*****LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media

In David Sanger’s chilling book about the dangers of cyberweapons, reviewed here last week, he includes the impact of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, but P.W. Singer and Emerson T Brooking focus laserlike on them in LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media. If you want to know chapter and verse about the barrage of efforts to manipulate American opinion in the election of 2016—and risk of even more in future—this is the book for you.

Singer and Brooking’s book, like Sanger’s, pulls together in one place the various threads of information about cyberthreats from the last few years, weaving them into a coherent, memorable, and understandable(!) whole. All these authors provide exhaustive lists of sources. It’s incumbent on responsible people to understand the tactics of information warfare, because, “[recent Senate hearings] showed that our leaders had little grasp on the greatest existential threat to American democracy,” said Leigh Giangreco in the Washington Post.

These ill-intentioned manipulators understand the human brain is hard-wired for certain reactions: to believe in conspiracy theories (“Obama isn’t an American”); to be gratified when we receive approval (“likes”!); to be drawn to views we agree with (“confirmation bias”). If we feel compelled to weigh in on some bit of propaganda or false information, social media algorithms see this attention and elevate the issue—“trending!”—so that our complaints only add to the virality of disinformation and lies. “Just as the internet has reshaped war, war is now radically reshaping the internet,” the authors say.

Contrary to the optimism of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who saw social media as a positive, democratizing force, this new technology is being used to destructive effect at many levels of society. At a local scale, for example, it bolsters gang violence in Chicago; at a national scale, it contributed to the election of fringe politicians; at a regional scale, it facilitated the emergence of ISIS; and at an international scale, it undergirds the reemergence of repressive political movements in many countries.

How to be a responsible citizen in this chaos? Like it or not, “we’re all part of this war,” the authors say, “and which side succeeds depends in large part on how much the rest of us learn to recognize this new warfare for what it is” and how ready we are for what comes next. Start by reading one—or both—of these important books.

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Weekend Entertainments

It’s the season to squeeze in viewings of prospective Academy Award nominees. All four of these films and their cast members are in contention. Nominations to be announced January 22, and the awards ceremony will be February 24.

Vice

Word on the street is that this grim yet funny biopic, written and directed by Adam McKay (trailer), is slow. I didn’t find it so, absorbed as I was by McKay’s version of the dark mind and hollow soul of Dick Cheney, long-time Republican operative and George W. Bush’s vice-president.

Since everything is relative, we of short attention span might be tempted to look back on the Bush II Administration with some nostalgia, given . . . This movie is a bracing corrective to that impulse.

As Cheney, Christian Bale gets better and better as the film progresses and Cheney ages, from an irresponsible drunk to master puppeteer—“resilient, back-stabbing, front-stabbing, ruthlessly ambitious,” says Richard Roeper in the Chicago Sun-Times. Early on, we see the 9/11 scene in the White House situation room. (Our President, recall, was reading to a bunch of schoolchildren when that catastrophe unfolded.) While all the other national leaders sequestered in the White House basement are in shock, the narrator says, Cheney “saw an opportunity.”

He saw another one when approached by W (Golden Globe winner Sam Rockwell) to be his vice president. At first he demurs, but he recognizes that Bush is a blank slate. The guy hasn’t a clue. Cheney does. And the power-grab is on. Eventually, tasked with identifying a vice presidential candidate, he identifies himself.

Amy Adams revels in her role as Lynne Cheney/Lady Macbeth, and there’s even an apocryphal pillowtalk scene where she and Dick recite Shakespeare’s lines to each other.

As he did in The Big Short, McKay breaks the fourth wall to demonstrate what he’s suggesting with visuals puns and sly humor. If this film is slow, it’s slow like a steamroller, flattening everything and everyone in its path. Stay for the credits. There’s a bit more movie partway thru.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 62%; audiences: 54%.

Beautiful Boy

Director Felix Van Groeningen’s film recreation of the stories of David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff, and their family’s struggle against Nic’s drug addiction is tough to watch (trailer). But only if you’ve ever been the parent of a teenager or been a teenager yourself. There are times and circumstances when parental love becomes unbearable for them all. Although, like the relapses of addiction itself, the action occasionally becomes repetitive, Steve Carell as the frantic father and Timothée Chalamet as Nic are heartbreaking. Maura Tierny as Nic’s stepmom and Amy Ryan as his biological mother provide powerful performances too.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 67%; audiences 77%.

The Favourite

An entertaining costume drama about three real-life women, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara (trailer). Poor Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) was truly a sad character in real life, plagued by ill health, and, despite 17 pregnancies, leaving no heir. Her reign was short (1702-1714), and she was a widow for half of it. Several strong women were her dueling confidants (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone). Beautiful costumes, fantastic acting, especially by Colman. I wish the filmmaker had been drawn less to the rumors of lesbianism, which are discounted by many historians, and more to the politics of the time. It was in Queen Anne’s reign that Great Britain was formed, for example. Plus, the Worst Credits Ever.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 94%; audiences: 61%.

Roma

Beautiful black and white photography in this highly praised autobiographical movie written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón (trailer). And compelling acting by the nonprofessional cast, particularly Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, the put-upon maid of a four-child household in domestic turmoil. She keeps them together, literally and spiritually. I thought I’d read that she is unappreciated, but she isn’t or perhaps the filmmaker is atoning for a lapse in his own history. It’s pleasant and pretty but breaks no new ground—“quotidian and extraordinary at the same time,” said Gary M. Kramer in Salon.com. Now this one is slow.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 96%; audiences: 83%.

Our Biggest Threats Keep Growing

In The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age, New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger talks about nations’ pervasive and growing uses of spyware and malware to achieve their ends. According to Paul Pillar’s review in the Times, Sanger’s book is “an encyclopedic account of policy-relevant happenings in the cyberworld (that) stays firmly grounded in real events.”

It’s not a question of keeping the stuff out of our electric grid, the controls of our nuclear plants, our military establishment, our government. It’s already here. And a piece of spyware in our systems—watching, waiting—can turn instantly destructive on command.

While U.S. companies, utilities, and some government agencies would like to reveal how much they know about these intrusions—“hey, we’re looking at you, too, so watch it!”—the clandestine services argue against it, because they don’t want others to know that we know and what our detection capabilities are, much less guess our offensive capacity. If you were suspicious of that improbable string of fizzling North Korean missiles last year and wondered “could it really be . . ?” you were right.

Sanger’s riveting journalism covers the woes Russia has inflicted on Ukraine, especially its power grid, a seeming test-bed for attacks on the West; it reviews the Stuxnet virus developed by the U.S. and Israel, which exceeded its mission of damaging Iran’s nuclear centrifuges to emerge in the wild; he covers the fallout from Edward Snowden’s revelations; and he describes more recent threats. Across at least three Administrations in Washington, the responses to the size and potential scope of this threat have been paltry. “The clock cannot be turned back,” he says, and it’s up to all of us to hear the ticking.

A Sea of Blistered Tongues

Richard III, Laurence Olivier

Laurence Olivier as Richard III

Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt made an absorbing presentation last week, here in Princeton, based on his new book, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. What Shakespeare has to say about pretty much any domain of human behavior is worth thinking about, and Greenblatt’s current preoccupation was clearly shared by his receptive audience.

He edged into the topic by describing how Shakespeare has been used in many countries and settings as a screen on which people may project their views about their own leaders—views that very often would cost them their freedom or more, if stated directly. Shakespeare’s notable tyrants—Macbeth, Coriolanus, Lear, and, especially, Richard III—become stand-ins for narcissistic demagogues across time and geography.

He highlighted the would-be king (and real-life character) Jack Cade, who appears in 2 Henry VI, as a populist leader deploying eerily familiar tactics. In Shakespeare’s dialog, Cade makes blatantly absurd promises to the rabble he incites, to wit:

“There shall be in England seven half-penny loaves sold for a penny;

The three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops;

And I will make it a felony to drink small [weak] beer. . . .

There shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score;

And I will apparel them all in one livery,

That they may agree like brothers and worship me their lord.”

This peroration is followed by what Greenblatt supposed (correctly in my case) was the only line most people can quote from that particular play, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Greenblatt says that, while the cheering rabble could not have truly believed these extravagant promises, their support for Cade was unwavering. Not until scheming Macbeth is exposed as a regicide and murderer, does Malcolm regret his former loyalty, saying, “This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongues, was once thought honest.”

Shakespeare’s tyrants arise in eras when, as the book blurb summarizes, “Cherished institutions seem fragile, political classes are in disarray, economic misery fuels populist anger, people knowingly accept being lied to, partisan rancor dominates, spectacular indecency rules.” Such fraught times inspired Shakespeare, as did the tyrants’ narcissistic personalities and the “cynicism and opportunism of the various enablers and hangers-on” surrounding them. These same forces, personalities, and motives give his work continued relevance.

Greenblatt sounded a discouraging note in saying that, while Shakespeare was brilliant at portraying causes and effects in his history plays, he does not point a way to solutions. “There aren’t any good ones,” he said. Yet, remarkably, civilization survived these conflicts and setbacks. On a more positive note, he concluded that what Shakespeare also teaches us is, “We are not alone.”

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The First Amendment Revisited

Founding_Fathers

created by Matt Shirk, creative commons license

You know how you don’t get around to reading a book or article only to have it pop up on your radar at just the right time? I feel that way about the February 2018 issue of Wired, that I found buried in a stack of magazines.

The theme of the issue, “The Golden Age of Free Speech,” is meant ironically. In college I was journalism major  and received a heavy First Amendment dose. Courses on The Law of the Press might have tapped secondary topics like slander, libel, and plagiarism (privacy didn’t come up) on the shoulder, but they really shook hands with the issue of free speech.

These days, free speech absolutism needs some rethinking. I’d rather reflexively subscribed to the Louis Brandeis notion that the cure for bad/hateful speech is more good/uplifting speech. That’s not good enough anymore, and I recall that Brandeis also said that “sunlight is the best of disinfectants.” Too many people dangerous to good public order are lurking in the dark corners of the Internet where the light never reaches. It’s like having nests of rats in the basement. One of these days, they’re going to burst into the kitchen.

In Wired, Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, who is also an op-ed writer for the New York Times, provided a way to rethink my own conflicts on the First Amendment. Here’s the key passage:

The freedom of speech is an important democratic value, but it’s not the only one. In the liberal tradition, free speech is usually understood as a vehicle, a necessary condition for achieving certain other societal ideals: for creating a knowledgeable public; for engendering healthy, rational, and informed debate; for holding powerful people and institutions accountable; for keeping communities lively and vibrant. What we are seeing now is that when free speech is treated as an end and not a means, it is all too possible to thwart and distort everything it is supposed to deliver (emphasis added).

Thinking of free speech as a means, not the end, lets us look at the ends we are achieving now and judge whether free speech is helping or harming. She goes on to say that “today’s engagement algorithms . . . espouse no ideals about a healthy public sphere.” It’s become obvious that big social media platforms’ purposes do not extend very far beyond commercial self-interest and cannot be relied upon to make those judgments.

Tufekci gave examples of society’s aims, but we also can find them spelled out in the U.S. Constitution’s preamble: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

It’s time to ask ourselves and our politicians whether those aims are served by unfettered speech, hate speech, propaganda masquerading as truth, and misinformation peddled by people who pretend to be other than who they are. The free speech banner isn’t big enough to hide them all.

Vacation Reading, Italian Style

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

Seventeen days out of the country, two eight-plus hour air flights, how many books should I pack? Always the burning question. This time, it turns out, not enough. I packed six and had to raid the hotel guest discards shelf for the return flight. Picked a good one too.

Here are quick reviews of five of them:

****Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – The nearly 200 pages of this bi-monthly is like reading an entire book, one where you sometimes meet old literary friends, as in:

  • J.Rozan’s tale about the quick-wittedness of an elderly Chinese woman in “Chin Yong-Un Helps a Fool.” One of Chin’s previous escapades garnered Rozan a 2018 Edgar Award nomination.
  • Doug Allyn’s Dylan LaCrosse from Valhalla, Michigan, P.D. in another entertaining story steeped in the ethos of the Upper Peninsula.
  • Richard Helms’s Pat Gallagher, an unlicensed P.I. who roams New Orleans’s French Quarter, toting his cornet and stumbling into trouble. And
  • Lou Manfredo’s Sgt. Joe Rizzo, dealing with a “Brooklyn playboy murdered.”

**The Third Act, by John Wilson – This book which turned out to be YA, I hadn’t realized, blew an interesting premise. An Ohio drama program director writes a concluding act for an unfinished play by the program’s most illustrious graduate. The play is set in China at the time of the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, and the scenes in China create the sense of reading a play—little scene description, a few gestures. But the modern-day framing story is weak, and its grim conclusion sends an unsuitable message for young audiences, in my opinion.

****Faithless Elector by James McCrone – This is a look at one of the ways the U.S. Electoral College might be manipulated to propel a losing candidate into the Oval Office—entertaining and bone-chilling at the same time. Well-written with a bit of a logic stretch here and there. Particularly unnerving (and plausible) is that the conspiracy was discovered only by a fluke.

*****Twice Buried by Steven F. Havill – I love these evocative Posadas County Mysteries, which are fine-grained police procedurals. In this one, Undersheriff Bill Gastner takes great care investigating the apparently accidental death of an unexceptional old woman whose death (and life) law enforcement might tend to write off, and that makes all the difference.

****Half a Chance by John Perrotta – A quick read, this book is steeped in the action and lore of the thoroughbred race track. Someone’s playing fast and loose with big wads of cash, and can he keep all his financial transactions afloat while he rides out of town with the greenbacks? Lots of fun, strong characters, some redemption, and a fine evocation of horse-racing’s arcane world.

When Words Have a Long Tail

Independence Hall

Dan Smith, creative commons license

At a time when the U.S. Senate is considering a new member of the Supreme Court, the wisdom of viewing today’s problems and challenges through a 250-year-old lens is once again under scrutiny. No words put on paper today are likely to have as long and as consequential a tail for Americans as the Constitution of the United States.

In this month’s Language Lounge for Visual Thesaurus, linguistic provocateur Orin Hargraves returns to Independence Hall to consider the Founding Fathers’ accomplishment. In contrast to the typically fleeting nature of oral pronouncements (perhaps of the kind delivered in Senate hearings), Hargraves says, written language can have a “practically unlimited” afterlife. At the same time, it has weaknesses. It is missing context (quill pens versus the Internet) and, in the case of something written in the 1700s, people of today—our Senators, for example—cannot query the Founding Fathers for clarification and relevance.

Hargraves says the Constitution’s drafters of significant documents, like the U.S. Constitution, are aware “that the force of their words will long outlive them.” As a result, they choose those words with extreme care and provide a way to alter and update it, not easily though. Our Constitution now has 27 Amendments.

Despite the founders’ care, debate over the context and meaning of some of the Constitution’s provisions, especially the Second Amendment, is virulent. Even within such a presumably sedate setting as the Language Lounge, Hargraves says, past posts on this topic have inspired reader rants requiring “editorial intervention” by the Language Lounge masters. The prospects for consensus on a range of divisive topics seems remote, and The Washington Post says the first day of Kavanaugh’s hearings provided “a world-class display of bickering across party lines.”

Alice in Wonderland, words, Humpty DumptyOne helpful resource ought to be the Corpus of Founding Era American English, based on some 100 million words of text from 1760 to 1799 from various sources. (See how one source suggests this body of work should inform the Supreme Court nomination hearings of Judge Kavanaugh.) Yet, a historical perspective on the meaning of language in the late 1700s may not satisfy partisans “deeply invested in one view or the other,” Hargraves says. I suspect he’s correct. However much the advocates claim their interpretations are based on long-ago principles, in fact they serve current interests.

While no one would insist on using an owner’s manual for a Model T Ford to repair their Fusion Hybrid, the Constitution is not given room to breathe and grow to serve society today. That was then. This is the uncomfortable now. Attempting to return to some earlier meaning (if we even were clear what that was) may be just another way to avoid doing the hard work of making our systems and even our brilliant Constitution work in the 21st century.

Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus

Robberson, Cuccioli, & Cromer; photo: Jerry Dahlia

“A society drowning in violence and seemingly bereft of civil thought or action” is how the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey describes the setting for Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, now in a riveting new production, directed by Brian B. Crowe, through August 5. First performed January 24, 1594, it was one of the revenge dramas so popular among Elizabethan audiences and fans of the Death Wish franchise. Here, the desire for revenge trumps every other human feeling, with no possibility of compromise or negotiation.

It’s well worth seeing, not just because the opportunity comes about so rarely and not just because of Shakespeare’s thought-provoking content, but also because of the high quality of this production. The acting and production values are top-notch.

The title character (played by Bruce Cromer) returns to Rome a hero after his conquest of the Goths. His chained prisoners comprise their sultry queen Tamora (Vanessa Morosco), her three sons, and her advisor, a moor (Chris White). When Titus arrives, Roman brothers Saturninus (Benjamin Eakeley) and Bassianus (Oliver Archibald) are vying to replace their late father, the emperor. Given the opportunity to choose between them, Titus chooses Saturninus, who proceeds to claim his brother’s betrothed, Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Fiona Robberson). Skirmishes break out, but Lavinia and Bassianus flee.

Two of Titus’s sons were killed in the war, and the remaining sons demand the sacrifice of the Goth queen Tamora’s eldest son, despite her desperate pleas. Though she speaks honeyed words to Saturninus, her desire for revenge against Titus and all his children is clear.

The moor connives with Tamora’s remaining sons (Torsten Johnson and Quentin McCuiston) to kill Lavinia’s new husband, ravish her, and, so that she can’t reveal their identity, cut off her hands and cut out her tongue. Titus has lost five sons in the play so far, and his last son Lucius (Clark Scott Carmichael) is banished. He is devastated to see the wreck of his daughter. Only the counsel and forbearance of his brother Marcus (Robert Cuccioli) saves him from total madness.

Near the end of the play is a speech by Marcus that for me was the most relevant to politics in our own time: “O! let me teach you how to knit again this scatter’d corn into one united sheaf, these broken limbs again into one body; lest Rome herself be bane unto herself, and she whom mighty kingdoms curtsy to, like a forlorn and desperate castaway, do shameful execution on herself.”

Fine performances of Cromer as Titus, Cuccioni as Marcus, Morosco as Tamora, and her two reptilian sons (Johnson and McCuiston) were excellent. For me, though, the most moving performance came from Robberson, the handless, tongueless, young widow. And White delivers the moor with relish.

It’s fun seeing such a luxuriously large principal cast—16 actors—ably augmented by 11 members of the theater’s 2018 Summer Professional Training Program in multiple roles.

Dick Block created a memorable set, featuring giant swords and an enormous warrior’s helmet, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

****The Greek Wall

razor wire fenceWritten by Nicolas Verdan, translated from the French by W. Donald Wilson –The European refugee crisis has been front-and-center in the news media for so long it’s become easy to tune it out. In award-winning Swiss author Nicolas Verdan’s literary crime thriller, all the horrifying consequences of what happens when groups of people are ripe for exploitation are on display. And he doesn’t stop there, underscoring how wide its ripples have spread in European society.

It’s 2010, and Agent Evangelos of the Greek National Intelligence Service is sent to investigate a severed head found outside the northern city of Orestiada on the border separating Greece and non-EU Turkey border. Is it the head of a Westerner? That’s what Evangelos’s superiors want to know, and they want the answer to be ‘yes.’ Something else to blame on the refugees.

Finnish members of the European Border and Coast Guard (Frontex) found the head near the bank of the Evros River. This strip of land is not only Greece’s border but that of the EU’s passport-free Schengen Area—in a sense, all of Europe. It’s the main crossing point for refugees into the European Union. Greek politicians want to build a Trump-like border wall there, and they want the EU to pay for it. Greece certainly can’t. (In real life, a 10-mile wall—actually a razor-wire fence—was eventually built.)

Verdan’s novel – his first available in English – is part political thriller, part police procedural, part mystery. A brief prologue offers hints regarding who has lost his head, but the circumstances are murky.

Much of this literary, sensitively written novel adopts the close-up point of view of Agent Evangelos, who takes the constant reversals of policy in stride simply by ignoring them. His focus is on solving the crime, and he moves doggedly forward, even when he’s told not to push his inquiry too hard. Novels based on current events risk becoming outdated, but the essential humanity of Verdan’s characters make this story timeless. An extra star here for humanity.

Hollywood in the White House

LBJ - Harrelson

Woody Harrelson as LBJ (2017)

Most of the time, Hollywood moguls and the pols inside the Washington Beltway hold each other “in mutual contempt,” said film historian Max Alvarez in an entertaining talk this week at the Princeton library. Yet politicians need Hollywood’s money and clout, and filmmakers need the government for such things as copyright and First Amendment protections and favorable trade regulations. And occasionally, they look to Washington—and the White House—for juicy story lines.

Screenwriters don’t overlook our Presidents who’ve been tragic characters worthy of Shakespeare. Lincoln has been most often portrayed, with Nixon second-most. Alvarez showed three clips back-to-back from movies about our 37th President: Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, and Kevin Spacey in the comedy Elvis and Nixon. Hopkins was the smarmiest, Langella the most tightly wound, and Spacey (I know, I know)—hilarious.

At least until recently, films about presidents and the presidency mostly flopped at the box office, and early on, not many were made. There was a bit of a burst in World War II, in films that had a propaganda message. If a president did appear in these early films, he was an upstanding, respected figure. That’s sure changed.

Alvarez suggested that because Presidents Kennedy and Clinton were younger and “cooler,” the creative types in Hollywood were drawn to material that included a president or presidential candidate in the early 60s and again in the 90s. (Note that the industry insider—Ronald Reagan—did not spark such ideas.) Television contributed, too, with 156 episodes of The West Wing from 1999 to 2006. Now we have Veep.

The movies have stopped treating presidents as paragons, with Wag the Dog, Primary Colors, Absolute Power, and Clear and Present Danger examples Alvarez cited. Why the shift? A scene from the Netflix program The Crown suggests an answer. In an episode set in 1957, Lord Altrincham, a small-time newspaper publisher, editorializes against Queen Elizabeth for being priggish and out of touch. In a meeting with her, he explains that the root of the problem is that, since the war, everything has changed, but the monarchy hasn’t. “What’s changed?” she asks, and he replies, “Deference.”

House-of-Cards

Kevin Spacey’s bloody hands in House of Cards.

Does exposure to charismatic, but dysfunctional characters on, say, House of Cards (not to mention such shows as Dexter, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men) normalize dysfunctional behavior? Alvarez thinks it may. Not that we have to go to the cinema or watch tv for that.

From the Department of Free Association . . .

. . . and so we have this recent Atlantic article about how continued exposure to the perfidies of the current administration is causing ‘outrage fatigue.’ Say it isn’t so.