I’m No Expert

Do you have a star or an asteroid named for you? Me neither. Nor have I discovered anything new on this planet of ours or in this universe or even so much as published a book that is “soon to be a major” anything.

Thinking on this sometimes leaves me feeling a little empty inside, so thanks for depressing me today, me.

There are many ways of achieving the immortality, or really, a slightly more famous mortality, that I desire. One of them, a Twitter bot named VanityScience, made its debut in 2014 and is still going.
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Harassment & Free Speech

The essayist who wrote this in 2012:

We are all by now accustomed to the periodic whinging of public figures after another round of drive-by shootings on Twitter. But the problem isn’t restricted to those who put themselves on a public platform. Just take a look at how people are talking to each other as well. Frankly, it’s terrifying, and it occurs to me that one of the great challenges of the next decade will be how we, as a society, manage those people unable to manage themselves.

… was banned “permanently” from posting on Twitter this week. A spokesman for Twitter told an interviewer for Buzzfeed, “People should be able to express diverse opinions and beliefs on Twitter, but no one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.”

The author of the essay quoted above, titled, “The Internet Is Turning Us All Into Sociopaths,” is one Milo Yiannopoulos, who seems to have decided that his article was more useful to him as a point-by-point, how-to-become-a-sociopath expository essay instead of a complaint against sociopathy. In the subsequent four years, he became famous as an Internet sociopath, celebrated as an “alt-Right wing” hero of some sort, a keyboard bully who never had the balls to say what he wrote to anyone’s face and yet wore a bulletproof vest for show as if he had even one time spoken truth to power.
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Marketing the Unmarketable: The PineApple Case Study

A few weeks ago, this web site published a post written by a guest writer, “Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak Unveils PineApple, an Apple Competitor.” It was me playing a teeny-tiny part in a grand marketing prank/scheme at the invitation of a friend of a member of Time Over Distance (t/d), a social media company based in the United Kingdom.

My only up-front admission that the article was a part of someone else’s April 1st prank was hidden in front of everyone: I published the headline in italics. (Like above.) Otherwise, I published the article as it was submitted to me, by the friend; I even took dictation as some edits were offered, and I embargoed the article until after midnight on April 1. (Which coincidentally taught me how to schedule posts on WordPress, so my “Today in History” columns now appear after midnight.) The article was published on this web site and around the world on many other web sites, all of them more famous than this one. I did not write it. I was just one more tiny microphone. Here on The Gad About Town, it was the second-fastest article in 2016 to receive 200 hits, which may not sound like very many visits, but it is a large number of visits for any article on TGAT.

Here is the behind-the-scenes story about PineApple, Steve Wozniak, marketing, April 1st pranks, the ways in which truth is sometimes more interesting than fiction even when the fiction is pretty darn cool and has guest celebrities and big media companies involved. As told by “raincoaster” today on the web site raincoaster media: “Marketing the Unmarketable: The PineApple Case Study.” Here is raincoaster’s article:
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Rainy Days and Mondays

I am as awkward around famous people as I am around people people. Even the clunkiness of that sentence captures my general social clunkiness.

It is entirely likely that anyone within reading distance of this blog has him or herself met more famous people (and more-famous people) than I have. A well-balanced person treats the waiter like a prince and talks with royalty like they’re the next-door neighbors; I am well-balanced, but not in a good way: I treat everyone like they are a teacher who has announced a pop quiz that I have not studied for.
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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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For Raif Badawi

A young journalist and activist has been in jail since 2012 for the crime of insulting his country’s official religion. Sadly, that sentence can be written about dozens, perhaps hundreds, of writers worldwide, but only one writer—one writer that we know about—was publicly flogged this weekend.

This was the very same weekend that government leaders from around the world joined a million-person anti-terrorism march in Paris. The march was the emotional punctuation mark that concluded a sad stretch of days in that city. Days earlier, a group of mass murderers who were deluded into thinking that murder is a religious act massacred the staff of an irreverent humor magazine and killed two police officers, one of whom nominally shared the religion of the killers. The killers and the police officer only shared a religion in name, as the killers believed in murder as an act of faith and the police officer did not.

Raif Badawi is the name of the journalist, and he has been living in a Kafka-esque dreamscape of religion-as-part-of-state-bureaucracy since 2008. In May of last year, he was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes, which are to be meted out in sets of 50 lashes each Friday for 20 weeks. For over a year, his sentence has been publicly changed multiple times between six years and 600 lashes and ten years/1000 lashes while his case bounced between a higher court and a lower court in his country’s legal system.

His country is Saudi Arabia, and as a citizen of the United States, I am aware that I have no say in the legal system or traditions of another country’s bureaucracy; I can only write this column to implore my government to at least say something to one of its allies in the name of a fellow writer and the freedom of ideas. I have written in the past about things I do not like about my country, its use of capital punishment, for instance, and I vote my conscience on these issues, In another country, I might have been arrested for expressing my views, but it has not happened here.

Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, PEN International, and many other organizations have taken up Badawi’s cause, possibly in part because of its clear-cut blatancy: A man is being publicly flogged because he is a writer and has expressed ideas his government would rather he not.

A brief sketch of his journey so far: In 2008, he set up a website, a blog named “Saudi Arabian Liberals,” and he was arrested, questioned, and released. He was then charged with insulting Islam, left the country, was told the charges were being dropped, returned home, and then was blocked from leaving the country again, which is never an indication of good things to come. The web site continued, and he was arrested again in 2012 when a religious leader said that his website “infringes on religious values” and proved that he is an apostate, or one who renounces his religion. Apostasy carries with it a sentence of death, and that legal question—is Raif Badawi an apostate or not?—is what has kept his case bouncing between courts in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A lower court declared that it did not have the authority to decide and referred the case to a higher court which decided that the lower court could indeed decide if Badawi is an apostate.

He was cleared of the apostasy charge, which freed the courts to sentence him for the charges he was found guilty of from pretty much the moment he was arrested in 2012: insulting the faith and “going beyond the realm of obedience.” Ten years in prison, 1000 lashes, and a one million riyal fine. And his lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair , was arrested and found guilty of setting up a human rights monitor organization, which landed him a 15-year jail sentence.

On Friday, Amnesty International published an in-person account of that day’s flogging:

When the worshipers saw the police van outside the mosque, they knew someone would be flogged today.

They gathered in a circle. Passers-by joined them and the crowd grew. But no one knew why the man brought forward was about to be punished. Is he a killer, they asked? A criminal? Does he not pray?

Raif Badawi had been brought to the square in front of al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah just after midday. There was a huge security presence–not just accompanying Raif but also in the streets and around the mosque. Some roads had also been closed.

Raif was escorted from a bus and placed in the middle of the crowd, guarded by eight or nine officers. He was handcuffed and shackled but his face was not covered – everyone could see his face.

Still shackled, Raif stood up in the middle of the crowd. He was dressed in a pair of trousers and a shirt.

A security officer approached him from behind with a huge cane and started beating him.

Raif raised his head towards the sky, closing his eyes and arching his back. He was silent, but you could tell from his face and his body that he was in real pain.

The officer beat Raif on his back and legs, counting the lashes until they reached 50.

The punishment took about 5 minutes. It was very quick, with no break in between lashes.

When it was over, the crowd shouted, “Allah-hu Akbar! Allah-hu Akbar!”–as if Raif had been purified.

Raif was taken away in the bus, back to prison. The whole scene had lasted less than half an hour.

A brief cellphone video was made public, and it shows that the punishment is almost as much “a ritualized public humiliation as a specifically physical punishment (though it is certainly that),” as Nick Gillespie of Reason put it. The video is brief, and I hesitated to include it because it is disturbing and because if you go to YouTube to view it, people who comment on YouTube videos can be astonishingly disgusting.

 
The juxtaposition of a nation publicly flogging a prisoner of conscience and that country sending an envoy to Sunday’s anti-terror march was not lost on one journalist, who Tweeted almost two dozen similar examples of irony:

The Washington Post’s editorial page on Saturday pointed out that those who are outraged have limits on what we can do, since:

The Obama administration briefly on Thursday called on Saudi Arabia to cancel the flogging of Mr. Badawi. On Friday the kingdom ignored the plea and carried out the first of the 50 whippings. So much for strong language from the State Department. It had no impact because it came with no consequences.

The editorial suggested an international investigation into Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, which sounds as toothless as anything that will never happen would sound.

But that is the reality: The U.S. government raised its voice to slightly above a whisper on behalf of one man (not a U.S. citizen) in a different country’s bureaucracy and … crickets. Which is the same non-response our government would give (and gives) if that country formally and diplomatically complained about anything in our system of jurisprudence here.

All I can do as one person, one writer is this: Share the story and some web sites with readers in the hope that someone else will also use their writing voice, their platform. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that last year some 200 reporters were jailed around the world. Many of these reporters are electronic media writers, also known as bloggers, like you and me.

Amnesty International’s Raif Badawi page.

PEN International’s Press Release about Raif Badawi.

My only hope is that someday Raif Badawi will be able to read the many columns out there like this one and, true to his calling, point out that there are a lot of other reporters around the world who need columns like this one written, marches organized, and petitions circulated about their stories.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 12 asks, “Picture the one person in the world you really wish were reading your blog. Write her or him a letter.”

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A Leet

According to WordPress and other services, the number 1337 is important. It is not important for obvious reasons, like, say, reasons that are important, but for more obscure, talismanic ones.

Almost from the start, the online world has been something of a secret handshake society, but a democratic one, in which one and one’s friends can come up with a new secret handshake, and a capitalistic one, in which some secret handshakes become more popular, trendy. Elite. Or, “1337.”

Going back thirty years, users of programming language and speakers of everyday speech started to find places where the two collided. Going back thirty years, teenagers were passing messages to kids in the next aisle by typing on their calculators. Remember doing that? Certain numbers look like letters upside-down, so when one types 0.7734 that is also saying, “hello.” Here is a list of 250 such calculator-words: 250 Words You Can Spell with a Calculator.

I have had only one problem with this from thirty years ago to today: 0.7734 has never looked like “hello” to me. I just do not see it. I was the friend across the aisle from you in school who, when you showed me a secret calculator message, inadvertently said out loud, loud enough to attract the teacher’s attention, “What?”

I also do not see hidden anythings in “magic eye” posters, other than pretty fractals and colors, so I am just a generally all-around evil human being and no fun at all.

In the early days of the internet, in the era of bulletin boards and relay chat, the era in which someone typing on a keyboard in a movie was the height of real drama, those sorts of calculated calculator misspellings became a short-hand way of demonstrating one had inside knowledge about a topic at hand. Some of these terms have entered the culture at large, like newbie or pwned, and many have not.

For all of my life, I have felt like an outsider gazing in at a world of secret handshakes. Further, I am at my most uncomfortable when I try to look like I think I belong with you. Thus, when the kids in school in the ’80s who were “into computers” made it look like a secret society, I lost interest in programming. (Your loss, gaming community!) When the secret handshake society’s special vocabulary filters into the larger society and becomes a trendy lingo for a month or two or a couple of decades, it makes the world look like how I feel when I am trying to bluff my way into fitting in.

(Amusingly, I am composing this rant in a WYSIWYG in which I write my own simple HTML code and do not use a visual editor, a habit dating back to my newspaper work and a blog I started writing [now long lost] in 1997.)

1337-1xWhen one achieves 1337 of anything on a website, it is worth noting because 1337 is a lot of anything. In the case of The Gad About Town, it reached 1337 likes on November 26, when someone liked the column, “Gratitude Week.” In old-school hacker lingo, being an elite member of the community was designated by referring to them as elite, or a leet, or 1337. Again it’s the upside-down calculators that I have never looked at without saying, “What?”

Thank you to my readers and especially those who make the effort to express that they like some of the things I do. You have liked me more than 1337 times so far in ten months, which definitely makes me feel like a member of an elite.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 28 asks, “Today, publish a post based on unused material from a previous piece—a paragraph you nixed, a link you didn’t include, a photo you decided not to use. Let your leftovers shine!”

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