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Apply now for design and usability help

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We are pleased to announce a new collaboration with the Open Technology Fund as part of their Usability Lab project. This exciting initiative will allow open-source software projects to apply for free assistance with user-experience (UX) design as well as usability research. To our knowledge, this is the first program to offer support of this kind.

Open Technology Fund + Simply Secure

Who should apply?

The Usability Lab is focused on projects within OTF’s remit – i.e., software tools and initiatives that support free expression and information exchange online. If you’re working on a tool that provides encrypted communication, secure file exchange, censorship circumvention, or related features, you should definitely apply. If you're not sure whether your project fits within this framework, please apply and we will work with you to see if it can be supported under the program.

What kind of support can projects receive?

Eligible software projects will receive free support from design and/or research professionals to evaluate and improve the quality of their project’s UX. Simply Secure will work with your project to identify the type of support will be most useful, and scope a well-defined set of activities that can be accomplished over the period of a few weeks.

Potential activities include:

  • Expert reviews to identify opportunities for improving the UX
  • Usability studies to evaluate a newly-proposed feature
  • Design sprints to harmonize the visual look-and-feel between an app and its website
  • Program evaluations to examine a team’s process for getting feedback from its users
  • Strategy research to help a team identify and understand its user population

In addition to matching software teams with skilled designers and researchers, Simply Secure will collaborate with engineers and UX professionals to ensure good communication over the course of the project. Simply Secure will also work with the software team after the design or research phase is complete, to make sure they are successful in incorporating the findings into their next development cycle. Finally, Simply Secure will work with software teams to transparently share the results of the collaboration, bringing open-source values to UX work.

Can UX professionals get involved?

Absolutely! If you are a UX or visual designer or a usability researcher interested in doing applied work on software in this space, please contact us at with a link to your portfolio and/or curriculum vitae. This is a pilot program that we hope will help us connect an extensive network of designers and researchers working on privacy and internet-freedom tools, so we want to hear from you!

How do I learn more?

Please apply for support here (or email us if you are uncomfortable using Google forms) as part of OTF’s Usability Lab, and contact or with questions!

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2 days ago
Very cool
Melbourne, Australia
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Bret Victor goes deep on what technologists can do about climate change

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"despair is not useful. Despair is paralysis, and there's work to be done"  
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5 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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The Slick Rise Of Vintage Masculinity

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Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

ID: 7336330

After the Blue Jays fans have streamed into the stadium, the men in ironed vests arrive, overdressed for a Saturday afternoon. On the sidewalk outside, they smoke cigarettes and chirp at women who pass, “Hey, wait, I like your makeup!”

It’s the last weekend of September, and the Metro Convention Centre in downtown Toronto is hosting The Gentlemen’s Expo, a men’s lifestyle and fashion exhibition. Going on elsewhere inside the center is IMATS, a cosmetics trade show, and the result is like Comic Con for traditional gender norms, adjacent but segregated, like a co-ed sleepaway camp. The men carry promotional bags that say “SWAGGER” and the women are painted like rag dolls or galaxies, with little moons and Jupiters and stars painted scattershot on their arms and face.

Women are accustomed (if not comfortable), with these gender-specific displays of marketing. For decades, manufacturers’ response to women’s increasing spending power was to give us our own version of things. Need a razor? Here, this one is pearly purple. Soap, maybe? This one is mostly moisturizer and it’s called a “beauty bar” because apparently the word “soap” just doesn’t cut it.

This marketing strategy, dubbed “pink it and shrink it,” has been eviscerated by feminists. But it does mean a weird and unexpected by-product of feminism is that the default shopper is no longer male. Now, men need their own version of things, to distinguish them from all the pink garbage. There’s lotion for MEN (smells like an actual tire fire) or loofahs for MEN (like a hand grenade for washing your dick) or yogurt for MEN (literal sperm). Marketers are honing in on what men want or, more important, what kind of fantasy man he will spend money to become.

So on one hand The Gentlemen’s Expo is just a trade show filled with lifestyle products — moustache wax, face wash, e-cigarettes — targeting men. But on the other hand, it also represents a certain amount of agreement among marketers about what man they believe men want to be most — a gentleman.

“Gentleman” no longer implies nobility, though it’s safe to say that any guy shelling out 40 bucks for beard oil is upper-middle class. These days, the gentleman is foremost a nostalgic figure, and therefore better than the average contemporary man. Blame Mad Men, maybe, for the number of men eager to get their suits tailored, buy expensive amber alcohol, brag about their superior manners. Weren’t things nicer back then, when we all got our shirts monogrammed and we wore hats and weren’t all screaming heedlessly into the dark cavernous void that is the internet?

Well, sure, as long as you’re a heterosexual, cis, white man. For women, people of color, and anyone else who was basically screwed from the 1930s to 1960s, the rise of the gentleman seems to reflect a pernicious longing for a time a when nobody asked Don Draper to check his privilege.

No wonder so many women hate fedoras so much.

There are two entrances to the gentleman’s convention: one escalator for regular ticket holders, and one called the “Man Up VIP Entrance.” This, I think, is the ticket type that got you a “SWAGGER” bag filled with, I guess, swag.

I’m not surprised men are in the market for swagger. As you may have heard, we’re in a crisis of masculinity. Women are marrying later in life, running for president, and giving Lena Dunham even more shows about women. Men, meanwhile, are addicted to porn and lagging behind in school. (It’s a good thing they have their own chocolate, then.)

Masculinity has always responded to shifts in femininity.

ID: 7336304

If the changing station of women means we need to redefine “man,” it wouldn’t be the first time. Masculinity has almost always responded directly to the shifts in femininity, says Tristan Bridges, associate professor at the Department of Sociology at The College at Brockport, State University of New York. “In the 1980s, women start moving into the workforce in larger numbers than they ever had in history,” Bridges tells me. “What do Americans do? We get really excited about bodybuilding.”

The responsive masculinity of 2015 is a little different. It doesn’t ask men to break new barriers in traditional masculinity: Lift this, be bigger, look like a roid-rage baby. Rather, it asks them to look back at when things used to be great for wealthy and middle-class white guys. Things are still pretty good for rich white men, but back then women needed them too.

Consider America’s Greatest Hope/Talking Bowl of Angel Hair Donald Trump. His hat says “Make America Great Again.” But taking into account his platform — bring back factory jobs, give everyone guns, ban political correctness and women over 40 — it might as well say “Make Men Great Again.” Not all men. Just men like Trump.

There are some women at The Gentlemen’s Expo: statuesque, Victoria’s Secret model-types on the arms of the charming cads trying to sell me their beverages, their e-cigars, their extreme sport packages. Well, not me necessarily. The women promoting citrus-infused craft beer (terrible, by the way) seem to have marching orders that do not involve the single brown woman walking around with a notebook. One booth organizer beckons, but she just wanted to know where I got my Little Miss Bossy phone case.

Here is a man on a Segway trying to enter a fake speakeasy. Scaachi Koul

ID: 7336578

Still, these women show me, in mere moments, what a gentleman wants. A lot of it is cocktails. Scattered across the floor are booths where I can trade in poker chips for samples of Old Manhattans and straight bourbon. At one end, a beer company has, inexplicably, set up a speakeasy with two women in flapper dresses working as bouncers. On the main stage, brand reps from Guinness teach a handful of men about its new “amber” beer, which is, I guess, lighter? That’s all I glean from the on-site expert. He’s wearing a fedora, but clearly in his sixties, so I give him a pass.

Don Draper smoked Lucky Strikes; today’s gentleman vapes, an odorless smog drifting out of his mouth. A woman seated at a booth selling e-cigarettes chews on the end of an electronic cigar, blowing smoke toward me.“Cool, right?” Before I can answer, a few guys approach her and her business partner. He’s wearing a purple shirt with the first five buttons left undone, letting long grey chest whiskers breathe. They talk about how the cigar e-cigarette model looks real without the cloying scent of old tar. The gentleman is so concerned with authenticity that even his fake cigar looks real.

This man is here to tell you how to dress. Scaachi Koul

ID: 7336645

And a gentleman looks like a gentleman. The clothes are a cornball mix of vintage ’50s style: skinny ties, shiny shoes, completely unnecessary vests. A woman who runs a blog called Style Girlfriend explains to these dum-dums the benefits of getting your clothes tailored, particularly if they don’t fit. At one point, a man in a shiny green suit takes the main stage, giving tips to the five young men in the audience on how to dress appropriately. “Pocket squares make clothes look different,” he says. This is technically correct.

The most condescending products marketed to men are in a booth called “Garage Living.” There, a lone man, staring emptily at his iPhone, is selling is storage solutions — toolboxes, places to put extra tires. You can almost hear the meeting that led this poor polo shirt to the expo: What do men like? Cars? Cars live in garages. Men love garages! Pack a bag, Steve.

Men like garages, right? Scaachi Koul

ID: 7336633

At almost every turn, the products at the expo look more like they’d belong to your grandfather (if your grandfather were white and privileged and really gave a shit about his beard) than your contemporaries. The trouble — and the trouble is largely for women, it seems — comes when the aesthetic is accompanied by that socioeconomic baggage, gender inequality, the suggestion that things were better during an era when things were only better for an already privileged, protected class.

The good news, for marketers at least, is that plenty of men self-identify as gentlemen. Tinder is lousy with them. Twitter is crawling with gentlemen who would like to explain things to you. Everyone has a Facebook friend who wears suspenders and clearly thinks life was better in 1955. The bad news is that, to women, it’s a major red flag.

If a guy calls himself a gentleman, writer Jess Zimmerman says, “he’s probably a jemble.” Jemble is internet slang for a guy who thinks the way into a woman’s heart is by pretending to be classy and appealing, probably by wearing a trilby and then arguing with you about the difference between a trilby and a fedora.

Grandfatherly style has its adherents among men of color — Dapper Dan, Jidenna, Russell Westbrook. But most of the “full-time cosplayers” — as Zimmerman calls the kind of jembles who go to jemble conventions — seem to be white. “What makes me suspicious is: Why is this your golden age? Why are you choosing to full-time cosplay a very white, middle-class experience at a time when everyone else was having a shitty, shitty time?” Zimmerman wonders. “It’s a fucking crime because actually men look great in suspenders and stuff.”

Why is this your golden age?

ID: 7336700

The problem is that men who self-identify as gentlemen tend to identify with more than just tailoring. They advertise a return to gentlemanly courtesy too. A gentleman will open the door for you, he will buy you a drink, he will take you on a proper date, he will behave. And, in this respect, the gentleman doth protest too much. Shouldn’t we all be able to tell you’re a nice guy? Wearing the colours of a good guy doesn’t mean you actually are. How dumb do you think we are?

Calling yourself a “gentleman” is a little like calling yourself a “nice guy.” Gentlemen (in the literal, archaic sense) are entitled to land and honorifics and brides and (these days) complicated liquors. Nice Guys are entitled to girlfriends. Or, at least, the men who call themselves “nice guys” on dating sites and social media seem think that if they tell enough women they’re decent — without actually exhibiting decency — one or two is required to go out with them. This, after all, was the logic of self-described “supreme gentleman” and mass murderer Elliot Rodger — that the universe owed him a girlfriend. So you can understand why it makes women squirrely.

Of course, #NotAllMen are aware of the implications of merely wearing a bow tie to dinner like an idiot. “The majority of men who are engaging in this kind of hypermasculinity or nostalgia are really just not aware of the ramifications the way that women are,” says Heidi Rademacher, program coordinator for the Centre of Men and Masculinity at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. “Whereas women who see that, it’s kind of like a little alarm going off.”

It’s this well-intentioned but slightly oblivious man, presumably, who is shopping for swag at The Gentlemen’s Expo. The event organizers, Luca Del Rosso and Settimio Coscarella, say they want to build something geared to men the way makeup conventions or wedding expos are clearly geared toward women. The term “gentlemen” seems so much more loaded for me than them, but what else were they going to call it? The Man Show? That already existed, they say, and it was bad.

“Take a look at Mad Men, minus the debauchery of it all, there’s this harkening back to a time when men took better care of themselves,” Coscarella says. “They drank certain drinks, they dressed a certain way, they groomed themselves in a certain way. It’s almost like the death of casual Fridays.”

I’d argue that Mad Men’s appeal was largely the debauchery, but it’s perfectly acceptable to be interested in a certain kind of style. But it’s unclear if men can actually isolate the aesthetic appeal of Mad Men from the politics of those sorts of men.

Coscarella and Del Rosso seem like nice guys — real nice guys, not Nice Guys. I tell them about the one negative experience I had at the expo, when a man trying to sell me a credit card shook my hand, winced, and said, “Whoa, you’re feisty. Settle down.” They both grimace and seem to know that the term “gentlemen” and the kind of guy who self-identifies as such has a crummy reputation. “We’re trying to change a bit of the negative perception around it,” Coscarella says. “You’re always going to have bad apples that spoil the bunch.”

I feel bad for both of them, because they’re so earnest and so pleasant about their mission, so when they start talking about wanting to bring back the fedora with no awareness of its terrible reputation, I almost stop myself from telling them in order to ruin their fun.


“If you go on the internet, it’s a pretty fiercely defensive community against that kind of hat,” I tell them.

“The fedora?” Coscarella asks.

I show them a few tweets merely by searching for the term “fedora.” The one that really guts them is a Chelsea Peretti quote from a standup special: “Do you guys think it’s worse to wear a fedora or kill 15 people?”

They both groan like I’ve run over their foot.

“It’s just a hat,” Del Rosso says.

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5 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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5 days ago
Why I'm moving out of Brooklyn (again), Exhibit A
Brooklyn, New York

The Serial Swatter - The New York Times

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Early one weekend morning in January 2014, Janet was sleeping fitfully in her parents’ home in Toronto. A junior studying elementary education at a nearby college, she had gone home for the weekend in a state of nervous collapse. For months, someone going by the name ‘‘Obnoxious’’ had been harassing her online. He had called her cellphone repeatedly and sent her threatening texts. Worst of all, he had threatened to ‘‘swat’’ her at school — to make a false emergency call to the police and lure a SWAT team to her door.

Janet was afraid to go to sleep; she kept thinking that he was going to swat her in the middle of the night. He said he was going to swat her family, too. Her father owned a bar, and her mother worked at a hotel. They were from China, and their English wasn’t great. They didn’t know much about her life online, and they would never understand why someone would stalk their daughter on the Internet.

Around 6:30 a.m., her father jostled her awake and said she needed to come downstairs. When she got to the top of the steps, she saw her family’s living room ‘‘covered in cops.’’ There were at least five officers in riot gear, guns drawn. They had bulletproof vests and pads and helmets with visors. She remembers the eerie silence of the officers — they said nothing at all. She had no idea what to do with her hands. ‘‘I was scared to move,’’ she says. ‘‘I wanted to go downstairs with my hands up. I was afraid they would shoot me. I was so scared. I feel like they just didn’t really let their guard down until I told them what happened.’’

Hoax, she said finally, this is a hoax. It’s not real. I’m being stalked. It started with DDoSing. As soon as she said ‘‘DDoSing,’’ she could tell that the officers weren’t following. Then she checked her phone and saw a stream of texts from Obnoxious. They were still arriving, crawling down the screen, when she held up her phone to show the officers and ask for help.

She didn’t know how to make the harassment stop. And she was just one victim among many. Obnoxious had swatted multiple women across North America and would swat many more in the months to come, as part of one of the most disturbing crime sprees in Internet history.

Janet spent a lot of time on a website called Twitch. It can be hard to explain Twitch to nongamers. The site is a lot of different things — a fast-­growing online community, an interactive TV universe, a Wild West of frenzied entrepreneurialism — but at its core, it’s a place where people watch other people play video games. If you don’t understand why anyone would want to do that, you’re not alone, but there are tens of millions of young people who would rather spend two hours on Twitch than endure two minutes of an N.F.L. game or ‘‘The Big Bang Theory.’’ Only four years old, Twitch already has 100 million viewers who consume 20 billion minutes of gaming every month. According to one 2014 study, Twitch is the fourth-­most-­visited site on the Internet during peak traffic periods, after Netflix, Google and Apple and above Facebook and Amazon. (Amazon bought Twitch in 2014 for about $1 billion, all of it cash.) And there is money in it for the gamers themselves, called ‘‘streamers’’: Fans can subscribe to channels for extra access, or they can send donations of any amount. Streamers with modest followings can make respectable incomes — hundreds or thousands of dollars a month — and the very top streamers are getting rich.

A friend told Janet about Twitch in 2013, and she decided to try. ‘‘It’s addicting,’’ she says. ‘‘I love it.’’ She could play games she liked with friends and build a following. Once she got up to 10,000 followers or so, she could pay for books for college, and food, and candles — she had an obsession at one point with candles. She loved the way Twitch enlarged her world. ‘‘I love the community,’’ she says. ‘‘You get to hear about them and their life. And you get to share things with them and share funny moments with them. And they become a part of your life, too. It’s like every day you get on stream, and the same people are there — it’s just nice to see them. It’s like, Hey, what have you done since you were gone?’’

There have always been jerks on the Internet who say rude things to women, and Twitch was hardly free of this — female streamers can usually tune it out with help from their moderators. But when Obnoxious started targeting women, around August 2013, it was clear that he was something different, more frightening. It began with a persistent glitch that drove many streamers offline for hours at a time. They would be streaming some game — say, League of Legends, the most popular PC game, a sprawling battle world with about 30 million daily players — and their Internet connection would slow to a crawl. The cause didn’t become clear until the women received private Twitch messages from Obnoxious, saying he was responsible: I’m DDoSing you right now. ‘‘DDoS’’ stands for ‘‘distributed denial of service,’’ a type of attack that is difficult to defend against and straightforward to execute. It requires only a moderate level of technical ability and the I.P. address — the unique network identity — of the target. And there are websites called ‘‘Skype resolvers’’ on which anyone can type in a Skype user name and find its I.P. address. Once the I.P. address is known, the attacker swamps it with traffic, and the connection goes down.

The women targeted by these attacks were mostly like Janet, college students in their late teens and early 20s. The attacks were eating into their viewer bases, costing them money. If you want it to stop, Obnoxious typed, add me on Skype, and we can talk about it. When the women did as they were asked, they realized that they were dealing with a teenager — a strange, depressive 16-year-old. He told part of his story to one streamer. Growing up in Canada somewhere, his father had abused him and beat him. When he turned 18, he said, he was going to kill himself. The streamer felt sorry for him and urged him not to go through with it. Another streamer took notes on his likes and dislikes. ‘‘Plays Runescape,’’ she wrote. ‘‘Periodically watches cartoon pornography. Runs game servers. Has a Taylor Swift fetish.’’

At first, Obnoxious seemed content with just having women to talk to. ‘‘He wanted friends,’’ says K., a 22-year-old streamer in Florida. (Most of the women interviewed for this article did not want their full names used, fearing future harassment.) Then he started asking for ‘‘fan signs’’: selfies of the women holding pieces of paper with ‘‘Obnoxious’’ written on them. Some women granted this request — no big deal. Then he demanded nude pictures. He had a foot fetish. He asked them to talk about sex.

As he was asking for these things, they started to get weird messages on Skype, supposedly from their friends, but really from Obnoxious in disguise. Their chats filled with abuse from multiple screen names:

im gona drive
to your house
[a friend] gave me money for the gas
and im gona pour it all over the
side of
your house
and pull out some matches
and just throw em
on your
house [ … ]


[ … ] and who has her dox again?
wanna send me i

giv me
pls [ … ]

obnoxious send teh dox [ ... ]

dude this guy
is hilarious

im gonna go swat myself

‘‘Dox’’ is a scary word. It’s a document of your private information posted online for anyone to see and exploit. Doxing makes you vulnerable to all sorts of mischief, from phone harassment to credit-­card fraud or worse. Obnoxious was able to obtain this sort of information for dozens of women. He mainly did it by cold-­calling Internet companies and duping customer-­service representatives over the phone. He would use one small piece of public information, a birthday or a favorite pet, to get yet another from one company, and then he would use the new piece to get more information from a different company. He had a con man’s gift for deception. Sometimes he was even able to take over a woman’s account. ‘‘He loved to tell me how he did it,’’ Janet says. ‘‘He told me that he would call customer service at Amazon, say that he forgot my password but he knows my birthday, and the Amazon people, they just give it. And if they wouldn’t, he would just call again.’’ (Amazon did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

When the women stopped responding to him, he escalated his attacks. He told a transgender streamer named Alexa Walk that he had her medical records and knew her birth name. Then he posted her birth name on Twitter. He posted nude pictures of some women on Twitter as well. He once posted a nude shot of a 14-year-old girl and later bragged that he was a pedophile. Women reported the abuse to Twitter, but whenever Twitter banned him, he would just make a new account and continue as before.

Online abuse began to cross over into the physical world. He sent pizzas to their homes. A string of deliverymen climbed the stairs to K.’s apartment in Florida, carrying unappetizing pies: deep-dish pizza with no cheese, pizza with anchovies and jalapeños, double bacon and double pepperoni. He called their cellphones repeatedly and sent ‘‘text bombs’’ of hundreds of messages at a time. If all else failed and Obnoxious couldn’t get a hold of a woman, he would start threatening to dispatch a SWAT team to her house, or her parents’ house, or her college — a kind of intrusion that couldn’t be ignored. When Janet wouldn’t respond to his texts, he reached out to one of her friends and asked the friend to convey a message:

[1:06:17 AM] obnoxious: and if she isnt willing
[1:06:21 AM] obnoxious: to speak to [me] secretly
[1:06:23 AM] obnoxious: she is going to get
[1:06:26 AM] obnoxious: a swat team
[1:06:28 AM] obnoxious: in her parents house
[1:06:30 AM] obnoxious: holding them at gun point
[1:06:34 AM] obnoxious: with all their ssns
[1:06:35 AM] obnoxious: on doxbin
[1:06:39 AM] obnoxious: and her credit ruined
Tell her right now
[1:07:31 AM] obnoxious: idc [I don’t care] where
[1:07:31 AM] obnoxious: or how
[1:07:39 AM] obnoxious: but this is last chance im giving her
[1:07:50 AM] obnoxious: be friends with me secretly or get wrecked

The SWAT team grew from the tumult of the 1960s. In Philadelphia, a string of armed robberies prompted a ‘‘stakeout’’ unit of officers who received extra weapons training; in Los Angeles, after the Watts riots of 1965, an ambitious police commander, Daryl Gates, who later became the chief of police, argued that the city needed elite officers with rifles, shotguns and armored cars, trained in military-­style tactics. Gates explained to The Los Angeles Times in 1968 that during the unrest, ‘‘suddenly we found ourselves with almost a guerrilla warfare without weaponry. ... I felt the frustration of being almost helpless.’’

At first, the SWAT idea struck some officers as strange — wouldn’t the units scare residents and damage relationships with communities? — but lax gun regulations and strict national drug laws encouraged cities and towns to invest in bigger weaponry. The ‘‘war on drugs’’ in particular pressured officers to conduct militarized drug enforcement. (Mother Jones recently analyzed 465 police requests for armored tactical vehicles that resemble small tanks, and more requests said the vehicles would be used for drug enforcement than any other reason.) And the grim logic of mass shootings and hostage situations, where seconds and minutes can matter, pushed communities to form local SWAT teams instead of relying on teams from farther away that took longer to arrive. (A recent study led by a professor at Texas State University analyzed 84 ‘‘active shooter’’ incidents from 2000 to 2010, and about half the time, the shootings were over by the time any officers arrived at the scene.) ‘‘We want to keep the community safe,’’ says the tactical commander of a SWAT team in Georgia. ‘‘And if responding in a very short time period saves lives, that’s what we want to do. And we can do that by having a team readily available. We do.’’

Through the 1990s and 2000s, SWAT teams started cropping up in smaller American towns, even in places where violent crime is fairly uncommon. According to research done by Peter Kraska, a criminologist at Eastern Kentucky University, by the mid-2000s, 80 percent of law-enforcement agencies in towns with populations of 25,000 to 50,000 had a military-­style unit, compared with just 20 percent in the mid-1980s. In the last decade, the ‘‘war on terror’’ has helped local law-­enforcement agencies acquire unprecedented firepower. One Pentagon program has sent at least $5.6 billion in equipment to police departments, including 625 armored tactical vehicles, more than 200 grenade launchers and around 80,000 assault rifles. Many people had no idea that SWAT teams owned gear like this until the protests in Ferguson, Mo., last summer, when images spread around the world of white officers confronting black protesters with tear gas and a type of armored truck called a BearCat. People all along the political spectrum expressed horror at these pictures; Senator Rand Paul wrote that ‘‘the images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action.’’

Ferguson renewed a debate about the legitimacy of SWAT tools and strategies that is still being argued. Critics say SWAT teams have become like occupying forces, deploying for purposes beyond their core mission (Radley Balko, the author of ‘‘Rise of the Warrior Cop,’’ found instances of military-­style raids on nonviolent offenders like poker players and pot growers); the police say they need the teams and the weapons as deterrents and as bulwarks against the unknown.

But the unknown is where swatters step in. They exploit the ubiquity of SWAT teams and the readiness of the police to respond. The Georgia tactical commander, a veteran of the Marines, says that for planned raids, when he and his team are considering whether to deploy, they use a ‘‘matrix’’ of risk factors to decide if a SWAT response is justified: Does the suspect have a history of violence? Does the suspect have weapons? Has the suspect made threats to law enforcement? For a situation in progress, though — an emergency call — there is no time to go through all of that, and from a police point of view, it’s better to ‘‘respond high and then downgrade’’ than it is to show up unprepared. So when a situation arises with a possible active shooter, especially one who says he is heavily armed and will kill officers, dispatch sends a text to team members’ cellphones to respond to a certain address, and the police are ready for confrontation.

And when the police ‘‘respond high,’’ residents can become disoriented. Maybe they assume they are being robbed. Maybe they pick up a gun. In 2011, a former Marine and Iraq war veteran named Jose Guerena was awakened by his wife, who thought she saw intruders outside their home in Arizona. Guerena picked up his AR-15 rifle, with the safety on, to protect his wife and family. SWAT officers entered the house, saw the gun and shot Guerena dozens of times, killing him. They were conducting a drug investigation. In 2010, during a military-­style raid on a home in east Detroit, a police officer looking for a murder suspect accidentally shot and killed a 7-year-old girl while she slept.

Swatting isn’t new; law enforcement encountered a ring of swatters in the mid-2000s. But the phenomenon is touching more and more lives in more serious ways. (The F.B.I. doesn’t keep statistics on swatting incidents; a bureau spokeswoman says it is still working out which part of the F.B.I. should handle swatting investigations, because the crime ‘‘crosses so many of our delineated thresholds for who handles what.’’) Activists and political operatives on the right and the left have been swatted. Reporters writing about computer security have been swatted. Celebrities have been swatted: Ashton Kutcher, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna. Politicians trying to pass anti-­swatting bills, including a state senator in California and a state assemblyman in New Jersey, have been swatted at their homes. Video gamers, male and female, have been swatted.

While a swatting hoax is often preceded by other kinds of Internet attacks (Twitter threats, the public posting of a home address or phone number), swatting is the most troubling manifestation of online harassment, because it’s not online at all — it’s actual weapons and confusion, showing up at your door.

What a lot of the victims remember is a sense of unreality, a feeling like they were watching a movie. K. says she opened the door of her Florida apartment one evening to find a dozen SWAT officers lined up on the stairs with riot shields and black guns pointed at her. She froze and thought of the metal belt buckle she happened to be clutching in her left hand. They’re going to think I have a weapon in my hand. They’re going to shoot me.

Obnoxious often sent a text to his target telling her that the SWAT team was on its way — too late to stop it — just so she would know it was him. Sometimes victims received phone calls from the police before the SWAT team arrived. A Canadian Twitch streamer named Maple Ong got a call one night in January 2014, telling her to leave her house with her hands up, along with her panicked father and younger brother, so the police could search it for bombs that Obnoxious had told them were placed there. Allison Henderson, a 26-year-old artist and streamer who lived with two other streamers in Costa Mesa, Calif., received a phone call one night from a woman with the Police Department, asking her how many people were in her apartment and what she was wearing. Allison and her roommates had recently been DDoSed and harassed by Obnoxious. The policewoman told Allison to step outside with her hands above her head.

‘‘I held my breath and slowly opened the door to the sight of rifles pointed at me from every direction,’’ she says. ‘‘It was the most terrifying experience of my life.’’ When officers questioned her, she couldn’t make them understand. ‘‘They were completely lost on the idea of a stranger harassing us over the Internet,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s a feeling like you’re drowning, and the person doesn’t understand what water is.’’

A few months after Obnoxious swatted Janet and her family, he swatted them again. The officers who showed up this time seemed irritated at Janet, ‘‘like it was my fault that I got swatted, because I do what I do, because I play video games.’’ She says one told her, ‘‘Just pick up a book.’’ The officers who responded to these calls did a professional job — in the sense that they assessed the situation, de-­escalated it and didn’t fire their weapons. At the same time, they misjudged what they were seeing. They didn’t grasp that each swatting was merely a spike in a long-­running pattern of abuse that would continue when they drove away. ‘‘You don’t want to dwell on it,’’ says K., the Florida streamer. ‘‘You just want to go back to doing what you love. But it isn’t that simple. Because everything’s changed. As he was attacking us, we couldn’t be the same anymore.’’ Some of Obnoxious’s swatting victims took long breaks from streaming, even though it was a major social outlet and an income source for them. ‘‘I just wanted to be alone,’’ says Alexa Walk, who was swatted by Obnoxious at her apartment in North Carolina. ‘‘I didn’t want people to see me upset.’’

After being attacked, several victims reached out to Twitch, asking for information that they could give to detectives or for advice on how to protect themselves from further abuse. In early January 2014, one victim wrote to Twitch, saying that she and ‘‘a lot of other female streamers have been severely harassed and attacked by a ‘hacker’ named Obnoxious and his friends.’’ She continued: ‘‘It has gotten to the point that he is calling SWAT teams into houses. I just dealt with the SWAT team at my house.’’ A Twitch representative replied that he was aware of Obnoxious and the swattings — he had seen one victim’s anguished Facebook post — but that ‘‘in some cases, there is not a lot we can do when things happen off of our site.’’ Another Twitch representative told Jamie Lynn Greenwood, 32, a streamer who was swatted in Montana while playing Minecraft (not by Obnoxious but by someone else) and was ordered from her home at gunpoint along with her husband, ‘‘I sympathize for you going through that — best of luck to the police to catch the perpetrator!’’

(Twitch’s initial response to questions emailed by this magazine was brief. A company spokesman called swatting ‘‘an age-old stunt far from unique to Twitch’’ and claimed that swattings of Twitch broadcasters are ‘‘infrequent.’’ Later, after being told of the magnitude of the Obnoxious case, he wrote, ‘‘We are adding info about swatting as part of our Education portal, which will also have info on protection from DDoS and other common ways of being harassed.’’)

B.A. Finley, a detective sergeant with the Johns Creek Police Department outside Atlanta, had heard about swatting but never really understood it until Jan. 16, 2014. That afternoon, a man called a police line in Alpharetta, Ga., and said he had killed three people in a home in nearby Johns Creek and was holding a girl hostage. ‘‘If you send any cops here, I swear to God I’ll shoot their ass.’’ The dispatcher tried to get information as the man stammered and cursed at her. ‘‘I got the little girl right here.’’ He said he needed $30,000 or he would kill the girl, too.

Officers — including Finley — raced to the address with rifles and shotguns, unholstering loaded pistols at the scene, only to find that there was no hostage-­taker, no dead family, no emergency. There was only chaos: close to 40 responders and their vehicles, gawking neighbors, traumatized victims, everyone trying to figure out what had happened.

The hoax made the news, and the Johns Creek mayor expressed his anger publicly. Then, nine days later, the police got a second call of an emergency at the same address, this time from a different-­sounding man. ‘‘Hey, yo,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m at one of my old buddies’ house. He stole, like, ten grand from me.’’ And then: ‘‘I planted four bombs in his house.’’ It was another swatting hoax.

The police chief asked Finley to make the case his top priority, to take whatever time he needed to catch the perpetrator — a mandate that detectives, especially those looking into swatting cases, don’t often enjoy.

Finley is a tall, big-­torsoed man with a thick drawl. At that time, he didn’t have any ‘‘cyber’’ experience, in the charming archaism often used by law enforcement. But he possessed unusual patience, and this was an investigation that required a great deal of it. Neither of the caller-­ID numbers attached to the two hoax calls belonged to an individual. They had to be traced through a laby­rinth of companies that buy blocks of numbers and resell them to voice-­over-­IP providers; the only way to do this was to subpoena the companies, wait for records to come back (it could take a week), analyze the records and send out more subpoenas, court orders and search warrants — 75 of them by the end. It was all very analog; when Finley needed to update his commander on the investigation, he would print out photos of his white board on sheets of 8½-by-11 paper and tape the pages together.

By April, he had filled a conference room with stacks of documents. He asked the cleaning crew not to touch the room. He was getting somewhere. The first swatting seemed to be a one-off; it pointed to a suspect in New York. (The suspect has yet to be charged.) But the second swatting led to a bigger world of crimes. After weeks of slogging through paper, Finley linked the call to a Skype account that had also called 10 other police agencies across the United States and Canada in the same month. Finley got in touch with these agencies, and sure enough, they had received hoax emergency calls on those dates. Finley compared the recordings of some of those calls with the Georgia call. It was obviously the same suspect; he hadn’t bothered to alter his voice. He had a vocal tic that Finley kept trying to place, some slight cold-­weather quirk, as if he were from way up north, Wisconsin, maybe Canada.

It wasn’t easy to pinpoint the swatter’s location, in part because he had masked his I.P. address by using virtual private networks. The VPNs flung the swatter’s traffic back and forth from Russia to the Netherlands and other places. ‘‘These things can make your head spin,’’ Finley says. He spent a lot of time staring at the conference-room wall and asking computer analysts questions on the phone. Using an email address associated with the Skype account to pry out more records, he eventually discovered what looked like the swatter’s personal website, listing his name as ‘‘Obnoxious.’’ He also found a page on Pastebin that purported to reveal Obnoxious’s true name, along with his birth date and hometown. Apparently, one of his online enemies had doxed him. According to the dox, the swatter was a minor living in Coquitlam, a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia.

This news, if true, was unpromising; Finley obviously couldn’t just fly to another country and put a juvenile in handcuffs. But he kept pulling threads. Finley called the police in Coquitlam, and while they wouldn’t give him the swatter’s name, they confirmed that they knew all about him. He had been arrested earlier that year, in fact, and released on bail on the condition that he not access the Internet or use a computer without supervision. The authorities would arrest him again in the fall — only to release him on bail yet again.

Now Finley had a suspect. The problem was how to make the arrest. Swatting isn’t an easy crime to charge; law enforcement is still developing a language for it. Is it a type of fraud? Identity theft? Cyberterrorism? Is it a prank? Three federal lawmakers, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Representatives Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts and Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, recently introduced bills to increase penalties for swatting, but right now, many swatters, if charged at all, are charged with misdemeanors. Finley knew that Obnoxious was causing real harm, but he didn’t seem to have good options; even if he could persuade a prosecutor in Georgia to take an interest in the case, they would never be able to extradite an underage suspect from Canada. The swatter seemed keenly aware of this reality. ‘‘UNTOUCHABLE,’’ Finley saw him tweet once. ‘‘UNEXTRADITEABLE.’’

At the same time that Finley was researching Obnoxious, his victims were undertaking their own investigation. The police couldn’t or wouldn’t help, they assumed, and the Internet companies were useless. If they wanted to protect themselves and others, they had to organize.

In private and on Facebook, they began to network and gather evidence, and soon they had a pool of screen shots and chat logs, as well as a zip file that appeared to contain the swatter’s ‘‘hit list’’ — a folder of text files with private information about 99 female gamers, obtained by a woman who had been harassed by Obnoxious and who found it on Doxbin. They also found the same dox that Finley found, the one that listed the swatter’s hometown and real name. A few victims had been assigned local detectives who asked them to send along any relevant information, and the women now shared what they had.

Obnoxious must have felt exposed by the doxing, because around this time he went on Twitter and apologized to some of his victims, saying he was going to stop swatting people. But his attacks only intensified over that spring and into summer. ‘‘We knew he wasn’t going to stop doing it,’’ Alexa Walk says. ‘‘He was going really hard on it this time.’’

He started skipping the intermediate step of pizza and went straight to swatting. He also broadened his list of targets. In June, in the California city of Ontario, 35 miles east of Los Angeles, the police got a call that a local man was doing dope, had shot and killed his father with an AR-15 and was thinking about killing his mother. They sent 32 units to the address, representing 90 percent of its available law-­enforcement resources — three supervisors, throngs of squad cars, an armored BearCat, a helicopter, a canine unit — only to find three people, a mother, her boyfriend and her son, inside the home and perfectly safe. The son was a League of Legends gamer who had angered Obnoxious by defending one of his female victims online.

The ordeal cost the taxpayers of Ontario $6,500, yet it was sometimes difficult for the Ontario detective assigned to the case to justify spending time on it. ‘‘I have felony cases sitting on my lap,’’ he says. ‘‘Why would I take this cyber case, tracking down all these records, trying to find a guy who’s in another country?’’

Finley understood that sentiment, one echoed by many other officers. But the swatter enraged him. He knew, from talking to victims, that people were hurting and struggling. ‘‘Do you just say, Oh, sorry, he’s a teenage boy, and he lives in Canada, and there’s nothing we can do? I do not like telling people there’s nothing we can do.’’

By August 2014, Finley had reached out to the F.B.I.’s Atlanta field office, asking if the bureau could help with a swatting case in which the suspect was a minor. He was told the swatter would have to be ‘‘prolific.’’ Finley asked what that meant. He knew the swatter had made hoax calls to 11 police departments in that one January alone. How many swattings is prolific? No one Finley spoke to at the bureau could say. But Finley kept tracking Obnoxious, kept calling the F.B.I. with updates — he could connect the guy to 20 swatting calls, then 30 calls. When he got past 40 about a month later, he finally found a special agent named Andrew Young. Forty was definitely prolific.

Young met with Finley and looked at all he had gathered. The swatter ‘‘was very brazen in his activity,’’ Young says, ‘‘very mean­spirited and destructive.’’ Young thought the best strategy was to persuade Canada to make the arrest, given that there was little chance of extradition. He could open a parallel F.B.I. case, help Finley package up his research ‘‘nice and neatly’’ and get it into the right Canadian hands.

In September and October last year, Obnoxious launched new attacks. He swatted a girl’s high school in Fort Meade, Fla., saying he would drive there ‘‘in a black Jeep Cherokee and shoot everyone with an AK-47’’— a threat that sent the school into lockdown for hours. According to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, he swatted the same school again a month later, then swatted the student at her family’s home in nearby Winter Haven. He swatted a female Twitch streamer in ­Tucson, where she was attending the University of Arizona, then swatted her again five days later while her mother was visiting; at the exact moment, he also swatted the family homestead back in Phoenix, with the streamer’s brother and father in the house at the time, removed by the police at gunpoint.

Over the next month, the mother watched her daughter’s sleep pattern change. She lost the ability to keep up at college and decided to withdraw for the semester. Obnoxious broke into her Twitter feed and started posting abuse from it. ‘‘He just ripped her life apart,’’ the mother says. ‘‘And ours, too.’’

Still, Canada couldn’t make the arrest. They told the United States authorities that they didn’t have enough evidence to get a warrant to search the swatter’s home.

By late 2014, there were still women on Twitch who didn’t know about Obnoxious and his swatting, who continued streaming their games and building their channels. One was Hayli Metter, age 23, a journalism major at Arizona State. She had played games since she was 6, when her father introduced her to Doom; after her parents went through a difficult divorce, she sought refuge in a ‘‘Harry Potter’’ fan site called MuggleNet, where she wrote and shared fan fiction. When she discovered Twitch, ‘‘I just fell in love with it,’’ she says. ‘‘Best thing in the world.’’ In six months, she had amassed 5,000 or 6,000 followers and was thinking seriously about a professional life in video games. The most important thing to her was creating a welcoming community: ‘‘People come, and they want to feel that they have a home. It’s a family.’’

The first she heard of Obnoxious was on the night of Nov. 30, when he donated $1 to her channel while she was streaming. Thanks, she thought. Then he started abusing her via chat. He doxed her, posting her address and apartment number, which he had filched from her Internet provider, Cox Communications, by pretending to be a company technician. (Cox says that ‘‘we regret that this incident occurred’’ and that it is constantly updating its security protocols.) Hayli’s moderators tried to ban him, but he kept reappearing under new names. ‘‘Hayli,’’ he typed, ‘‘if your mods don’t stop banning me, I swear to God I’m going to swat you.’’

Private messages from friends started pouring in, telling Hayli to call the police. She called 911 and tried to explain that someone was threatening to swat her. Minutes later, Obnoxious called the Tempe police, pretended that he was afraid he was going to be swatted and asked if they could send a squad car. He gave Hayli’s address. ‘‘Can I tell you something?’’ he said. ‘‘If I see any police officers, I’m shooting them.’’

Confused but cautious, the Tempe police sent a few officers to Hayli’s apartment to make sure she was O.K. Obnoxious kept sending threats while Hayli was speaking to them; they took photos of her screen with their phones.

At some point after midnight on Dec. 1, Obnoxious started broadcasting his crimes on multiple sites. When one site would ban him, he would switch to another. The stream showed everything but his face. His voice was audible, and sometimes the voices of five or six other male teenagers, egging him on. Incredibly, in full view of anyone who wanted to watch (he posted links to the streams on Twitter), he made two hoax emergency calls to two American police departments: St. Paul and Grove City, Ohio. Grove City sent officers with tactical rifles to surround a house in a residential neighborhood, surprising a woman’s husband when he opened the door.

Obnoxious’s stream continued for more than eight hours and 40 minutes, enough time for many of his victims to realize what he was doing and frantically email their police contacts: He is swatting people right now, in front of an audience. Hayli saw the stream and couldn’t believe it. Finley was watching it, too. The mother of the University of Arizona victim tipped him off. He emailed a link to his contacts in Canada and told them to tune in.

The Canadian police arrested the suspect on Dec. 5, four days after he tried to swat Hayli. Much of the case against him had been shipped up from Georgia. Prosecutors eventually charged him with 46 counts, including criminal harassment, public mischief and extortion; he pleaded guilty to 23 counts. (His Vancouver lawyer didn’t return phone calls.) He was interviewed at length by a social worker, a psychiatrist and a psychologist, who confirmed that the swatter’s childhood had been tragic, marred by an abusive father and a mentally ill mother. The psychiatric report noted that he had essentially no remorse: ‘‘His description of the pleasure he gets from causing humiliation and harm ... is suggestive of quite significant emerging psychopathic traits.’’ At a court appearance in May, he wore a sweatsuit, ankles shackled together; a local reporter observed him smiling occasionally and flicking his brown hair. In July, a judge sentenced him to 16 months in youth jail, with credit for time served while awaiting trial. He is scheduled to be released in March, at age 18.

Finley estimates that he spent 1,000 hours on the case, an incredible amount of effort to catch one teenager. But the kid was exploiting an obvious flaw in the system. When he called the police in Ontario, Calif., in June 2014 and said he had killed his father with an AR-15 and had taken his mother hostage and would shoot any officers who showed up, ‘‘Guys are thinking: This is it. This is what we’ve been trained for,’’ the Ontario detective says. ‘‘This is why we get this tactical equipment. This is why we have a BearCat. This is why we have armor and rifles.’’ In the United States, law enforcement and the public are still grappling with what SWAT teams are for and how they should be used, but the swatter knew exactly how to use them.

Some of Obnoxious’s victims were initially wary of talking about him or their cases. They eventually did so in hopes that it would make it easier for future victims of swatting, doxing and online harassment to explain what they were enduring. ‘‘This means that more people will take it seriously,’’ one victim says. ‘‘This means that it’s a crime.’’ The women have proved resilient: Hayli says she returned to Twitch almost immediately after her swatting because ‘‘I didn’t want him to win,’’ and she now has 58,000 followers and 1.8 million views. Janet now makes a living streaming full-time. ‘‘I try to focus on the good parts and the good people of the Twitch community,’’ she says.

Many, though, are still worried about the swatter and what he will be like when he is released. (One victim says, ‘‘I just hope he leaves me alone, forever, ever, ever.’’) They wonder, too, about the others: the swatter’s friends and fans, the ones who cheered, the ones who might decide to try it for themselves. ‘‘It was never really him that I was really afraid of,’’ Hayli says. ‘‘It was all the other people who I had no idea who they were.’’ There’s nothing stopping them from doing everything Obnoxious did. They just need to make a call.

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What can a technologist do about climate change? A personal view.

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Say we allocate $3.0 billion for the following program: Car-owners who trade in an old car that gets less than 17 MPG, and purchase a new car that gets better than 24 MPG, will receive a $3,500 rebate.

We estimate that this will get 828,571 old cars off the road. It will save 1,068 million gallons of gas (or 68 hours worth of U.S. gas consumption.) It will avoid 9.97 million tons CO2e, or 0.14% of annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The abatement cost is $301 per ton CO2e of federal spending, although it’s -$20 per ton CO2e on balance if you account for the money saved by consumers buying less gas.

This passage gives some estimates of what the proposal would actually do. But there’s something more going on. Some numbers above are in green. Drag green numbers with your mouse to adjust them. (Really, do it!) Notice how the consequences of your adjustments are reflected immediately in the following paragraph. The reader can explore alternative scenarios, understand the tradeoffs involved, and come to an informed conclusion about whether any such proposal could be a good decision.

This is possible because the author is not just publishing words. The author has provided a model — a set of formulas and algorithms that calculate the consequences of a given scenario. Some numbers above are in blue. Click a blue number to reveal how it was calculated. (“It will save 1,068 million gallons is a particularly meaty calculation.) Notice how the model’s assumptions are clearly visible, and can even be adjusted by the reader.

Readers are thus encouraged to examine and critique the model. If they disagree, they can modify it into a competing model with their own preferred assumptions, and use it to argue for their position. Model-driven material can be used as grounds for an informed debate about assumptions and tradeoffs.

Modeling leads naturally from the particular to the general. Instead of seeing an individual proposal as “right or wrong”, “bad or good”, people can see it as one point in a large space of possibilities. By exploring the model, they come to understand the landscape of that space, and are in a position to invent better ideas for all the proposals to come. Model-driven material can serve as a kind of enhanced imagination.

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Not sure it will render super well in newsblur - a very rich document. Do something important!
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On Pandering | Tin House

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This essay, which is featured in our forthcoming Winter issue, was originally given as a lecture during the 2015 Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop.

It was met with enthusiastic applause. 


Some Exposition

Until recently I was a professor at a private liberal arts university in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, a little town located at the exact point of overlap of a three-part Venn diagram. Draw one in your mind: label circle #1 Amish country, label circle #2 coal country, label circle #3 fracking country.

The towns near Lewisburg have names like Shamokin Dam, Frackville, Minersville, and Coal Township. You might have heard of a place called Centralia, a modern-day ghost town thanks to a vein of coal that has been burning beneath the ground since 1962, belching up smoke and carbon monoxide, forcing people to flee their homes and poisoning those who refuse. That vein, by the way, is expected to continue burning for another 250 years. So if you haven’t visited Centralia, there’s still time. Centralia is about forty miles from my old house, and people from the Buffalo Valley, where I lived, often took day trips there. So basically all you need to know about this particular region of central Pennsylvania is that we went to Centralia—a smoldering village of noxious fumes—on vacation.

The Buffalo Valley smells like pig shit, puppy mills, or burning garbage, depending on which way the wind blows. It is not uncommon, when hiking, to come across a tarry black field where old-growth forest has been recently clear-cut, the ground still soaked with diesel. This all sounds pretty bleak, and it was, even to me, a person with a high tolerance for bleakness and an affection for abused landscapes. Living there, I can admit now that I’ve fled, corroded a part of my soul. Driving to a neighboring town for a prenatal checkup felt like driving through Capote’s In Cold Blood. During the time I lived in central Pennsylvania the adjective I used most to describe the place to faraway friends was “murdersome.”

And yet the little town of Lewisburg, where this expensive private university is located, is actually quite pleasant. The houses are gingerbread Victorians and stately brick colonials, all turrets, stained glass, and sleeping porches. Market Street is lined with parks and bed and breakfasts and small local businesses from another era—a shoe repair shop, a butcher, a vacuum cleaner repairman, a chocolatier, an independent bookstore, a single-screen art deco movie theater where they put real melted butter on the popcorn. The town square boasts a Christmas tree in the winter, scarecrows in the autumn, and alfresco concerts and community theater in the summer. Every street is lit by old-fashioned globe lampposts, the proud town’s icon. It is a place, as residents often insist, that time forgot.


In short, Lewisburg looks almost nothing like its neighbors in coal-Amish-fracking country, which time has remembered all too well. Obviously, this has everything to do with the university—one year spent at this college, located about three hours from New York City, costs $62,368. Generally speaking the campus can be fairly characterized by the setting of Frederick Busch’s wonderful short story “Ralph the Duck,” a “northeastern camp for the overindulged.” Money from the school, its faculty, its students and their parents props up the local economy. Simple enough.

But the true relationship between the town and the university did not occur to me until one of my students, from Youngstown, Ohio, described how much her mother loved coming to Lewisburg, how each time she visited her mother would say, “Look at that adorable chocolate shop, look at those gleaming lampposts. I just love Lewisburg!” My student, sharper than we give Millennials credit for, told her mother, “Of course you love it. It’s for you.”

What she meant, I think, is that Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, is a town in coal country the way Disney’s Celebration, Florida, is a suburb of Orlando. Lewisburg, and countless other so-called college towns like it, is Bedford Falls in loco parentis. It’s a country-mouse theme park for young people wanting the illusion of distance, wanting the sense of being away on a journey and all the self-discovery that promises. It’s for them, and it’s for their parents, who will tolerate this distance and this freaky looming self-discovery, so long as it comes with the quaintness of the country, the control of a company town, and all the safety that $62,368 can buy.

All to say that for the past four years, I lived in a landscape of pandering.


Stephen Elliott Comes to Town

Let’s segue into one of my favorite subgenres of literary gossip: writers behaving badly. What writers’ conference would be complete without it?

It is the fall of 2009 and I’m in the final year of my three-year MFA program. The program is hosting a reading by the writer and P. T. Barnum figure Stephen Elliott, who, in addition to being a novelist and memoirist, is editor in chief of the online literary magazine The Rumpus. The university does not provide him accommodations so our program director passes along his request that someone put him up for the night. I volunteer. Kyle Minor, another writer and an alumnus of the program, fetches Stephen from the airport. Stephen, Kyle, and I have lunch, where we talk about Denis Johnson, our works in progress, and our agents. I’d landed a hotshot agent six months earlier, am still freaked out by how, when I Google her, names like Junot Díaz and Jonathan Safran Foer appear. I have a story coming out in Granta, a collection in the homestretch, and I’m eager to talk about all this with writers who’ve been there. After lunch, Stephen takes a nap at my house while I go teach. I come back and take him to his reading, then to a bar with the other grad students, then to get donuts on our way home. Stephen flirts with me all night and back at my apartment he attempts, with what I’ll graciously term considerable persistence, to convince me to let him sleep in my bed rather than on the air mattress I’ve inflated for him in the other room. I decline several times before he relents, doing so only after I tell him I’m seeing someone. He sleeps on the air mattress, and in the morning we have breakfast and then I drive him to the airport.

Later that day, a friend forwards me the Daily Rumpus e-newsletter, which Stephen wrote in the airport and sent to his subscribers, allegedly a few thousand readers, writers, and fans of his site. Its subject line is “Overheard in Columbus.” Of the visit Stephen wrote:

It was really a great time, though I can’t put my finger on exactly why. It might have been the ride from the airport with Kyle Miner [sic] who’s living the post MFA life with a book of stories out, a couple of kids, teaching classes up in Toledo, finishing what sounds like a fantastic novel and contemplating law school. Or it might have been Claire, the student I stayed with. Or the walk for donuts at 10:30 on a Wednesday night, which felt late in that town, especially on the strip.

I tried to get in Claire’s bed. It was a big, comfortable bed. She said no, how would she explain it to the boy she was getting to know. I said there was nothing to explain to the boy, nothing’s going to happen. It’s like sleeping with your gay friend. But she wasn’t so sure. She had been drinking and I don’t drink. I slept on the air mattress in the other room.

Now, I realize I’m not a special snowflake, that every woman who writes has a handbag full of stories like this. There is probably an entire teeming sub-subgenre titled “Stephen Elliott Comes to Town.” I offer this here partly because it was my very first personal run-in with overtly misogynistic behavior from a male writer, and so perhaps my most instructive. I learned a lot from that Daily Rumpus e-mail (which is a sentence that has never before been uttered). I want to stress that I’m not presenting Stephen Elliott as a rogue figure, but as utterly emblematic. I want to show you how, via his compulsive stream-of-consciousness monologue e-mailed to a few thousand readers, I was given a glass-bottom-boat tour of a certain type of male writer’s mind.

I scrolled up and down, reading and rereading, and through that glass-bottom boat saw a world where Kyle Minor was Kyle Minor, a writer “with a book of stories out, a couple of kids, teaching classes up in Toledo, finishing what sounds like a fantastic novel and contemplating law school.” Whereas I was Claire, no last name, “the student,” owner of a big, comfortable bed. Until my friend forwarded that e-mail to me, I’d been under the impression that since I wrote, I was a writer, period. If I wrote bad I was a bad writer, if I wrote good I was a good writer. Simple as that. I was, I knew, every bit as ambitious as Kyle Minor and Stephen Elliott. I loved books just as much as Kyle and Stephen did, read as much as they did, and worked just as hard to get the right words in the right order. But now I was confronted with Google Groups listserv proof that, to Stephen, Kyle was a writer and I was a drunk girl.

But fuck ’em, right? What did Tina Fey say about sexists in the workplace: over, under, and through. The problem with responding to sexism with Sesame Street is that if you read that e-mail as I read that e-mail, as I was being trained to read—that is, carefully and curiously, over and over—you’ll see something more than the story Stephen told himself about me as a writer or, in this case, not a writer. I saw, in the form of paragraphs and sentences, my area of expertise, how it took only a few lines to go from professional dismissal to sexual entitlement to being treated as property to gaslighting.


Now, I don’t know about you, but I tend to think professional sexism via artistic infantilization is a bummer, frustrating, disappointing, but distinct and apart from those violent expressions of misogyny widely agreed upon as horrific: domestic violence, sex slavery, rape. Stephen Elliott did not rape me, did not attempt to rape me. I am not anywhere close to implying that he did. I am saying a sexist negation, a refusal to acknowledge a female writer as a writer, as a peer, as a person, is of a piece with sexual entitlement. No, more than of a piece, it is practically a prerequisite. Humans are wide, open vessels, capable of almost anything—if you read you know this—but you cannot beat the mother of your children, or rape your childhood friend while she’s unconscious, or walk up to a sorority outside Santa Barbara and start shooting without first convincing yourself and allowing our culture to convince you that those women are less than human.

I know that’s an intense analogy. I intend it to be.

Here, Stephen Elliot handily provides a clear illustration of an idea most recently proposed by Rebecca Solnit in her important essay collection Men Explain Things to Me: these things exist on a continuum. Sexist dismissal of women as artists and the assumption of sexual entitlement over them that is necessary to make something like rape okay in our culture—and it very much is okay in our culture—are not separated by vast chasms of principles. Look here, they are two paragraphs of the same story, separated by only a keystroke.

When I said, I’m a writer, Stephen heard, I’m a girl. And, because I was a girl, when I said, No, you cannot sleep in my bed, he heard someone who “wasn’t so sure.” I continued, in his mind, to be unsure, and only the man I was dating—in Stephen’s infantilizing phrase “the boy she was getting to know”—could be sure for me. The story Stephen told himself went: “She had been drinking and I don’t drink.” Because I was not a writer, not a person, I was easily made into a drunk girl unable to tell her own story.

That is, until now.

Watching Boys Do Stuff


But you know all this, even if you haven’t heard it recently, even if you haven’t heard it out loud. I am not interested in why Stephen did what he did. I was a women’s studies minor, I get it. What I’m curious about is what I did with what he did.

For years, I thought this encounter was formative. I described it as I have above, a kind of revelation. These days I think, if only. After all, it’s so much gentler to be presented with an ugliness of which you’d been previously completely and honestly oblivious than one you were trying to pretend didn’t exist. The truth is, the fact that our culture considers male writers more serious than me was not a revelation. I’d been getting the messages of Stephen’s e-mail long before my friend forwarded it to me—all women do. We live in a culture that hates us. We get that. Misogyny is the water we swim in.

To wit:

As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember. I have been trying to give it up recently, since moving away from Bedford Falls, since around the time my daughter was born. But nearly all of my life has been arranged around this activity. I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.


I’ve watched boys play the drums, guitar, sing, watched them play football, baseball, soccer, pool, Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. I’ve watched them golf. Just the other day I watched them play a kind of sweaty, book-nerd version of basketball. I’ve watched them work on their trucks and work on their master’s theses. I’ve watched boys build things: half-pipes, bookshelves, screenplays, careers. I’ve watched boys skateboard, snowboard, act, bike, box, paint, fight, and drink. I could probably write my own series of six virtuosic autobiographical novels based solely on the years I spent watching boys play Resident Evil and Tony Hawk’s ProSkater. I watched boys in my leisure time, I watched boys in my love life, and I watched boys in my education. I watched Melville, I watched Salinger, watched Ford, Flaubert, Díaz, Dickens, watched even when I didn’t particularly like what I saw—especially then, because it proved there was something wrong with me, something I wanted to fix. So I watched Nabokov, watched Thomas Hardy, watched Raymond Carver. I read women (some, but not enough) but I didn’t watch them. I didn’t give them megaphones in my mind. The writers with megaphones in my mind were not Mary Austin, or Louise Erdrich, or Joan Didion, or Joy Williams, or Toni Morrison, though all have been as important to me as any of the male writers I mentioned, or more. Still, I watched the boys, watched to learn. I wanted to write something Cormac McCarthy would like, something Thomas Pynchon would come out of hiding to endorse, something David Foster Wallace would blurb from beyond the grave.

I have been reenacting in my artmaking the undying pastime of my girlhood: watching boys, emulating them, trying to catch the attention of the ones who have no idea I exist.


On Invisibility


Speaking of things that are invisible: picture me in New Mexico, where I’ve come to teach for a week. Marijuana’s just been legalized in Colorado and a friend from there gifts me a joint. I approach another writer, this one down from Alaska, who is standing alone beside the glowing hotel pool. I make small talk:

I say, So, how long have you lived in Alaska?

She says, Well, I’m an Eskimo, so . . .

I ask if she wants to share the joint. She looks circumspect, which is puzzling to me. I’ve heard her mention Mary Jane before and I’m pretty sure we’re of the same mind about it.

Right here? she asks.

Yeah, I say, looking around for what’s bothering her. It’s dark, only the pool lights glowing, and we’re the only ones outside. The stars overhead are staggering.

She says, But weed’s not legal here.

I note that it’s legal in Colorado, and that Colorado touches New Mexico.

What if someone calls the cops?

They won’t call the cops! Are you crazy? We’re guests of the hotel.

What if we get arrested?

At this point we’re both super puzzled, not understanding each other at all. I’m thinking, Lighten up. People smoke weed in city parks, at music festivals, on hiking trails. The last time I smoked was at a wedding in Maine.

I say, Come on, they’re not going to arrest us for one tiny joint. We’re professors for fuck’s sake!

Okay, she says finally, lighting up. But if they call the cops you better hide me under your invisible cloak of white privilege.

At moments like this, when my whiteness materializes in front of me and I can see it, I am so embarrassed of it and also so angry at myself for not being always as aware of it as I am there in that awkward, painful, absurd, essential moment. I want to unsee it, make it invisible again, and usually I do, because it feels better. I have that privilege.

Others don’t.

I have watched writers go brown right before my eyes. My husband, half Cuban but made much more so on a job interview, is told by a white male scholar specializing in African American literature that his inventing and imagining aspects of Cuba in his novel was “problematic” and that according to this white professor, he got things about Cuba “wrong.”

My best friend, a Basque American, publishes a book set in the Spanish Basque country and Publishers Weekly lauds it “just exotic enough.” My iBooks library categorizes Joshua Cohen as “Literary” and Toni Morrison as “African American.” Think about that for a second: it’s either/or. Meaning, according to iBooks, you cannot be African American and Literary. And it was only two years ago that, over on Wikipedia, American authors whom editors suspected of being in possession of a pussy were removed from the category “American novelists” and relocated to “American women novelists.” These categories—writer or student, writer or girl, woman novelist, Eskimo, Latino, Literary or African American—matter. As Sontag told Mailer, “Words matter, Norman.” They affect the way we live—whether we can smoke a joint beside a hotel pool in New Mexico without fear of being arrested; whether someone will hear no when we say it—and they affect the way we write.

The “little white man deep inside of all of us”

It was Toni Morrison who pointed out that Tolstoy was not writing for her, who said she was writing toward black women. It makes you wonder, Who am I writing for? Who am I writing toward?

Myself, I have been writing to impress old white men. Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the white male literati. Not only acquiescence but a beseeching, approval seeking, people pleasing.

But whom do I mean when I say white male literati? Sounds like a conspiracy theory, one of my favorite genres of American storytelling. I mean the people and voices real and imagined in the positions of power (or at least influence) in writing and publishing, but mostly I mean the man in my mind. James Baldwin wrote of the “little white man deep inside of all of us” but mine is tall. He’s a white-haired chain smoker from New Mexico, the short story writer called “Cheever’s true heir.” It is Lee K. Abbot I hear in my mind. This has little to do with Lee himself, a mentor I admire, a writer I adore, whose encouragement has helped land me before you, whose support I treasure. I am not talking about Lee K. Abbott who once turned to me in workshop when I was a first-year MFA with a dead mom, a desert rat without a proper winter coat and in bad need of a thumbs-up, and asked me, because I’d turned in a story he liked, “Claire, who are the great Nevada writers?” And when I sputtered something about Robert Laxalt and Mark Twain he stopped me and said, “No. You are.” I am speaking not of Lee Kitteridge Abbott the man but what he represents. Or rather I am talking about them both, about the representation and the man himself, for didn’t I know he would like that story, about an old prospector who finds a nubile young girl left for dead in the desert?

Glad you like it, Lee. It’s for you.

I am talking about this reading I gave in Montana in the fall when it was so beautiful I almost never went home, where a late-middle-aged white cowboy—let’s call him the Old Sumbitch—waited in my signing line, among the brown-haired girls with glasses, and when he got to me said, “I usually don’t read stuff like this but Tom McGuane said you were all right.” I am talking about being at once grateful for the friendship and encouragement offered me by Tom McGuane but also angry and exhausted by the fact that I need it. The Old Sumbitch would not have read me if Tom hadn’t said I was all right. I am hiding under Tom’s invisible cloak of male privilege. At issue is not Tom McGuane or Lee K. Abbott or Jeffrey Eugenides or Christopher Coake or Chang-Rae Lee, all of whom have offered me guidance and friendship for which I’m tremendously grateful. But why should their voices be louder in my head than that of Karen Russell, a beyond generous certified genius and, with any luck, my future sister-wife? Why should they be louder than Antonya Nelson, who wrote the most illuminating review of Battleborn I’ve ever read? Why should they be louder than Erin McGraw, who read Battleborn in its every incarnation, who taught me how to get a job and keep it, who’s written me about a hundred letters of recommendation and done everything short of hand me this microphone today?


The stunning truth is that I am asking, deep down, as I write, What would Philip Roth think of this? What would Jonathan Franzen think of this? When the answer is probably: nothing. More staggering is the question of why I am trying to prove myself to writers whose work, in many cases, I don’t particularly admire? I recently finished Roth’s Indignation with nothing more lasting than a sincere curiosity as to whether Roth is aware that these days even nice girls give blow jobs.

I am trying to understand a phenomenon that happens in my head, and maybe in yours too, whereby the white supremacist patriarchy determines what I write.

I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for them. The whole book’s a pander. Look, I said with my stories: I can write old men, I can write sex, I can write abortion. I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental. I can write an old man getting a boner!

Here are the lampposts, here is the single-screen movie theater. It’s all an architecture of pandering. It’s for them.

She can write like a man, they said, by which they meant, She can write.


A fellow on Twitter says:


“A lot of young women (not to mention this WM) loved that book. Should I tell them to disregard their reading experience?”

If you like my book I’m grateful. But I remind you that people at the periphery will travel to accept and even love things not made for or toward them: we have been trained to do so our entire lives. I’m not trying to talk anyone out of their readerly response, only to confess to what went on in my mind when I made the book, to assemble an honest inventory of people I have not been writing toward (though I thought I was): women, young women, people of color, the rural poor, the American West, my dead mother.

This is frightening on its face, but manyfold scarier because I thought I was doing this for myself. I was under the impression that artmaking was apart from all the rottenness of our culture, when in fact it’s not apart from it. It is made of it.


The preceding


is either an aesthetic/artistic/personal epiphany or my ritualistic prepublication freak-out; perhaps a little of column A, a little of column B. I’ll tell you this: I have not written anything of consequence since my daughter was born. It’s easy to say, You had a baby, you’re busy, it gets better, and I’m really glad to hear from those of you who have said as much. But I wonder if part of the reason I have not been writing is because I have not been seeing. My gaze is no longer an artist’s gaze.

Why would that be? I think it has something to do with the fact that I don’t wander in the desert much anymore. I spend my days with a baby and that, patriarchy says, is not the stuff of art. Once again I am a girl and not a writer. No one said this. No one has to. I am saying it to myself. That’s the terrible efficiency of gaslighting.

After watching Girls for the first time my friend Annie McGreevy says, “That was my experience, too, but I didn’t know it was okay to make art about it.” And maybe it’s still not okay. After doing an event with Miranda July, Lena Dunham tweets this quote from Lorrie Moore, writing on July in the New York Review of Books, “When one googles ‘Wes Anderson’ and ‘fey’ one gets a lot of pictures of him and Tina Fey.”


About a year ago I had a baby,


and while my life was suddenly more intense, more frightening, more beautiful, more difficult, and more profound than it had ever been, I found myself with nothing to write about.

“Nothing’s happening to me,” I bemoan to Annie. “I need to go shoot an elephant.”

Annie replies, in her late-night Lebowskian cadence, “Dude, you’re a mother. You’ve had a child. You’re struggling to make your marriage work, man. You are trying, against your nature and circumstance, to be decent. That’s your elephant!” Yet when I write some version of this down it seems quaint or worse. I thought I had enough material for a novel but when it came out it was a short story, and one that felt unserious. I tried a story in the form of a postpartum-depression questionnaire and it felt quaint. Domestic. For women. Motherhood has softened me. I have a tighter valve on what I’ll read and what I’ll watch. I don’t want to write like a man anymore. I don’t want to be praised for being “unflinching.” I want to flinch. I want to be wide open.

I am trying to write something urgent, trying to be vulnerable and honest, trying to listen, trying to identify and articulate my innermost feelings, trying to make you feel them too, trying a kind of telepathy, all of which is really fucking hard in the first place and, in a culture wherein women are subject to infantilization and gaslighting, in a culture that says your “telepathic heart” (that’s Moore on July) is dumb and delicate and boring and frippery and for girls, I sometimes wonder if it’s even possible.

I have built a working miniature replica of the patriarchy in my mind. I would like very much to bust it up or burn it down. But I am afraid I don’t know how. Though I do have some ideas.


Some ideas:


Let’s punch up.

Let us not make people at the margins into scouts or spies for the mainstream. Let us stop asking people to speak for the entire cacophonic segment of humanity that shares their pigmentation, genitalia, or turn-ons.

Let us spend more time in those uncomfortable moments when our privilege is showing. Let us reflect there, let us linger, rather than recoil into the status quo.

Let us continue to count, and talk, and think about the numbers.

Let us name those things that are nameless, as Solnit describes, the way “mansplaining” or “rape culture” or “sexual harassment” were nameless before feminists named them. Let those names sing.

Let us hear the stories we are telling ourselves about ourselves. Let us remember that we become the stories we tell. An illustration: I was talking with the writer Elissa Schappell about how much we are both anticipating Carrie Brownstein’s new book. I asked Elissa what she made of this new trend of memoirs by badass women: Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon, Sally Mann, Amy Poehler. Was this trend the result of Patti Smith winning the National Book Award five years ago? Was the trend indicative of a new wave of feminism? Elissa interrupted me. “You keep using that word,” she said. “Trend. It’s not a trend. We are here now. We’re not going anywhere. We are here now.”

Let us embrace a do-it-yourself canon, wherein we each make our own canon filled with what we love to read, what speaks to us and challenges us and opens us up, wherein we can each determine our artistic lineages for ourselves, with curiosity and vigor, rather than trying to shoehorn ourselves into a canon ready made and gifted us by some white fucks at Oxford.

(I will start us off by spending no more of my living breath apologizing for the fact that no, actually, even though I write about the American West, Cormac McCarthy is not a major influence of mine.)

Let us use our words and our gazes to make the invisible visible. Let us tell the truth.

Let us, each of us, write things that are uncategorizable, rather than something that panders to and condones and codifies those categories.

Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better.


Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Battleborn and Gold Fame Citrus. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan

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