Electronic embarrassment by mattsteinglass
June 29, 2010, 3:17 am
Filed under: Internet

My thoughts on Dave Weigel’s resignation are here. The affair has me thinking about the first time I realized it’s possible to say too much in an electronic message. It involved belly dancers, but I can’t remember how.

Back in 1994-7, I was a member of Echo, New York’s first popular electronic chat messaging environment, founded by the visionary Stacy Horn. Echo was the New York equivalent of The Well in the Bay Area. At some point in what I believe must have been 1997, I was online chatting about the budding Silicon Alley scene when someone mentioned a lavish party that had been hosted a few days before by the web-design outfit Razorfish. At the time, my roommate was dating a woman who worked at Razorfish, and she had told him something about the hiring of belly-dancers for said party that was in some fashion mildly scandalous. I literally cannot remember anymore what the issue was. It may simply have been the fact that the belly-dancers were paid for by the firm; perhaps that was in some way untoward. Or there may have been a feminism-related complaint. Or something. I have a feeling that the issue itself was so inoffensive that if I could recall it, the whole affair would seem ludicrous.

In any case, I noted in a comment thread on Echo that I had heard that…whatever it was about the belly dancers. Within half an hour, my roommate’s girlfriend was on the phone. Had I posted that information on Echo? Yes, I had. Did I realize that everyone at Razorfish had seen the post, and was asking who’d leaked that information? What the hell was I thinking? Suddenly I realized: I was an idiot. I used a screen name, but some people knew who I was. Some of them might know who my roommate was. Some of them might know he was dating the girl who worked at Razorfish. If somebody figured all of that out, she could get fired.

And so I went back onto Echo and started to lie. I introduced some deliberately inaccurate information into the rumor, in response to others’ queries, to make it sound like I’d heard it fifth-hand rather than third-hand. I let slip some faux-offhand misleading hints to the identity of the person who I’d heard it from, in the course of saying that it was just some weird rumor I’d heard from someone who had no reason to know whether it was true or not. I tried to make it sound like this was just something circulating in the Silicon Alley gossipsphere. I also coordinated my story with her, to make sure it seemed believable and to reassure her that I was doing everything possible to cover the tracks.

I did this because I had a responsibility to this girl not to let some stupid piece of information I’d unthinkingly disclosed get her fired. Had I done something immoral by disclosing this information? Not exactly, I don’t think. I had failed to think out the potential consequences of revealing a certain piece of moderately juicy information in an online forum. Had she done something immoral by disclosing this information to her boyfriend? I think not, or at worst, perhaps very slightly. Had he done something immoral by telling me? Again, at worst, he’d failed to think through the potential consequences, or had mistakenly relied on me having the good sense not to post it online. The person who might have done something wrong, if anyone, was the Razorfish principal who’d done whatever it was involving the belly-dancers. But I’m not even sure whatever that was had been “wrong”, as opposed to “moderately scandalous”. I can’t remember what it was.

The point of tension was simply this: the principal relied on his employees not disclosing embarrassing information. I hadn’t been careful enough with some embarrassing information that had come into my hands on a confidential basis. And as a result, I was now busily and actively telling white lies on the internet, which, arguably, was immoral, in order to avert the clearly much greater harm of getting somebody fired.

It worked. Nobody at Razorfish knew who the Echo member who went by the screen name “steiny” was. They didn’t figure out who my roommate was or that he was dating one of their co-workers. She kept a p-p-poker face for a few days, and then the whole affair slipped into the mists of time. By now the very posts involved are probably unrecoverable due to the mercies of incompatible archives.

Thirteen years later, that margin of anonymity, the space you have to recover from such errors, is almost gone. While I’ve been typing this post, the Zemanta widget on the right of my window has already called up images of belly-dancers, New York parties, and the Razorfish logo. The internet already knows who I am and what I’m writing about. If I’ve made a mistake by writing this post, it may be too late to rectify the damage, even before I’ve hit the “publish” button. What’s our response? Do we log off and go live in log cabins? I think not. I think we get cagey, we get ambiguous, we don’t talk about anything juicy that isn’t at least 13 years old, and we get ourselves some thick skins. And communication strategies change, and older people have trouble keeping up, and younger people don’t realize what can happen to you if you say something unwise until they’ve done it a few times, and that’s life.

Amazingly, Echo appears to still be functioning; the discussion groups are not on the web; and it seems to still be possible to telnet into the servers and engage in old-fashioned text chat. I may try it one of these days for nostalgia’s sake. I wonder who’s still out there?


CNN and the ethics of Vietnamese dissident interviews by mattsteinglass
June 27, 2010, 3:48 am
Filed under: democracy, Internet, Media, Vietnam

Last week CNN International ran a segment on Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, the Vietnamese blogger who goes by the name “Me Nam” (Mother Mushroom) and spent 10 days in jail last August after she criticised Chinese bauxite mining in Vietnam. CNN correspondent Andrew Spencer interviewed the affecting Ms Quynh in Ho Chi Minh City. In a followup article on Thursday, CNN’s Pamela Boykoff wrote that before Ms Quynh drove her motorbike down from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City for the interview, the blogger emailed to ask: “Can you sure filming is OK and safe for us?” I’m curious what CNN’s response was.

It should have been “no”. Dozens of dissidents have been sentenced to multi-year jail terms in Vietnam over the past three years, usually for “spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” For many of those convicted, the fact that they gave interviews to foreign news organisations has counted as evidence against them. The US and European governments protest the arrests of democracy activists, but foreign intercession has never prevented the conviction of a Vietnamese dissident, except for a few who had foreign citizenship. (I’m aware of just one case in which a jailed Vietnamese democracy activist with close ties to American institutions was released without a trial due to US pressure.)

As for news organisations like CNN (or the ones I work for), we can do nothing to protect the dissidents we interview, apart from running critical reports on their arrests and convictions. The Vietnamese government largely ignores such press coverage, and foreign media don’t usually pay much attention either. It’s just one small story among many. The fact that Ms Boykoff’s article consistently misspells Ms Quynh’s name doesn’t give much reassurance that CNN is paying focused, long-term attention to the issue of Vietnamese democracy activism. Nor does the televised report’s use of a file-footage establishing shot of the old National Assembly building in Hanoi, which was torn down over a year ago. To a Vietnamese spectator watching the report, the use of that shot says: we don’t follow Vietnam very closely.

What responsibilities do news organisations have in these circumstances? Does Ms Quynh know what she’s getting into by going on CNN to criticise the Vietnamese government? Is she under the misimpression that the publicity will help protect her from arrest? I’ve interviewed a number of people like Ms Quynh, ordinary citizens rather than public figures who have fallen into dissident status without entirely meaning to, and who, having grown up in Vietnam’s cloistered information environment, may be strikingly naive regarding the nature of the Vietnamese state and the ability of foreign governments or organisations to intercede. I’ve also interviewed highly educated, self-conscious dissidents who knew precisely what they were getting themselves into and had a reasonable sense of what strategies were likely to be effective.

I’m happy to report the statements of this latter sort of dissident. Moreover, I’m obliged to. They’re political activists who are making news. My job is to report the news. They’re acting quite deliberately, and they can take care of themselves. With the less sophisticated dissidents, however, things get complicated. I sometimes feel that these are people who have been pushed over an emotional edge by the unfair treatment they’ve received, and are lashing out in a fashion that, in the end, will only hurt them. By running interviews with them, you’re essentially exploiting and to some extent egging on their self-destruction.

I’m not saying CNN shouldn’t have run the interview. It’s their call. But I hope that when Ms Quynh asked whether CNN could ensure they would be “safe”, they told her very clearly that they couldn’t, that what she was doing was not safe at all.

Last week's linguistic speculation: music/muse by mattsteinglass
June 25, 2010, 3:44 am
Filed under: Language

Meanwhile, last week while driving back from somewhere, I was struck by the fact that the word “music” is basically identical in every European language, as far as I can tell. Of those I know, French musique, Russian muzika, and Dutch muziek cover your basic Latinate-Slavic-German portfolio. That’s pretty amazing, considering what an elemental cultural activity music is. It’s impossible to imagine that tribes and clans from Karelia to Gaul weren’t making music 3,000 years ago, and also very hard to imagine that they all would have had the same word for what they were doing. The form of the word is so close, it’s not like rabot/arbeit/travailler, and it’s notable that “r-b-t” seems to have dropped out of English except for the Angl0-French “travail”, which has lost its meaning of “work”; whereas “music” seems to have undergone almost no transformation and not to have dropped out of any languages.

My best guess, after a few minutes, was that it’s from the Greek “muse”. And that turns out to be right, says Wikipedia (Greek mousike to Latin musicaa). A hint to what may have happened comes later in the Wikipedia entry: it seems a lot of Native American and African languages don’t have a separate word for what we would consider “music”, which in those cultures is bound together with dance and religious practice. So what we may be seeing here is the trace of two thousand years in which the conception of music as a distinct art composed entirely of sound spread from Greece and Rome out through classical antiquity and thence to the barbarian lands to the north, becoming the word for that art because those cultures had never conceived of such an art in those terms before. The word for music sounds like “music” everywhere in Europe for the same reason the word for internet sounds like “internet” everywhere around the world.

Today's linguistic speculation: robot/arbeid/travail by mattsteinglass
June 25, 2010, 3:17 am
Filed under: Language

My friend Sue Legro, who lives in Prague, started out an email with a quote about gardening from Karel Capek, which made me think of the origins of the word “robot” in the Slavic root “rabot” for “work”. (Russian rabotat’, “to work”.) For a moment I thought, well, there’s one of those Slavic roots that isn’t the same as any of the more Western Indo-European families. What does “rabot” have to do with “work” (from German or Dutch werk)?

And then I thought, wait—German and Dutch arbeit/arbeid, “labor”, has the r-b-t/d root that’s probably the same as the Slavic r-b-t. Take it over to the Latin tongues, French: travailler, or Spanish trabar. That r-b root is probably also related to the Slavic and Germanic r-b-t/d.

Right? Probably. I’m not even going to bother looking it up; anybody who knows I’m wrong, please let me know.

Barack Obama as David Dinkins, Pt. 2 by mattsteinglass
June 15, 2010, 10:41 am
Filed under: Obama, Politics, US

I think I ought to at least explain what I’m thinking about with this comparison. It’s driven more by a subjective political sensation than by any grounded analysis, and it may actually be an utterly worthless comparison. I don’t know enough about Dinkins’s mayoralty to write a well-rounded post on this subject, even though I was living in New York City for its last two years, and voted for Ruth Messinger against Giuliani at the end of Dinkins’s term. But rather than do a quick shoddy job of web-surfing to try and pass myself off as knowing something about NYC politics during those years, I’d rather just describe the very sketchy shape of the comparison I was thinking about, and see whether those who do know a lot about NYC political history can set me straight.

David Dinkins was a universally respected politician widely seen as smart, competent and a good conciliator, if somewhat uninspiring. (There’s the first point of sharp dissimilarity with Obama.) He was congenial to white liberals, and brought along the black and hispanic votes largely out of solidarity. The simple prospect of having New York’s first black mayor generated a fair amount of voter enthusiasm.

However, that enthusiasm was not attached to a strong agenda, and once in office, like any Democrat in New York City (or anywhere else), Dinkins found himself tied down like Gulliver to a million tiny cross-cutting interest groups and points of ideological dogma, not to mention Democrats’ habitual enthusiasm for circular firing squads. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, a Democrat in Gracie Mansion was immobilized. He couldn’t cross the teachers. He couldn’t cross the school boards. He couldn’t cross the sanitation workers’ or transit workers’ unions. He couldn’t override the delicate sensibilities of neighborhood historical preservation boards and other NIMBY-enforcing associations. He tried to bring the city a grudging racial peace, after the years of Bernard Goetz and Howard Beach and “wilding” (which may or may not ever have taken place). But he proved unable to tame the tensions that flared during the Crown Heights riots. And he had the bad luck to preside over a vicious recession that gave the city an air of defeat.

Meanwhile, Dinkins never really got the benefit of the doubt from the conservative white neighborhoods of Queens and Staten Island, who had become accustomed to a white, ethnic image of New York under Ed Koch. They treated his mayoralty as though they were living under enemy occupation, as a betrayal of their image of what New York-ness was. New York, to them, was not Spike Lee or Run-DMC. New York was Woody Allen and Frank Sinatra. They heard Dinkins’s “gorgeous mosaic” speech as a repudiation of the melting-pot ethic that underpinned their own narratives of immigrant Americanization.

So the first chance they got, they put somebody into office who brought back Ed Koch’s accent, but with a more punitive attitude. And while much of what Rudy Giulani accomplished was due to luck (the strong economy, the continuation of the fall in violent crime that began under Dinkins), the overwhelming sensation was that a Republican with the backing of the police, Wall Street, and the yuppie elite could generate momentum in overwhelmingly Democratic New York that no Democrat ever could. This political sensation has continued under Bloomberg.

In many ways, this comparison reveals how little Dinkins has in common with Obama. The racial politics of 2008-10 are very different from those of the early ’90s. Identity politics is dead. Sister Souljah has no army. Barack Obama himself personifies an easy grace with mixed racial identity that renders the mosaic-vs-melting-pot debates of 1990 antique. 2008 in America, unlike 1989 in New York, was a moment of remarkably low racial tension. New York elected a black mayor in 1989 in part because it needed a racial peacemaker; America was able to elect a black president in 2008 in large measure because racial conflict was not on the immediate agenda.

Then, of course, there’s Obama himself. He is inspirational. He has a style all his own. He is a personality, a celebrity. He can be electrifying on television. He’s an analytical thinker and a manager with a professorial gift for expressing complex processes in clear, conversational terms. Dinkins was none of these.

The similarity lies in the sense that Obama was swept into office on a wave of personal enthusiasm insufficiently attached to an agenda, and that he’s now bogging down in a characteristically Democratic muck of dissension and squabbling. My anxiety is that Obama, like Dinkins, is a cool, friendly conciliator who was elected by a deeply divided community in the hope that he could bring it together. But both of them have been smacked with insurmountable economic problems that have denied them the resources they need to make reconciliation work. And as the community relapses into vicious squabbling, it blames the conciliator for its own failures. That’s the mess I’m afraid Obama may get stuck in.

Add: I realize I’ve failed to communicate here that Barack Obama has in fact accomplished an immense amount in his first year and a half in office. Passing national health-care…is enough for a president to retire on. Financial reform, once passed, will be a major accomplishment; we’ll have to see how good the bill is. And, of course, we have an economy that’s in some kind of recovery, due in no small part to the ARRA, and whatever else you want to say about Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, at no time in the past 2 years have I gone to an ATM machine and found that I can’t withdraw money because the global financial system has ceased to exist. This was not a foregone conclusion. Obama has had, objectively, a very accomplished 18 months. But we’re running into a sense of the doldrums this summer, and that’s what prompted the comparison. Again, it may well be a very bad analogy.

Barack Obama as David Dinkins by mattsteinglass
June 15, 2010, 3:53 am
Filed under: Liberalism, race

I’m just going to put that out there as a sort of a koan and see whether anybody responds. I find it a very upsetting and discouraging comparison, and I hope there’s nothing to it at all.

English is a bizarre language by mattsteinglass
June 14, 2010, 10:37 pm
Filed under: Language, US, Vietnam

There exist rules of grammar and usage in English of which native speakers are unaware, and which become apparent only when foreigners violate them. Some of these rules are so arbitrary that you have to pity anyone who has to learn English as a second language, and wonder how English ever became the international lingua franca.

Take this lead sentence from an article in the Vietnam News this morning:

It was time for the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta to build a flexible, multi-functional irrigation system to better respond to socio-economic development and the impact of climate change, said Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Dao Xuan Hoc.

“It was time”? What’s that about? The article is relating a statement by an official in an interview. The author means to say “It is time”. The reason for the use of the past tense is that the author knows the rule that in English, statements by speakers related in the indirect style move back one tense, e.g. “He said she was going to the store,” “Barack Obama said BP was responsible for paying the cleanup costs.” If the statement is already past simple, it moves back to pluperfect: “She said she had studied physics before switching to communications.” And so on.

Compare: “Deputy Minister Dao Xuan Hoc said it was time for the Mekong Delta to build a flexible, multi-functional…” This is correct. But the author doesn’t know that when the cited statement comes before the speaker is identified, the tense doesn’t move back.

On reflection, this rule isn’t entirely arbitrary. The reason for the shift is that the clause “He said” already places us in the past tense, which pushes the dependent clause into the past tense as well. When that “he said” clause doesn’t show up until the end, it sounds bizarre to start in the past tense. Still, this is the kind of rule that’s really hard for a non-native speaker to absorb; it’s a wonder anyone does learn to speak or write English correctly, much less that it’s been selected as the language every international professional has to master. It’s just a very strange kluge of a language.