Pandemic Diary 28: Focus, People, Focus

Whatever the opposite of a laser is, that is my unfocused brain in quarantine some days.

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Anecdotal evidence is evidence only of an anecdote, so I report this not with statistical accuracy but only as something noticed: there has been an uptick in the number of posts on my social media feeds of individuals who describe themselves as “TIs” or “targeted individuals.”

“Targeted individuals” labor under the belief that each one is the focus of intense electromagnetic energy pulses sent to torment them; now, these individuals indeed appear to be tormented, to judge from what they write and how they write it (ALL CAPS and no punctuation), so it is no surprise that they need something on which to blame their depression and suffering.

I am one of those readers who always takes a moment to report these accounts to the Twitter or Facebook offices as “someone in danger of self-harm.” As a more-than-casual consumer of content from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, I have my own sense of how often I encounter posts from self-proclaimed targeted individuals: about twice a year. There have been more than that number this month alone.

Is this an effect of quarantine? Our national and global economies are in a free-fall brought on by a mandatory lock down (in many communities) made necessary by a fast-moving virus that mostly kills the infirm and elderly but also kills the young, middle-aged, and healthy (in New York City, more than twenty-five percent of the dead were younger than sixty-four and the greatest number dead of COVID-19 with no underlying condition are those between forty-five and sixty-four; not young but still employable); which ended almost all in-person commercial activity; which led to businesses shut down and employees furloughed or laid off.
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Lauri Love Banned from Twitter

Lauri Love, the British hacktivist who the United Kingdom has agreed to send to the United States to face charges despite pleas from over 100 MPs that he not be extradited, was permanently banned from Twitter this week. His account was @LauriLoveX.

The reasons are unclear, as no specific charges were fully explained to Love. It is understood that the reasons are related to an “alleged violent threat.” He wrote a few hours ago, “Being an actual Nazi on twitter: fine and dandy. Advocating punching Nazis on twitter: permanently banned for violent threats. This is why we can’t have nice things… (Only told I will never get my account back for obscure probably made-up reasons after starting a dozen support threads.)”
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This Week’s Puzzler

The upcoming week offers a sad anniversary and a happy birthday, both of which will be commemorated in these virtual pages on the appropriate dates, but something has me perplexed today.

Yesterday, I received my copy of the English translation of Raif Badawi‘s book, “1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think,” a few days before official publication. First things first: I urge everyone to buy it, as proceeds from the title are slated to aid his wife, Ensaf Haidar, and his children; I will be writing about the book this week; and in the interest of full disclosure, my columns about Raif Badawi have appeared on the website. Today is the 1172nd day Raif Badawi has spent in prison in his home country of Saudi Arabia. He was sentenced to 10 years in jail and 1000 lashes for writing about liberalism. In the last year, hundreds of people have created a social media movement to attract and maintain attention on his case and Amnesty International reports that public involvement in his story has set records in that organization’s history. In a concert this summer in Canada, Bono spoke of the case from the stage while singing U2’s hit “Pride (In the Name of Love).”

Other than the fact that he should not be in prison for writing, none of the above is perplexing me today. This is:
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No Bullies. No Drama. Only Comedies on TV

The comments territory under any YouTube video is an unlighted playground with shards of glass for sliding boards and a ball-pit full of barbed wire. There is no “thumbs-down” or dislike button available on Facebook, for obvious reasons. Comments are certainly allowed, and often the prevailing rhetorical mode is insult and injury.

Twitter may as well be one big dislike button sometimes. Not in my experience so far, except for two or three times. Each one of these is etched in my co-dependent memory, however.

When I started publishing on WordPress a year an a half ago, I wondered: What will it be like to have my work exposed to a comments section?
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Daily Habits of Uninteresting Me

A writer and editor named Mason Currey started a blog almost a decade ago with the intent of compiling the habits and day-to-day minutiae of famous and successful individuals. The web site was titled Daily Routines and several years later he had compiled so many entries that a book was published, called “Daily Rituals.” It is a fun website and an interesting book, and they are both great to get lost in and waste time reading, which may not have been Currey’s intention.

That was probably a fun meeting, the one in which they decided to change the name from “routines” to “rituals.” Being that I have named approximately zero things that have become successful, I am not going to second-guess the decision. “Rituals” certainly does sound more interesting—and purchasable—than “routines,” because routines are something we are told we must get out of.
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Put a #Hashtag on It

Many writers will claim that they “write for themselves.” This is true enough, but attention, constructive criticism, and a few “attaboys” will make the days creep at a better than petty pace.

In this social media saturated age, in which both of my septuagenarian parents have Facebook accounts and people who state that they do not understand Twitter have a couple thousand followers on that service, drawing attention to one’s work without purchasing advertising time on the radio to scream for 30 continuous seconds seems difficult. For me, a naturally quiet sort, sharing the publication of a new piece naturally feels unnatural, like recording that 30-second Janovian advertisement. Screaming is so unseemly.

But here I am, addicted to my numbers, measuring my metrics each day. It is an inner battle between believing that what I write is worth being written (does having readers or a reader equal “worth”? No, of course not) and wanting people to discover this (un)certain idea for themselves.

In the Peter Cook-Dudley Moore film, “Bedazzled,” poor Stanley Moon (Moore) wants the affection of Margaret (Eleanor Bron). The Devil, George Spigott (Peter Cook), offers him seven wishes to win her. In one, Stanley is a gold-lamé-costumed rock star whose new hit song “Love Me!” drives all the young women, including Margaret, wild. The lyrics, and Moore’s performance, are little more than him yelling “Love Me!” The very next act, Drimble Wedge and the Vegetations, wins them all over to the Devil, George, when he speak-sings his contempt for their affections. (“I’m self-contained. Leave me alone,” goes the new hit, and his dry loathing for them makes the women in the audience desire him all the more.) Stanley gets run over in the crowd rushing to the Devil at the end of his song.


I want to be like George Spigott, the Devil, and declare my lack of outer needs like affection (so banal) and love (so, ugh, human), so that all life-forms on planet Earth will run over each other to cover me in kisses, but really, I am like Stanley. The mere thought of wanting to be like the Devil makes me that much more like Stanley, too.

There are tools to get attention in the cacophony of voices making themselves heard in our social-media-saturated world. (I used to teach freshman college English, and any time that I write something like “In the world” or “In our such-and-such world,” I always hear the nonsense phrase that I saw again and again at the beginning of my students’ papers: “In our world of today.”) But if I hit “publicize,” a fine WordPress tool made available to those of us who use it, and my post goes to Facebook, there it sits as a reminder to people who already know about this website right here. My personal friends. If it gets publicized to Twitter, it gets lost in the dozens of posts per second that whiz past any number of readers.

The hashtag tool seems to be one item that helps the world of noise organize itself. And it has helped me direct some attention toward some columns. And it has not helped me at all, also. Like all imperfect things, it is imperfect. And that is perfect, because it is something else to learn about, experiment with, and use.

And what does a hashtag do? When one posts something on the different media platforms, a label with this punctuation mark: #, is what is called hashtagged. It helps the post get clumped together with anything else so labelled, so that people who might be interested in what it is about might find it. The title of this piece, “Put a #Hashtag On It,” will automatically be clumped together with anything else containing “#hashtag” in the title or description. (How many of those might there be today? We will see.) For the last week or so, the hashtagged phrase, “#ICantBreathe” (minus the quotation marks) has been getting a lot of attention, for good and obvious reasons. It is a shorthand way of saying, “Here is a good article about this topic or concern” or “I am showing solidarity with this concern.”

Here is a good article about this: “Now Trending: Hashtags.”

But it is an imperfect tool. Yesterday was Tom Waits’ birthday and I tweeted two tribute tweets. Both had #TomWaits in the statement. One Tweet was shared and re-shared, by people I have never before encountered on Twitter, hundreds of times according to Twitter (the first one below), and the other? Well, it was not.

What was the difference between the two? I have no idea.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 7 asks, “What’s the most important (or interesting, or unexpected) thing about blogging you know today that you didn’t know a month ago?”

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Daily Prompt: Unasked Questions

“AMA” no longer stands for the “American Medical Association” or “Ameliorating My Attitude.” (Never heard of that one? Neither have I. It doesn’t exist.) In our Twitterverse and Redditworld, AMA is now the acronym for “Ask Me Anything.”

And we can. Even Pope Francis (yes, THAT pope) has a Twitter account, @Pontifex, as does the Dalai Lama, other religious figures, and every politician. Or at least their offices have Twitter accounts. Here is a recent papal Tweet:

The sentiment may be true enough, but what stands out is that the pope gets a lot more retweets than I do. This is irking, as I have been on Twitter (@MarkSAldrich) for far longer.

For the last few years, public figures from the president to famous actors have scheduled AMA sessions on Reddit, on Facebook, and on Twitter, the start of which is usually announced with a photo of the famous person holding a handwritten sign stating “Ask Me Anything” and the day’s date. The “holding a sign” part often makes the famous person look a bit like a hostage. Like poor Bill Gates (well, those three words do not often appear in that particular sequence!) here:


In the old days of any time before now, if one wanted to ask a famous person a question, one had two available methods: A. Study and work very hard and become famous oneself and learn to befriend other famous people, one of whom is the person you always wanted to ask something, anything. Sidle up to that famous person and say something like, “You know, I have always wanted to ask you something. In fact, I worked and studied very hard to become famous myself and I became famous and I became friends with you just so I could ask you something. And now I do not remember what it was. What an amazing short story this would make! More caviar?” B. Write them a letter, purchase a stamp, place the letter in an envelope and the stamp outside the envelope, mail it and hope to receive a reply.

Somewhere, my mother has a scrapbook filled with autographed photos of Hollywood celebrities of the 1950s; in some rare cases the movie star hand-wrote a note of thanks. I do not believe she “asked them anything” personal, so she did not receive any news making replies. (Luckily, she did not have this mailman working in her neighborhood: “Brooklyn Postal Worker Arrested for Not Delivering a Decade’s Worth of Mail.“)

Part of the appeal to the contemporary social media “ask me anything” sessions, and to the fact that many famous actors and writers and some famous politicians personally work on their Twitter/Facebook accounts and reply to us everyday sorts, is to be impertinent to them. Call it the “BaBaBooey Effect.” This is the opposite to the “Access Is Everything” attitude which we sometimes see in the press, the “‘Meet the Press’ Effect,” in which reporters whose employment depends on continued access to important people do not ask difficult, impertinent, questions, questions that might make the important person cut off future access. People who are not reporters might shout a verbal graffito (“Bababooey”) and make some noise, become a part of the story. They are easily ignored, but so are the Sunday morning talk shows, on which news is rarely found or broken.

Instead, news is more often broken when a reporter who knows that he or she will lose access to a famous news maker if they in fact ask them anything, goes ahead and asks that one question. Or when, as with shows like “60 Minutes,” the show reports on some shady business whose practices are worth exposing by sending a national reporter who will not face backballing in his or her own neighborhood because he or she exposed a neighbor’s shady business practices, like a local reporter would.

Early in my brief local newspaper reporting career, I actually heard this from the sidewalk below my second-floor apartment: “We can’t talk here. I see the light on in that hack’s room.” That felt like a huge compliment coming as it did from someone I was publicly writing about. “I’m a hack! I’ve made it.” Then I thought, “How does he know where I live?”

It was a criminal matter I was writing about, after all. But given one question to ask one person, I might go back in time to that night and yell out my window, “How do you know where I live?”

The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 26 tells us, “You’ve been given the opportunity to send one message to one person you wouldn’t normally have access to (for example: the President. Kim Kardashian. A coffee grower in Ethiopia). Who’s the person you choose, and what’s the message?”