MMO?"

The new MMO was, of course, a game called World of Warcraft, in a genre I'd never before heard of. (A video game you play online with thousands of players? Whoa!)

Since I knew exactly fuckall about MMOs, I said I was in as long as I could play a character with a mohawk. I had no idea what kind of character to try, so Shelly said "Play a warrior, they're usually pretty easy." And thus was Ragnarokkr born: a troll warrior with a Mohawk.

How ya doin', mon?

I'm not sure how I ended up in a guild. I think Shelly knew someone who knew some folks who'd started it, something like that. Anyhow, we ended up joining a guild called Clan BOB on a server called Medivh, and spent countless hours over the next year or so running through dungeons and walking the endless desert of the Barrens.


To this day, this music still transports me back to a certain very specific place and time

It took the better part of a year to get to the highest level, though part of that was we didn't realize if you log off in an inn you get double XP for a while.

We spent so many hours, so many hours, running through Blackrock Depths with the rest of the guild, just generally having a blast. I rolled a hunter alt named Margath just to see what this whole notion of a "pet class" was all about, but Ragnarokkr (or "Rags," as the guildies affectionately called him) was me in this weird new world.

Then the worst thing that could have happened, happened: success.

The co-founders of Clan BOB created what was one of the first, if not the first, World of Warcraft Webcomic, "Life of Riley." It turned into a runaway hit, and some kind of Drama ensued. I never got the full story, but there were server problems and, I'm told from sources that may or may not be reliable, fights over money the comic was bringing in.

Anyway, the founders quit, on (again I'm told) bad terms, there was bad blood all around, the guild collapsed, I rolled Alliance characters on Eonar, and that was that.

Years later, I moved to Atlanta while Shelly went off to Tallahassee for her graduate degree. She got in touch with me to say she'd moved her undead healer to a different server, and would I like to play WoW with her again? I said sure, paid to move Rags to her new server, and joined her new guild.

We played for a few months before she quit the game again, so I went back to my Alliance characters.

Fast forward to 2019. World of Warcraft has its fifteenth anniversary. Characters who logged in got special bonuses, including a "15th anniversary" balloon.

I logged on to all my old characters, including poor forgotten Margath. I was astonished to find he was still a member of the Clan BOB guild, and even more astonished when I opened the guild registry to see if any old friends were playing and saw a message saying the guild leaders hadn't logged on for an extended period of time, would I like to take over the guild? I clicked yes, logged off, and went about my day.

World of Warcraft is in a kind of lull period between content updates right now. I've raised several characters to the highest level, run my main (a worgen boomkin named Ortin) through the current highest-level raid dungeon, and the leader of my raiding guild isn't running raids at the moment because of some sort of personal family thing he's dealing with.

So I turned my attention back to Rags, my old, old, character from way back.

I transferred him back to Medivh, brought him back into Clan BOB, and brought him up to max level—something that only took a week of casual play rather than the year it took the first time round, as Blizzard has drastically streamlined the leveling process.

Then I geared him up and ran the current top-tier raid a few times, just for old times' sake.

When I look at the Clan BOB character roster, it's a sad and tragic thing:



Last login: 15 years ago, 13 years ago, 10 years ago. Ah, how the past crumbles into dust.

So I now find myself in the weird position of being the owner and sole active member of a once-legendary World of Warcraft guild with a long history. I can't even find out if the original owners still play the game at all; a search for their character names on the WoW character database turns up nothing, suggesting they have deleted their characters or possibly deleted their accounts.

And I'm not sure what to do with it. A part of me wants to resurrect the guild again, maybe build it into a raiding guild once more, but that's a lot of work and I don't have time. (That's the thing about being a full-time writer; it's not an 8-hour-a-day, 5-day-a-week job. Eunice and I are currently, as of mid-December 2021, on track to have written three novels this year.)

But I still want to see this once-proud guild rise again from the ashes, like a phoenix from Tempest Keep.
WLAMF

I for one welcome our new AI overlords

I've been thinking a lot about machine learning lately. Take a look at these images:

Portraits of people who don't exist

These people do not exist. They're generated by a neural net program at thispersondoesnotexist.com, a site that uses Nvidia's StyleGAN to generate images of faces.

StyleGAN is a generative adversarial network, a neural network that was trained on hundreds of thousands of photos of faces. The network generated images of faces, which were compared with existing photos by another part of the same program (the "adversarial" part). If the matches looked good, those parts of the network were strengthened; if not, they were weakened. And so, over many iterations, its ability to create faces grew.

If you look closely at these faces, there's something a little...off about them. They don't look quiiiiite right, especially where clothing is concerned (look at the shoulder of the man in the upper left).

Still, that doesn't prevent people from using fake images like these for political purposes. The "Hunter Biden story" was "broken" by a "security researcher" who does not exist, using a photo from This Person Does Not Exist, for example.

There are ways you can spot StyleGAN generated faces. For example, the people at This Person Does Not Exist found that the eyes tended to look weird, detached from the faces, so the researchers fixed the problem in a brute-force but clever way: they trained the Style GAN to put the eyes in the same place on every face, regardless of which way it was turned. Faces generated at TPDNE always have the major features in the same place: eyes the same distance apart, nose in the same place, and so on.

StyleGAN fixed facial layout

StyleGAN can also generate other types of images, as you can see on This Waifu Does Not Exist:

waifu




Okay, so what happens if you train a GAN on images that aren't faces?

That turns out to be a lot harder. The real trick there is tagging the images, so the GAN knows what it's looking at. That way you can, for example, teach it to give you a building when you ask it for a building, a face when you ask it for a face, and a cat when you ask it for a cat.

And that's exactly what the folks at WOMBO have done. The WOMBO Dream app generates random images from any words or phrases you give it.

And I do mean "any" words or phrases.

It can generate cityscapes:

 

Buildings:

 

Landscapes:

 

 

Scenes:

 

 

 

Body horror:

 

Abstract ideas:

 

On and on, endless varieties of images...I can play with it for hours (and I have!).

And believe me when I say it can generate images for anything you can think of. I've tried to throw things at it to stump it, and it's always produced something that looks in some way related to whatever I've tossed its way.

War on Christmas? It's got you covered:

 

I've even tried "Father Christmas encased in Giger sex tentacle:"



Not a bad effort, all things considered.

But here's the thing:

If you look at these images, they're all emotionally evocative; they all seem to get the essence of what you're aiming at, but they lack detail. The parts don't always fit together right. "Dream" is a good name: the images the GAN produces are hazy, dreamlike, insubstantial, without focus or particular features. The GAN clearly does not understand anything it creates.

And still, if artist twenty years ago had developed this particular style the old-fashioned way, I have no doubt that he or she or they would have become very popular indeed. AI is catching up to human capability in domains we have long thought required some spark of human essence, and doing it scary fast.

I've been chewing on what makes WOMBO Dream images so evocative. Is it simply promiscuous pattern recognition? The AI creating novel patterns we've never seen before by chewing up and spitting out fragments of things it doesn't understand, causing us to dig for meaning where there isn't any?

Given how fast generative machine learning programs are progressing, I am confident I will live to see AI-generated art that is as good as anything a human can do. And yet, I still don't think the machines that create it will have any understanding of what they're creating.

I'm not sure how I feel about that.
WLAMF

Spintriae, sex work, and ancient history

I'll admit I'm probably a bit late to the party here, but I've only just recently learned of the existence of Roman spintriae coins, coins that were (allegedly) minted at Roman brothels either as a form of token patrons could buy representing different sex acts or as an alternative form of currency because Roman law forbade paying sex workers with coins bearing the likeness of the Emperor, depending on which archaeologist you believe. Or maybe neither of the above; it's complicated.

Anyway, they're super cool: each coin shows a sex act on one face and has a number on the other. And, of course, the world being what it is, you can buy replicas on Etsy, because of course you can (though this particular design is, at the moment, sold out).

Roman spintria front Roman spintria back

I have, for completely unrelated reasons, also been doing a dive into the archaeology and anthropology of sex work in ancient Rome and Greece, since we're doing an episode on the subject for the Skeptical Pervert podcast, and it turns out nobody really knows how sex work worked back then.

I mean, there are lots of competing ideas, and the general consensus was that sex work was definitely a thing, but if you try to drill down deeper than "yes, it existed" you quickly run into all kinds of ambiguity.

Like, surviving writings from ancient societies frequently make no distinction between "prostitute" and "woman who likes sex and wasn't ashamed of it" (rather like, oh, I don't know, modern society today!), and on top of that, few records exist that detail how brothels worked.

In fact, it's not entirely clear if there were dedicated, single-purpose brothels at all; some archaeological evidence suggests "brothels" may have been any place where women worked, and that dedicated sex workers were few—people who did sex work may typically have had other jobs as well.

And its not entirely clear spintriae were used exclusively or even primarily as currency or tokens for sex work. They've been discovered all over the place, leading some folks to the hypothesis that they may have been used as part of a game.

Which, I mean, I can get behind that—the folks in my social circle have already started talking about fun kinky uses for Etsy spintriae coins, and I reckon they'd be a big hit at a play party. But I digress.

Anyway, I've fallen down the rabbit hole, and I appreciate the fact that people in ancient societies were complex, messy, cool, and, well, very human.
WLAMF

Unwrapping a new project!

The Skeptical Perverts podcast

After years of thinking about doing it (seriously, I've wanted to do this since 2009), and a ton of work this year, I'm pleased to announce the noew sooper-sekrit project I've been working on with Joreth and Eunice:

The Skeptical Pervert podcast!

What is it?

The Skeptical Pervert is a sex education podcast where we look at human sexuality through an empirical, fact-based, evidence-backed eye. We examine myths, attitudes, and ideas about sex with the goal of figuring out what's fluff and what's true.

I am absolutely chuffed, as they say over in the far distant reaches of the globe across the pond, to have launched this project. Joreth and I have been talking about it for over a decade. We brought Eunice on board because she's often slow to say "no," and the podcast was born!

We plan to release new episodes monthly. You can find the first two episodes online now.

Episode 1, which we wanted to call Episode 0 but couldn't because Libsyn was written by folks who don't know C and don't understand how lists work, is an introduction.

Episode 2 talks about aphrodisiacs, the mythology around them, and our experience with bremelanotide, a synthetic melanocortin agonist and the world's first aphrodisiac to pass double-blind trials.

You can find us on Libsyn, Apple, Amazon, or your podcatcher of choice. Check it out!
WLAMF

When unicorns go bad: Salesforce and pump-n-dump scams

About six months ago, I noticed a significant uptick in spam email. But not just any spam, oh no. I found myself flooded with stock pump-n-dump spam, in incredible quantities.

What is pump-n-dump?

A pump-n-dump scam is where a scammer buys a large quantity of a cheap stock, then floods the world with hype to drive up the price of the stock. When it starts to rise, the scammer sells all his shares, the stock collapses, and the scam victims lose their investments.



Occasionally, the companies parasitized in this way can go out of business (small companies will sometimes use their own stock as collateral for loans, with the agreement that if the price of the stock drops below a certain point, the loans come due immediately).

And as I collected examples of this spam, I noticed something interesting: all the pump and dump scam spam originated from Salesforce, the $300 billion American tech giant.

American company Salesforce supports stock pump and dump scammers


So what does Salesforce have to do with penny stock scams, and why on earth would Salesforce be supporting pump-n-dump stock scammers? Hang on, let's go down the rabbit hole.




When I say I've been getting stock scam spam in incredible quantities, I mean it. I've received 1,794 examples of stock pump-n-dump scam emails between March 17, when I first started collecting them, and October 30. That's 1,794 scam emails in 227 days, or an average of about eight a day.

Salesforce stock pump and dump spam emails


There are a lot of them. They come from multiple From addresses and claim to be from various "investment" companies, but they all have some characteristics in common:

  • They all originate from IP addresses owned by Salesforce subsidiary Exact Target

  • They all advertise URLs hosted by Salesforce subsidiary Exact Target

  • While they come from different email addresses, they use similar graphics, language, and promote the same sets of stocks


How many different companies do they claim to come from? Lots. Every time I see an example of one of these spam emails, I build a rule in my mail reader app to route future examples to the Salesforce scam spam folder. Between March and October, here's a list of the From addresses used in these scam emails:

Salesforce stock pump and dump email rules


Each From address will be used to send anywhere from three to twenty or so scam emails before it's abandoned and the scammers move on to the next.

What does Salesforce make of all this?

On paper, Salesforce/ExactTarget's spam policies seem good enough. In practice...

In practice, Spamcop has disabled reporting to Salesforce, because Salesforce (a) doesn't pay any attention to abuse reports and (b) doesn't follow spam best practices, specifically by not requiring double-opt-in and not honoring remove requests.

Spamcop disables abuse reports to Salesforce for email spam


This isn't a new problem, either. Spamcop stopped sending abuse reports to Salesforce/ExactTarget at least as far back as 2011, and maybe earlier.

Unsurprisingly, manual emails to Salesforce and ExactTarget abuse addresses do nothing.




So what's all this about? What does Salesforce gain by assisting stock pump and dump scammers?

$$money$$

Pump and dump scams require broad reach. They are also extremely profitable when they work. So it's worth spending money to make sure you can reach as many marks as possible; profit varies directly with the number of gullible dupes you can con into buying the hyped stock.

And Salesforce/ExactTarget isn't cheap:

Salesforce/ExactTarget pricing for spam


Note those prices are (a) billed annually up front and (b) are per organization. So even the cheapest plan is $4,800 out of pocket at the start, and the spammers are using multiple phony organizations in their spam.

This is, I'll warrant, a nontrivial source of Salesforce revenue.

So Salesforce has a positive financial incentive to aid and abet these scammers, and thousands of folding, spendable reasons to disregard abuse reports.
WLAMF

"You," me, and More Than Two

That feeling when you wake up one morning to find a book you've written is featured on a TV show about serial killers...yes, that's a thing.

I don't watch TV shows about serial killers. I honestly didn't even know the TV show You existed. If you're similarly unaware of the vagarities of popular entertainment, it's a show about a serial killer who stalks and murders women. In the third season, he marries another serial killer and they stalk and rape women together. Yes, that's also a thing.

So imagine my surprise when I woke to learn that a recent episode featured my book More Than Two, and the most hilariously awful attempt at group sex ever imagined by Hollywood, which has a long history of pretty flippin' awful depictions of group sex.



Yeah, um...yeah.

The episode isn't as big a trainwreck as you're probably imagining. Oh, no. It's worse.

Anyway, I have a lot of complicated feels about this, which I talk about here:

You, me, and More Than Two
WLAMF

New book out!



The second book in the Passionate Pantheon series of far-future, post-scarcity erotic science fiction, Divine Burdens, I co-authored with Eunice Hung is out!

This is...unusual erotica.

When Eunice and I wrote the first book in the series, Divine Burdens,, we spent a lot of time shopping it around to publishers, who kept telling us there was no way to sell it. Erotica, we were told over and over (and over!), is niche. People like what the like. Someone who reads shapeshifter werewolf porn won't read shapeshifter vampire porn. Unless the book fits a genre, there's no way to reach its audience.

Well, these books don't fit a genre.

They're kinky AF, they are set in a far-future society ruled by AIs who are worshipped as gods through ritualized sex, and they have fetishes so exotic they don't have names (we checked).

So not what most publishers wanted.

Well, we persevered, and now the second novel is available! And the third is in its fourth draft, and the fourth is in its second draft, and we're planning the fifth...ahem. Anyway.

So, yeah, this book...isn't like the first. The first book was Utopian post-scarcity erotica. With this one, we wanted to see what would happen if we took a post-scarcity society and flipped the Utopia on its head. Divine Burdens is erotic horror.

Top athletes competing for the honor of running through a forest for three days, pursued by Hunters trying to capture them and commune with the God of the Hunt through their bodies! An exile being taken to the temple of the God of the Deep and face violation by tentacle! A volunteer playing host to a sacred parasite that lives within her, flooding her body with powerful aphrodisiacs while she and her fellow volunteers undergo rituals that are half religious worship, half medical exam!

“Amakoli will preside over tomorrow’s Winnowing,” High Priest Henlith said. “Right now there are, correct me if I’m wrong, twelve contestants competing to be this year’s Sacrifice. After tomorrow, there will be four.” He raised a mug. “Tomorrow, we will measure the worth of the contenders. Tonight, let us feast!”

A ragged rowdy cheer filled the hall. Savine leaned over to Lija. “Do you think you’re going to make the cut?”

“I don’t think it,” Lija said. “I know it.”

“Arrogant,” Amakoli said from her chair. “I like it. That’s a winner’s attitude.”

“Care to make a wager?” Savine said.

“What did you have in mind?”

“Simple. If you make the cut, I’ll be your bondslave. If you don’t, you’ll be mine.” Savine bared her teeth. “I mean to make sure you don’t.”

“How long?”

“Shall we say five days?”

Lija snorted. “You don’t sound very confident.” She glanced at Amakoli, who watched their negotiation with interest. “I propose a counter-offer. If I make the cut and you don’t, it’s fifty days, beginning the day after the end of the Sacrifice.”

“And if I make the cut and you don’t?” Savine said.

“Same. Fifty days.”

“Done.”

A small drone of gold metal shaped like a wizened old man fluttered down from the ceiling on crystalline green wings. It whirred mechanically as it opened the book it carried. “Bet recorded,” it said in its musical voice. Savine smirked at Lija.

After dinner that night, the great hall erupted into a boisterous party, rowdy even by the standards of those who worshipped the Hunt. Music filled the space, dominated by deep thrumming percussion that set the floating globe-lights to vibrating. Mood-altering substances flowed freely from the Providers, from large tankards brimming with intoxicants to small crystal vials filled with hallucinogens and libido-enhancing liquids. Contract drones darted about recording bets. Lija heard her name mentioned several times.

Brin approached Lija with a teardrop-shaped vial filled with faintly glowing liquid that danced with tiny blue specks. “Drink this,” she said.

“Okay.” Lija swallowed the contents and chased the sweetness down with a shot of brandy. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “What was it?”

“Dunno,” Brin said. “I asked the Provider to give me something interesting.”

The fires in the huge fireplaces roared high. People danced in the space around the long table. Occasional small groups of two or three or four went off to the little screened-in alcoves, to come out some time later happy and, frequently, with less clothing.

Kerrim and a bare-chested Jassin whirled by, dancing with each other. Kerrim held a large mug and, against all odds, spun about without spilling whatever was in it. “Lija!” Kerrim called. He waved the mug in her direction. “I just made a bet with Liat about whether or not you’ll be the next Sacrifice.”

“Oh? Did you bet for or against?”

He grinned. “For. Let’s toast!”

Lija looked around. “I don’t have a drink.”

“Here, take mine.” He handed her the mug and summoned another from the Provider at the end of the table. “To you and a successful Hunt!”

They smacked their mugs together. Lija drank the clear liquid. It burned her throat and stung her eyes. “By the Hunt, what is this?”

“Potent!” Kerrim said.

Jassin grabbed her hand. The three of them whirled together. The world softened around the edges. Lija’s body flushed. Her face grew warm.

Jassin and Kerrim linked arms and danced in a small circle around Lija. She giggled. Across the room, she saw Tatian and Amakoli talking in a corner near one of the fireplaces. Then Jassin scooped Lija off her feet. She squealed as he twirled her through the air.

“Hey, I was thinking—” Kerrim started. Lija grabbed him and kissed him. He melted into her arms. “Mmm, you read my mind!” he said when she broke the kiss.

“Don’t be greedy!” Jassin said. He put his arms around Kerrim and kissed him deeply.

Lija’s vision went fuzzy. A face swam into view. “Would you like to kiss me?” Lija asked the blurred shape.

“Yes please,” Savine said. She draped her arms around Lija and kissed her gently, with great attention, tongue flicking lightly across Lija’s lips.

“That’s nice,” Lija giggled.

“If I win our bet,” Savine said, “I am going to enjoy hurting you so very much. I will hurt you every single day for fifty days.”

“If,” Lija said.


We've put a tremendous amount of love and work into every aspect of these books. Seriously, you wouldn't believe. There are places where a six-hour conversation becomes two lines in a book.

We've even started a Passionate Pantheon blog to offer a behind-the-scenes peek at the worldbuilding you won't get to see in the novels, like, for example, the citizens of the City as modern-day reinterpretations of the Fey.

If that sounds like your jam, check it out!