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17 Sep 22:01

WH2020: The courts put a halt on US Postal Service changes that could have impacted on the election outcome

by Mike Smithson

This could be an important decision by the courts because Trump has made no secret of his desire to impede postal voting because he believes it strongly favours his opponent. This is from the Washington Post’s report of the judgement by Judge Stanley A. Bastian:

The states have demonstrated that the defendants are involved in a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service. They have also demonstrated that this attack on the Postal Service is likely to irreparably harm the states’ ability to administer the 2020 general election..Bastian said that the mail delivery backlogs “likely will slow down delivery of ballots, both to the voters and back to the states” this fall.. This creates a substantial possibility that many voters will be disenfranchised and the states may not be able to effectively, timely, accurately determine election outcomes.

Those who have been following WH2020 will be aware of suggestions that the head of the US Postal Service and a big donor to the Trump campaign had sought to bring in changes at the behest of the White House.

Postal and absentee voting looks set to be far bigger than normal because of COVID19 and the reluctance of many voters to attend in person for fear of catching the virus;

No doubt this decision will go to higher courts and could easily be set aside but for the time being the Postal Service will not be able to institute the changes which it is argued will slow down the mail.

If Trump is right that postal voting helps the Dems the judgement is good news for Biden.

Mike Smithson

08 Sep 16:23

Books I Will Not Write #8: The Year of the Conspiracy

by Charlie Stross

Global viral pandemics, insane right-wing dictator-wannabes trying to set fire to the planet, and climate change aside, I'm officially declaring 2020 to be the Year of the Conspiracy Theory.

This was the year when QAnon, a frankly puerile rehashing of antisemitic conspiracy theories going back to the infamous Tsarist secret police fabrication The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, went viral: its true number of followers is unclear but in the tens of thousands, and they've begun showing up in US politics as Republican candidates capable of displacing the merely crazy, such as Tea Partiers, who at least were identifiably a political movement (backed by Koch brothers lobbying money).

Nothing about the toxic farrago of memes stewing in the Qanon midden should come as a surprise to anyone who read the Illuminatus! trilogy back in the 1970s, except possibly the fact that this craziness has leached into mainstream politics. But I think it's worrying indicative of the way our post-1995, internet-enabled media environment is messing with the collective subconscious: conspiratorial thinking is now mainstream.

Anyway. When life hands you lemons its time to make lemonade. How could I (if I had more energy and fewer plans) monetize this trend, without sacrificing my dignity, sanity, and sense of integrity along the way?

I'm calling it time for the revival of the big fat 1960s-1980s cold war spy/conspiracy thriller. A doozy of a plot downloaded itself into my head yesterday, and I have neither the time nor the marketing stance to write it, so here it is. (Marketing: I'm positioned as an SF author, not a thriller/mens adventure author, so I'd be selling to a different editorial and marketing department and the book advances for starting out again wouldn't be great.)

So, some background for a Richard Condon style comedy spy/conspiracy thriller:

The USA is an Imperial hegemonic power, and is structured as such internally (even though its foundational myth--plucky colonials rebelling against an empire--is problematically at odds with the reality of what it has become nearly 250 years later). In particular, it has an imperial-scale bureaucracy with an annual budget measured in the trillions of dollars, and baroque excrescences everywhere. Nowhere is this more evident than in the intelligence sector.

The USA has spies and analysts and cryptographers and spooks coming out of its metaphorical ears. For example, the CIA, the best-known US espionage agency, is a sprawling bureaucracy with an estimated 21,000 employees and a budget of $15Bn/year. But it's by no means the largest or most expensive agency: the NRO (the folks who run spy satellites) used to have a bigger budget than NASA. And the mere existence and name of the National Reconnaissance Office were classified secrets until 1992.

It has come to light that about 80% of the people who work in the intelligence sector in the US are not actual government officials or civil servants, but private sector contractors, mostly employed by service corporations who are cleared to handle state secrets. By some estimates there are two million security-cleared civilians working in the United States--more than the number of uniformed service personnel.

Keeping track of this baroque empire of espionage is such a headache that there's an entire government agency devoted to it: the United States Intelligence Community, established in 1981 by an executive order issued by Ronald Reagan. Per wikipedia:

The Washington Post reported in 2010 that there were 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies in 10,000 locations in the United States that were working on counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence, and that the intelligence community as a whole includes 854,000 people holding top-secret clearances. According to a 2008 study by the ODNI, private contractors make up 29% of the workforce in the U.S. intelligence community and account for 49% of their personnel budgets.

USIC has 17 declared member agencies and a budget that hit $53.9Bn in 2012, up from $40.9Bn in 2006. Obviously this is a growth industry.

Furthermore, I find it hard to believe--even bearing in mind that this decade's normalization of conspiratorial thinking predisposes one towards such an attitude--that there aren't even more agencies out there which, like the NRO prior to 1992, remain under cover of a top secret classification. I'd expect some such agencies to focus on obvious tasks such as deniable electronic espionage (like the Russian government's APT29/Cozy Bear hacking group), weaponization of memes in pursuit of national strategic objectives (the British Army's 77th Brigade media influencers)), forensic analysis of offshore money laundering paper trails--the importance of which should be glaringly obvious to anyone with even a passing interest in world politics over the past two decades, or trying to identify foreign assets by analyzing the cornucopia of social data available from the likes of Facebook and Twitter's social graphs. (For example: it used to be the case that applicants for security clearance jobs with federal agencies were required not to have Facebook, Twitter, or similar social media accounts. They were also required not to have travelled overseas, with very limited exceptions, not to have criminal records, and so on. Bear in mind that Facebook maintains "ghost" accounts for everyone who doesn't already have a Facebook account, populated with data derived from their contacts who do. If you have access to FB's social graph you can in principle filter out all ghost accounts of the correct age and demographic (educational background, etc), cross-reference against twitter and other social media, and with a bit more effort find out if they've ever travelled abroad or had a criminal conviction. The result doesn't confirm that they're a security-cleared government employee but it's highly suggestive.)

But I digress.

The 1271 government organizations and 1931 private companies in 2010 have almost certainly mushroomed since then, during the global war on terror. Per Snowden, the proportion who are private contractors rather than civil servants, has also exploded. And, due to regulatory capture, it has become the norm for outsourcing contracts to be administered by former employees in the industries to which the contracts are awarded. There's a revolving door between civil service management and senior management in the contractor companies, simply because you need to understand the workload in order to allocate it to contractors, and because if you're a contractor knowing how the bidding process works from the inside gives you a huge advantage.

Let us posit a small group of golfing buddies in DC in the 2000s who are deeply disillusioned and cynical about the way things are developing, and conspire to milk the system. (They don't think of themselves as a conspiracy: they're golfing buddies, what could be more natural than helping your mates out?) They've all got a background in intelligence, either working in middle-to-senior management as government agency officers, or in senior management in a corporate contractor. They know the ropes: they know how the game is played.

Two of them take early retirement and invest their pensions in a pair of new startups: one of them--call them "A"--remains in place in, say, whatever department of the Defense Clandestine Service is the successor to the Counterintelligence Field Activity. They raise a slightly sketchy proposal for a domestic operation targeting proxies for Advanced Persistent Threats operating on US soil. For example: imagine QAnon is a fabrication of APT29. We know QAnon followers have carried out domestic terrorism attacks; if Q is actually a foreign intelligence service, is it plausible that they might also be using it to radicalize and recruit agents within other US intelligence services?

One of our retirees, "B", has established a small corporation that just happens to specialize in searching for signs of radicalization at home and by some magical coincidence fits the exact bill of requirements that our insider is looking for in a contractor.

Our other retiree, "C", has established a small corporation that produces Artificial Reality Games. As has been noted elsewhere Qanon bears a striking resemblance to a huge Artificial Reality Game. One of their products is not unlike "Spooks", from my 2007 novel Halting State; it's a game that encourages the players to carry out real world tasks on behalf of a shadowy national counter-espionage agency. In the novel, the players are unaware that they're working for a real national counter-espionage agency. In this scenario, the game is just a game ... but it's designed to make the players look plausibly similar to actual HUMINT assets working in a climate of surveillance capitalism and so reverting to classic tradecraft techniques in order to avoid being located by their dead letter drop's bluetooth pairing ID. But because they're actually gamers, on close examination they prove to not be actual spies. In other words, C generates lots of interesting false leads for B to explore and A to report on, but they never quite pan out.

So far, so plausible. But where's the story?

The clockwork powering the novel is simple: A runs his own pet counter-espionage project within the bigger agency and arranges to outsource the leg work to B's contractors on a cost-plus basis. Meanwhile, C's ARG designers create a perfectly balanced honeypot for B's agents. (The boots on the ground are all ignorant of the true relationship.) B is a major investor in C via a couple of offshore trusts and cut-outs: B also funnels money into A's offshore retirement fund. It's a nice little earner for everybody, bilking the federal government out of a few million bucks a year on an activity nobody expects to succeed but which might bear fruit one day and which meanwhile burnishes the status of the parent organization because it's clearly conducting innovative and proactive counter-espionage activity.

Then the wheels fall off.

C's team are running a handful of ARGs (because to run only one would be kind of suspicious). They are approached by the FBI to set up a honeypot for whichever radical group is the target of the day, be it Boogaloo Boys, Antifa, Al Qaida, Y'all Qaida, or whoever. And it turns out the FBI expect them to do something with the half-ton of ANFO they've conveniently provided (as an arrest pretext),

B's team meanwhile discover a scarily real-looking conspiracy who are planning to start some sort of war over the purity of their precious bodily fluids. A countdown is running and A's expected to actually make progress and arrest a ring of radicals before they blow anything up.

And A gradually comes to the realization that he and his golfing buddies are not the first people to have had this idea: they're not even the biggest. In fact, it begins to come to light that an entire top level division of the Department of Homeland Security (founded 2003! 240,000 employees! budget $51.67Bn!) is running plan B and funneling money to prop up various adversarial sock-puppets, one of which appears to have accidentally stolen half a dozen W76 physics packages (which, just like the good ole' days with the Minuteman III stockpile, have a permissive action lock code of "00000000"). The nukes are now in the possession of a bunch of nutters led by a preacher man who insists Jesus is coming, and his return will be heralded by a nuclear attack on the USA. But the folks behind the DHS grift can't do anything about it for obvious reasons (involving orange jumpsuits and long jail terms, or maybe actual risk of execution).

A can't expose this grift without attracting unwelcome attention, and a likely lifetime vacation in Club Fed along with his buddies B and C. But he doesn't want to be anywhere close to DC when the nukes go off. So what's a grifter to do?

C gets to give his ARG designers a new task: to set up a game targeting a very specific set of customers--conspiratorially-minded millenarian believers who are already up to their eyes in one plot and who need to be gently weaned onto a more potent brew of lies, right under the nose of the rival APT agents who have radicalized them ...

Climax: the nukes are defused, the idiot conspiracy believers are arrested, then the FBI turn up and arrest A, B, and C. On their way out the door it becomes apparent that they've been set up: they, themselves, were suckered into setting up their scam via another conspiracy ring to generate arrests for the FBI ...

(Fade to black.)

08 Sep 03:46

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for Sun, 30 Aug 2020

08 Sep 03:45

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for Mon, 07 Sep 2020

28 Aug 15:02

in my opinion it's illegal to do too many things. there should be at least 115 more legal activities, possibly as high as 117

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August 26th, 2020: If you'd like to generate your OWN comics - Zuzakistan has built his own GPT-2 based bespoke Dinosaur Comics generator! It's trained on Qwantz data, instead of the entire internet like GPT-3 is, so you have a chance of generating comics that feel more Dinosaur Comics-like! Check it out!

– Ryan

21 Aug 22:21

Dead plots

by Charlie Stross

Way back in 2000, when I published my first collection of short stories, "Toast, and other rusted futures", I wrote a slightly tongue-in-cheek foreword explaining that time has a way of rendering SF futures obsolete.

For example, after the probe fly-bys of the 1960s it was no longer possible to write planetary romances set in the swamps of Venus or among the barbarian tribes roaming the arid deserts of Mars. After 1969 it was no longer possible to write a story about the first human landing on the moon without being aware of Apollo 11. Even though those futures are still accessible via contrived parallel universe or alternate history conceits, you can't write them naively or unironically, and unironic or naive stories written beforehand tend to read badly after the events that rendered them obsolete.

One of the stories in "Toast" was a Y2K parable. I was working in IT during the 1990s, and while Y2K denialism is a Thing in the media today, it's only a Thing because a lot of people worked a lot of overtime hours to ensure that almost nothing went wrong on the day (the dog didn't bark because the dog was in intensive care at the time and made a full recovery).

Anyway, the 21st century has rendered a whole slew of 20th century plots obsolete, including the first moon landing, habitable planets elsewhere in our solar system right now, Martian and Venusian aliens, Y2K causing the downfall of civilization, a USA/USSR nuclear war causing the downfall of civilization, and so on.

But what are the contemporary plot lines from the first two decades of the 21st century that no longer work?

I'm going to note the corrosive influence of "everybody has a mobile phone" on the crime and contemporary horror novel in passing. For the most part, authors have figured out how to deal with it. Some of them still rely on the old trope of "battery runs down" (a bit weak in an age where everything uses one of two types of plug and booster batteries are sold in newsagents), "dropped in a puddle" (again: see IP67 and IP68 standards), and "no signal" (which is a total fail in pretty much any city on the planet: it's still viable in rural/wilderness areas but even then satphones are a Thing and most major roads are networked to provide at least GSM signal). More sophisticated authors actually make cellphones — and more recently smartphones — integral to the plot: Iain Banks' non-SF thriller "Dead Air" from 2002 had a plot that wouldn't work without everyone having a cellphone.

This stuff shouldn't be rocket science, but I note the average age of first-time novelists is somewhere north of 30, and established novelists are typically in their 40s to 70s — not the prime time for adapting to new technologies.

The internet (and Facebook in particular — the search interface for people as opposed to things (Amazon) or facts (Google: NB, sprinkle with irony to taste)) is another phenomenon you can't leave out of a story without going seriously retro. In fact, the arrival of internet dating made a big impact on the contemporary romance sub-genre: a bunch of older how-do-you-meet-someone plots went out the window, but a whole bunch of new ones showed up.

But meanwhile the eminent mainstream literary faculty are still turning out deeply sensitive realist-mode explorations of the human condition that totally neglect the tech dimension. We live in a world with killer drones, state level actors gaslighting each others' electorates with bots and sock puppets and AI generated user icons, where the average TV viewer is ageing by more than 12 months per year as demographic shift kills the video star and moves everything online, where private space launch companies are listed on the stock market and cars park themselves. A realist-mode 21st century novel that ignores phenomena that were tropes in 20th century SF is a de-facto historical novel, or a retro nostalgia trip for people who are deeply uneasy about modernity. Indeed, the only way I can see to write a novel set in North America or Europe with a protagonist aged under 70 who doesn't have a mobile phone or use the internet is to make them either a criminal on probation (who's been forbidden from using those everyday tools on pain of going back to prison) or to give them some sort of disabling condition — a neurotic terror of 5G radiation, perhaps, or locked-in syndrome.

Moving forward, we come to some new nope-outs in fiction. First up, is using AI to rig elections. Interface, a 1995 novel by "Stephen Bury" (a pseudonym for Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George) was set in a then-near future that seems eerily prescient from today's perspective, focusing on the election campaign of a US presidential candidate with shadowy backers who has been fitted with an experimental biochip to prompt his public gestures and speech on the basis of feedback from a focus group of random voters. Of course, how you pick the training set for your AI is hugely consequential, and it's both funny and chilling to contemplate in the light of subsequent events — as is 1999's Distraction by Bruce Sterling, in which the Chairman for once missed the target by hopelessly optimistically setting the date for the USA's final political gridlock in 2044, rather than a couple of decades sooner. Again: neurocomputing, shadowy influencers and manipulators, emergent tech, and a political system that's unfit for purpose. If you put these two SF novels together with either The Whisper of the Axe or Prizzi's Glory by Richard Condon (author of The Manchurian Candidate) you basically get the American 21st Century redux. (In The Whisper of the Axe a talented African-American woman decides it's time for payback — payback for everything since 1639, that is. And in Prizzi's Glory, the third novel in the trilogy that starts with the much more familiar Prizzi's Honor, a Mafia family decide to go more-legit-than-legit and successfully take over the White House.)

All these plotlines are now dead. (Mob family in the White House? Political leader motivated by a total ideological committment to destroy their own country? AI-mediated-focus groups directing candidate public appearances? Politics causing gridlock and societal breakdown? Dead, dead, dead because they already happened, like the Moon landing.)

Next on the chopping block is pandemic novels, with a side-order of zombies.

Pandemics: we are now intimately familiar with what actually happens — the majority of folks behave reasonably on the basis of the information they're given by those in positions of authority. (Escape clause for "the authorities are deliberately gaslighting the electorate in order to get people who don't vote their way killed".) A minority act out (e.g. illegal parties in AirBnB's booked under fake names: refusing to socially distance in public spaces). The problem has been aggravated by a general destruction of trust in consensus media narratives for political gain (or just advertising click-through rates) in the past couple of decades, but we don't need pandemics in escapist fiction right now, and it's too soon for the deeply serious navel-gazing Novel of the Plague Years. (Just keep a diary.)

Zombies: zombies are a dehumanization narrative, with their roots in a slave society — originally a slave nightmare (of being worked to death, then raised from the dead to carry on working) it was appropriated by slaveowners and white supremacists as a coded euphemism for fear of a (obviously, non-white) slave uprising. Popular with rich media entrepreneurs because it panders to Elite Panic, an entrenched belief in the volatility and violence of human nature (which in turn reflects the paranoid outlook of a slaveowning elite, who had good reason to fear other people).

The thing about zombie narratives is that we are all zombies these days, unless we're in the 0.1%. Disaster capitalism immiserates and impoverishes its victims, and while it was originally the generalization of strategies of imperialist wealth extraction to no-longer colonized peripheral states, it's now been brought home with a vengeance to the public of the most populous Anglosphere nations. But — shockingly — people tend to hang together, rather than riot, when times turn harsh: it actually takes the police rioting against the public to generate the bad news headlines we keep being fed.

So, unironic zombie pandemic stories? Busted. And also unironic pandemic novels. (I will grant a conditional pass for kitch, camp zombies and zombies as a metaphor for something other than the lumpenproletariat getting lumpy with the slave overseers, but I've got my eye on you.)

Also busted: cops (not necessarily including forensics or detectives) as good guys. I'm sorry, but if you look at gun-toting mirrorshade-wearing "blue lives matter" law enforcers today and see good guys, you're a racist. Might as well try and write a sympathetic protagonist who's a homophobic fundamentalist pastor and young-earth creationist with a side-order of anti-vaxx and birtherism. (I had a moment of forced introspection a few months ago when I realized a major protagonist in my new Laundryverse trilogy was a cop and did a double-take: luckily for me she's an ex-cop turned private eye, who got railroaded off the force for being insufficiently complicit. So I didn't have to rewrite very much at all. But it's an illustration of how fast social norms can turn on a dime that something that would have been unexceptional in 2010 was a huge nope by 2020.)

Spy stories: the same. (Edward Snowden stuck the knife in and twisted, aided and abetted by the CIA providing the black sites and torture chambers for him to leak the existence of.) The Empire is real, the Empire has ears and eyes everywhere, and the Empire is nobody's friend. Are you a loyal subject, reader? If you've done nothing wrong you've got nothing to fear. (Etcetera.)

What else is on the skids towards 21st century obsolescence?

I want to sound a cautionary note at this point: a bunch of fictional tropes don't exist to be taken seriously but to provide emotional focus and punch to a story, or an escapist refuge from the mundane horrors of everyday life. Vigilante superheroes have in principle been a bust since Alan Moore stuck the boot in with Watchmen in the 80s, if not before, but they sit firmly in the escapism basket, with a bolt-on of modern polytheistic myth-making (in many cases their power spectrum resembles that of the gods of classical mythology). There's still a queasy element of sleaze to some of them — Batman is a billionaire who could solve child poverty in Gotham with a stroke of the pen, but prefers to dress up in latex fetish gear and beat the crap out of poor people — but it's not all terrible.

Fantasies of agency are a drug. We live in an age where individuals almost never get to make a significant difference. The past 4 years have been an object lesson in how little power the Imperial Presidency of the United States actually wields, insofar as Trump could have been far more destructive if he'd been remotely competent — just yanking on the levers like a monkey in a behavioural experiment doesn't get you very far. And I have a feeling that sooner or later we're going to need to go cold turkey and come down off the pleasant high of imagining that we can fix global climate change, or colonize Mars, or punch the Joker, on our own and without collaboration.

But the biggest total nope for the next decade (at least) is the conspiracy theory as a world-view in fiction.

Conspiracy theory is dead to me. It used to be a funny plot trope, as witness Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! trilogy. You could read these batshit theories put together by people who thought the Martians had assassinated JFK, or the Jews ran a secret Masonic conspiracy to pollute everybody's bodily fluids by fluoridating the municipal water supply, and giggle at the stupidity of it all. But then a funny thing happened: Facebook. Facebook and Twitter mainstreamed conspiracies and they went viral on the grey matter of people who had never been educated to think critically, evaluate sources of evidence, and fact-check, and we all know the results: QAnon, Donald Fucking Trump, Brexit, a massive upsurge in anti-semitism and white supremacism and neo-Nazism. Not to mention 5G radiation conspiracy theories, anti-vaxx, flat-eartherism, and all the other nonsense. It ends up with people believing shit like the late Francis E. Dec's Gangster computer god rant — and if you listen to it for lulz, because it's basically the ravings of a paranoid schizophrenic with hypergraphia and the controling-machine delusion, just keep watch for the racist interjections.

Folks, writing conspiracy theories in fiction is over. It's not clever: it's like pouring accelerants on a house fire, or playing with matches in a harborside warehouse full of ammonium nitrate. It runs the risk of taking off like an explosive chain reaction and causing immense damage. Those 5G conspiracy theorists in the UK have led to arson attacks on cellphone masts, resulting in emergency (fire and ambulance service) blackouts that put lives at risk. The risks of the anti-vaxxer nonsense (thank you, Mr. Wakefield was causing lethal disease outbreaks even before it convinced about 40-50% of the UK population that they wouldn't accept a vaccine against COVID-19 because vaccines don't work/are a conspiracy/Bill Gates wants to put a chip in you (why?)/you might have a child with autism (hey, no ableism here, honest). And so on. Our current media environment has scrambled our society's ability to assemble a consensus view of reality so badly that conspiracy theories should be considered toxic. And that's not a good thing from my perspective because it puts the entire viability of creative-lies-that-amuse-and-inform — fiction — in jeopardy.

21 Aug 07:58

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for Fri, 21 Aug 2020

20 Aug 15:16

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for Fri, 14 Aug 2020

20 Aug 15:15

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for Wed, 19 Aug 2020

14 Aug 12:15

Fuck You, I’m Voting

by John Scalzi

Trump has officially said the quiet part loud and noted that he’s not going to agree to fund the Postal Service explicitly because he doesn’t want mail in votes. This during a pandemic that his administration has done a very poor job combatting, in no small part because it made a(n erroneous) political calculation that the pandemic would mostly affect blue states, and Democrats would be blamed. All of this means Trump is actively acknowledging that the only way he can win re-election is through suppression of voting. Which we knew, but now we don’t even have to pretend that’s not what he’s doing. He’s doing it, all right, and, by the way, fuck you for wanting to vote in the first place.

Which, you know. Fuck him, because I haven’t missed an election since my very first one in 1988 — for which I used a mail-in vote, fuck you very much! — and I’m sure as hell not going to miss this one. For the primary election in June, I requested and used a mail-in ballot, and here in Ohio, the Secretary of State will be mailing everyone a mail-in ballot request (why a request and not an actual ballot? Unnnngh, because the Ohio GOP hates actual voting, but at least it’s a reminder one may vote by mail).

However, for the last few national election cycles, I’ve voted early, by driving to my county board of elections office and voting there. I do it so I can have it done early, and because then, no matter what happens to me between when I vote and Election Day, my vote will be counted. Also, in these pandemic times, it’s a responsible social-distancing choice, since I’m usually the only person there to vote when I show up.

The Darke County Board of Elections site informs me that Early Voting begins on October 6 at 8am. If you don’t think I won’t actually get my ass up early this year to be there when the doors open, you don’t know me (well, actually, I’ll probably show up between 10am and noon, but if a cat paws me awake at 5am, which there is a very good chance of, then I’ll be there at 8). I am likely to drag along a family member or two as well. Why? Because fuck you, I’m voting.

Folks, it’s come to this: Today really is the day that everyone should assume the actual Election Day, November 3, 2020, is going to be a clusterfuck of massive proportions, and make their plan to vote early. Likewise, today is the day that everyone should assume voting by mail will be even more of a clusterfuck, and be prepared to compensate for that. Don’t assume otherwise, because, as we have seen, Trump (and the GOP in general, but especially Trump) actually are trying to suppress the vote.

How to prepare?

1. As I have, find out when Early Voting happens in your county and where, put the earliest possible dates and times on your calendar, and then show up physically to vote early. Wear a mask, socially distance, and all of that, but do it.

2. If you take a mail-in ballot: Request it as early as possible and when you get it, fill it out and send it back as quickly as you can. Try to get it in the mail at least two weeks before Election Day, because, remember, Trump and his odious new postmaster general are trying to dismantle the Postal Service as quickly as possible to fuck with mail-in votes. Indeed:

3. Even if you get your ballot by mail, consider turning it in physically at your local Board of Elections, or barring that, at an official dropbox. My current high level of voting paranoia is such that I would go for turning it in to the Board of Elections rather than a dropbox, because if the actual President of the United States is declaring open season on Americans’ right to vote, it’s not too much of a stretch to suspect someone will take that as permission to fuck up dropboxes, because fuck you for voting, that’s why.

In short: Know how to vote early, fucking vote early, and if you must do it by mail, do it especially early (or turn in your ballot by hand, to your local board of elections if possible).

And yes, I absolutely and positively hate feeling this paranoid about the idea that my government is trying to keep my vote from being counted, thank you for asking. But here we are, it’s 2020, the worst President of my lifetime is just blithely gibbering at a microphone about suppressing voting, and there’s no point trying to pretend that it’s not what’s happening, and that the president’s party isn’t complicit with it.

And also: Fuck you, I’m voting. You literally could not stop me this year. I have always voted — always took for granted I could vote — but this year above all I will go out of my way to get it done. You should, too.

— JS

08 Aug 00:35

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Pointing it at Sandy and hoping for the best

by Jonathan Calder
We end our week at Bonkers Hall with the old boy pondering the future of Liberator.

Published as a printed magazine for 50 years, it will in future be a free online publication. Sign up to Liberator's email newsletter and you will be told whenever a new issue appears.


So this is to be that last printed edition of Liberator. It seems only a few years ago that every street corner had its barefoot newsboy selling the magazine. I well remember their shrill cries of "Eleven reasons Clement Davies must resign – you won’t believe number seven" and "North Devon shooting: we interview Rinka’s mother."

I once heard them crying "Rutland fraud case: shock new developments" and had to tip them half a crown a piece to desist, but we need not go into that here.

In future, or so the amusing young people who put the magazine together tell me, you will have to download Liberator from the ether by means of the electric internet. I hope to see you nexttime, but In my experience this can be a tricky business: it’s not just a matter of pointing it at Sandy and hoping for the best.

Lord Bonkers was Liberal MP for Rutland South West, 1906-10.

Previously in Lord Bonkers' Diary:
07 Aug 22:27

How the Lib Dems were trapped in the Coalition rose garden

by Jonathan Calder
I've come across a paper on the Liberal Democrat experience of being in coalition with the Conservatives and of defending that record at the 2015 general election.

It is written by Dr Matt Cole from the University of Birmingham, who interviewed Liberal Democrat campaign teams in 12 constituencies that the party had won at the 2010 general election. His research was conducted after the 2015 election and published in September 2016.

The whole paper is worth reading, but I shall pick out three areas of particular interest here.

First there is the Fixed-term Parliament Act. Ending the ability of prime ministers to call an election when they thought it would favour their party has long been Liberal and then Lib Dem policy, and it was thought that we could not enter coalition without such an act.

The thinking was that we needed to be sure the Tories could not pull the rug out from under us as soon as they judged it would be to their advantage.

But was the act really to Lib Dem advantage? Because it left us unable to cut short the coalition too.

In the unexpectedly perspicacious words of David Davis, we had "the best seats on the plane but no parachute".

As Matt Cole points out, when the Liberals left the Lib-Lab Pact in 1978 it marked the start of a period in which the party’s poll rating rose from 6 per cent to 14 per cent before the 1979 election. No such strategy was open to the Lib Dems before 2015.

Then there was our attitude to finding ourselves in government. Cole quotes one MP as saying that we "spent the first two years apologising for being in government".

That is a succinct summing up of the approach of Richard Reeves, Nick Clegg's director of strategy until 2012:
In a presentation to Lib Dem MPs then, Mr Reeves mapped out three phases for the Coalition. The first had to be about unity on cutting the deficit, to show that coalition works and put down firm foundations. Phase two would be "differentiation" to show voters the Lib Dems were not the same as the Tories, before a natural divergence ahead of the 2015 election.
As it turned out, we should have been showing voters that we were not the same as the Tories from the first day of the coalition. A a large chunk of our voters concluded that we were the same and withdrew their support as a result. By the time we were thinking about differentiation they were no longer intereted in us.

Reeves, if he is remembered at all, is remembered for social liberals that they should join the Labour Party, but he is a notable interpreter of John Stuart Mill.

Finally, the views Matt Cole gathered on the 2015 election campaign are depressingly familiar because people have been saying much the same thing about that of 2019. 

The national campaign accompanying the manifesto was widely and severely criticised amongst interviewees for its failure to integrate with their constituency campaigns or to win support from the public.
Some complained … that materials prepared for delivery in the constituency … had to be abandoned as unsuitable.
More generally, there were tensions between the campaign teams in the constituencies and an overbearing Liberal Democrat HQ. To illustrate them, Cole included this artwork from the cover of the February 2015 Liberator.
29 Jul 10:22

I shall be voting for Layla Moran

by Jonathan Calder

It's make your mind up time and I have decided I shall be voting for Layla Moran in the Liberal Democrat leadership contest.

The contest has been billed as one between Layla's ideas and Ed Davey's competence, which is rather unfair on both candidates.

I voted for Ed last time round because of his clear policy offer, but I have not seen any difference in competence between him and Layla this time. I am therefore going with Layla's more ambitious vision for our party and winning personality.

Ed's supporters are quick to remind us that we are competing with the Conservatives in the seats we have some hope of gaining next time round.

But I worry about the thinking behind this. I don't want to see the Lib Dems reduced to a party that expends its energies on not upsetting moderate Conservatives in a dozen or so seats in the Home Counties.

So it's Layla for me.
28 Jul 09:44

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for Sun, 26 Jul 2020

21 Jul 06:56

someday LINGUISTIC journals will publish my paper

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July 17th, 2020: Hey, I've got a mailing list for SECRET PALS! If you'd like to be a SECRET PAL, baby, now is your chance. I only send out a message like once a month!

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21 Jul 06:53

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for Mon, 20 Jul 2020

16 Jul 06:23

based on a true staircase!!

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July 15th, 2020: Hey, I've got a mailing list for SECRET PALS! If you'd like to be a SECRET PAL, baby, now is your chance. I only send out a message like once a month!

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09 Jul 22:36

computers have science now

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June 29th, 2020: This comic continues a series from back in 2015! So now hopefully we ALL know everything about computers.

– Ryan

09 Jul 22:33

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for Tue, 30 Jun 2020

09 Jul 22:28

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for Thu, 09 Jul 2020

26 Jun 07:29

they had BATS in ancient rome, didn't they? they had MEN! so what's the hold-up??

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June 3rd, 2020: Hey, I've got a mailing list for SECRET PALS! If you'd like to be a SECRET PAL, baby, now is your chance. I only send out a message like once a month!

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25 Jun 20:35

Joe Sinnott, R.I.P.

by evanier

If you were in a crowd of folks who worked in the comic book industry and announced, "Joe Sinnott was the best inker who ever worked in comics," you wouldn't get a lot of argument. If you said, "Joe Sinnott was the nicest guy who ever worked in comics," you'd get even less.

He was not only a great inker, he was the guy who elevated that craft to an art; the guy who taught everyone else how it should be done. Almost every one of his peers studied what he did. Almost every one of his peers was told by some editor, at one time or another, "Try to do it more like Sinnott."

I met Joe via correspondence before I met him in person at the 1970 New York Comic Con. He couldn't have been nicer. A little later, I was sitting with Wally Wood, another fine artist whose work was much-admired and studied. Joe walked by and Wally asked me who that was. I told him it was Joe Sinnott. Wood, who'd done a lot of inking of Jack Kirby's art in his day, said, "That's the guy who inked Jack the way Jack should be inked. If I ever get another chance to, I want to do it like he does."

Joe was such a good inker, you forgot how good he was as an artist, doing it all himself. His photo-realistic style shouldn't have blended so well with such a wide range of pencil artists but it did. He always understood what they were trying to achieve on the page and what he should do to try and help them get there.

Joe Sinnott was born October 16, 1926 in Saugerties, New York, a city that would be his "home town" for his entire life. He grew up in a boarding house that catered primarily to teachers, several of whom saw talent in the young man's attempts to draw and encouraged him in that direction. He studied art in high school and also while in the Navy where he served in Okinawa during World War II. When he was discharged in 1946, he worked in a rock quarry for a few years before deciding it was time to resurrect his ambitions towards drawing.

Thanks to the G.I. Bill, he was able to attend the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (later known as the School of Visual Arts) in New York, where his work caught the eye of the school's co-founder, Burne Hogarth, and one of its main instructors, Tom Gill. Gill was drawing westerns and movie adaptations for Dell Comics and Sinnott spent nine months assisting him before deciding he was ready to solo.

His first job on his own was for St. John Comics but he soon broke in at Atlas (now Marvel) drawing war, western and horror comics for editor Stan Lee. Lee liked Sinnott's crisp style and the fact that the work was always well-researched and in on time. Joe later worked for other publishers including Treasure Chest, Charlton and Archie, but his main work was for Marvel, especially after Stan discovered how well Joe could ink the work of other artists.

Joe really got noticed as an inker for the pencil art of Jack Kirby. He inked several early, pre-superhero stories by Kirby and when the "Marvel Age" began, handled several key tales, including the first Thor story in Journey Into Mystery and the debut of Dr. Doom in Fantastic Four #5. Joe also drew the Thor strip for a time. Stan wanted Joe to ink as much as possible for Marvel but at the time, the company's low rates forced Joe to turn him down. Finally though, the pay was raised and Joe abandoned his Archie inking to work full-time for Marvel.

Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott.  Joe's on the right.

Some would call him Kirby's best inker. Even though he didn't meet Jack until years after their major collaborations, he understood the way Kirby drew and knew how to separate the planes of a drawing and make Kirby's special brand of forced perspective work to maximum effect.

Joe inked almost every major Marvel artist at one time or another and kept Fantastic Four consistent through a succession of different pencilers after Kirby. At times, he made their best artists like John Buscema and Gene Colan look great. Editors also knew that Sinnott could raise the quality of weak penciling (or finish sparsely-penciled art) and assigned him to those jobs.

No matter what they threw his way, Joe made it look good and always got it in on time. Always. No editor ever had a problem with Joe Sinnott. No editor didn't wish he had a lot more Joe Sinnotts at his disposal.

The Thing and Joe Sinnott. Joe's on the right.

I've met darn near every major writer and artist who worked in comics from the sixties through the eighties. I never met a nicer man than Joe Sinnott, and few who were as inarguably good at what they did. Joe was a gentleman in every sense of the word. I could cite dozens of examples but this one will do…

In 1975 at a comic convention in New York, we made plans to meet for lunch. Just before we were about to leave the con and head across the street, a fan asked Joe for an autograph. Then another asked and another. The requests escalated into quick sketches and soon, Joe was mobbed by folks who loved his work and simply had to have a little Thor or Thing drawing from the great Joe Sinnott. After several dozen of these had delayed our lunch departure by close to an hour, I waded into the throng to play Bad Guy, stop the sketching and drag Joe off to eat.

He declined. He didn't want to disappoint all the people who were swarming around him, some of whom had been waiting for that entire hour. At his behest, my friends and I went to lunch without him. I brought him back a burger and found him in the same place, still sketching for fans. Three hours later, he was still at it and the hamburger was stone cold and untouched. If the convention hadn't kicked everyone out and closed that room, he'd probably still be there.

That was the Joe Sinnott I knew. Like I said, I never knew anyone nicer. I miss all these great artists who are, way too often, the subject of obits on this page but I'm really going to miss Joe. He died peacefully this morning at 8:40am at the age of 93, beloved by all who knew the man and his work.

25 Jun 16:45

peter parker's spidey-sense tingling every time he opens his mouth, but he's used to it by now

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June 24th, 2020: Hey, I've got a mailing list for SECRET PALS! If you'd like to be a SECRET PAL, baby, now is your chance. I only send out a message like once a month!

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25 Jun 11:18

Not left, not right, but liberal?

by Mark Valladares
So, Layla versus Ed, unless something very unexpected happens. And you're expecting me to have an opinion on which of them I believe will lead the Liberal Democrats into government at the next election.

My answer? Neither of them, to be honest. Going from eleven seats to government, even as a junior partner, is pretty unlikely, if you ask me. We can safely rule out forming a majority government - that sort of thing doesn't happen in fairy tales, and it certainly doesn't happen in British politics. Even the Labour Party don't believe that they can increase the number of seats they hold by 60% under normal circumstances, and in a country where 40% of the population still believe that the Conservatives are the best choice to run things other than a bath, you do wonder how bad things would have to get before opinion turned against them.

That said, the combination of COVID-19 and a hard Brexit might just do it...

A hung Parliament where adding Liberal Democrats would swing the outcome? Possibly, but how many seats would you want to have a real influence, as opposed to being a human shield? Coalition with the Conservatives? Regardless of whether or not it might make sense - and I really don't currently see how it could - the membership would never wear it. Coalition with Labour? Their activists hate us, and their MPs aren't exactly wearing their respect for us on their sleeves. No, either Labour would go for "one last heave", or they'd try minority government and dare the Scottish Nationalists to give the Conservatives a second chance.

That leads to the question, what are the Liberal Democrats for then?

We've tried to be a party of the centre-left, defining ourselves by comparison with a nominal political centre. We've tried equidistance, which means that we are defined by the behaviour of two other political forces. My gut feeling is that we're there to be liberal, because the other two sure as hell aren't going to be unless there's some short term advantage in it for them.

That means values, which drive policies. Now, from a personal perspective, this is some of what I mean (other liberals may vary);
  • does this decision offer new freedoms without necessarily taking freedoms from others?
  • is it transparent and accountable, i.e. is it explained and can it be challenged?
  • does it encourage people to take control over their own lives and provide them with the tools to do so?
  • does it balance the relationship between the individual and the State?
The thing is that liberalism does mean having to compromise along the way. There are very few perfect solutions, no policies that make 100% of the populace happy. You have to consider the benefits and the harms, but applying the four themes above might lead you towards a collection of pretty obvious policy stances.

And that's part of the challenge of being a liberal in any event. that our creed isn't really definable by a sentence as much as a set of guidelines. Not catchy, not really soundbite material, but something that you are and do.

And sometimes, that will be more "left" than Labour, and sometimes more "right" than the Conservatives - the latter's view of freedom being the right to do things that they approve of. But it will, or should, always be liberal.

And so, whilst I'd love to think that my endorsement carries some small amount of weight (it really doesn't, I'd suggest), I won't be offering one. I'll watch the debate, read the commentary, ponder the views of friends and colleagues, and then try to judge which candidate is most likely to lead and build a properly liberal political force before quietly marking my ballot paper in their favour.

My only request of the candidates and their supporters is this - play nice. if your chosen candidate is so great, they'll win on their merits, not because they're slightly less awful than the other one. And frankly, if that's the requirement for winning, the prize really isn't worth it...
16 Jun 11:58

Goodbye, Jeremy

by Jen
With a new Labour leader elected, Jeremy Corbyn steps back into the shadows of centre-right politics, bringing a wave of reflection on his time at the helm.

Heck, let's go with the flow. How was his five year stint?

He succeeded in his central aims:
- Keep the Tories in power
- Enable every Tory measure
- Have a mass movement of people who have been sold a promise of a better yesterday working to ensure the Tories remain in power so that Jeremy can enjoy saying "no!" to an eager audience.

He got one of his stretch goals too: Britain out of the EU, leaving us free to adopt laws that go beyond what the EU allowed. Of course, the majority of the time since Labour became the second party of UK politics the Tories have been in power, so that was doing more to enable Conservative militancy than to empower the downtrodden, but if people aren't kept downtrodden you risk a terrible shortage of bandwagons.

As COVID arrived we got a textbook Corbyn move. Every MP up and down the land saw a huge surge in casework, with twice, three times, even four times the usual amount of calls on MPs for support from constituents in peril reported across the country and across all parties.

The House of Commons responded responsibly with an offer of extra office cost funding. Your staff might be off ill with COVID and you need to hire someone extra to cover for them, or move a part-timer up to full-time to make up the shortage. You might need more stationery, or to buy a new PC for one of your team to work safely from home.  Loads of MPs said "thanks, that's a useful cushion in case we need it." Jeremy loudly declared he wouldn't take a penny - no matter how much it might cause problems for the people in his constituency in need. "I'm alright Jack, sod the proles."

Bye bye, you posturing right-wing sossidge. Enjoy the retirement.
14 Jun 22:10

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for Tue, 26 May 2020

14 Jun 22:07

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for Sun, 07 Jun 2020

12 Jun 20:46

Denny O'Neil, R.I.P.

by evanier

Photo by Bruce Guthrie

Denny O'Neil, one of the outstanding comic book writers of his generation, has died at the age of 81. He died at home of natural causes, we're hearing, and those who knew of his recent health problems are not surprised. I spoke to him about four months ago and he was talking then about not having much time left. I'll tell you in a moment what I called him to talk about because it might interest you.

Denny had been a reporter writing about comic books in the sixties and then he moved on to become a writer of comic books in the sixties. He always said he owed his new career to two people — Roy Thomas, who suggested Denny try out for a writing job at Marvel (which he got) and Dick Giordano, who was then the editor at Charlton. When the work for Marvel dried out, Dick kept Denny busy writing for Charlton — sometimes under the name Sergius O'Shaugnessy — and then when Dick moved over to DC, he took Denny with him. Before long, Denny was the main writer of Batman and a little later, of Superman. He wrote most of DC's main books at one time or another and often worked as an editor there.

His scripts for Charlton had been way better than Charlton deserved for the low rates they paid. His scripts for DC were way better than the higher rates DC paid. He had a way of infusing old strips with fresh approaches. A lot of people credited him for bringing "relevance" to comics, crafting stories about current events and issues, most visibly in the acclaimed Green Lantern-Green Arrow series he did with artist Neal Adams. I thought it was a matter of Denny just trying to move comics a little more into the real world at a time in the early seventies when most comics could have been set in the forties without making much difference.

Green Lantern-Green Arrow was, as noted, critically acclaimed. I was more impressed with what he did with Batman, and not just the stories he wrote of that hero that were drawn by Adams. You could tell that a lot of the other writers of the Caped Crusader were at least starting with Denny's Batman and building on what he'd done. I was also really impressed with a run he did later on Iron Man for Marvel. Denny had never been coy about discussing his own problems with "substance abuse" and while it was risky to explore those themes in Iron Man, it made for one of the most personal runs of a comic of its kind.

Actually, I was impressed with just about everything Denny did and the few times I got to work with him in an editor/writer relationship, I found him to be as good at editing as he was at writing, which was very good indeed. He was also a very conscientious writer, willing to mentor others and help out in any righteous cause. Several times when Jack Kirby got into his famous battles with comic book publishers, Denny was among the first to call me and ask if he could help in any way. A fairly small part of his career was built on continuing characters that Jack had launched or help launch but that didn't matter to Denny. He respected Jack greatly and if he could help, he would help.

I always enjoyed talking to the man. I always learned something. Recently, I wrote the foreword for a set of books that'll be out in August and I'm going to try to tell this so it doesn't sound like a plug. It's a reissue of the Marvel Mini-Books that were put out in the sixties — little tiny comics like this one…

Artist rendition

The books carried no credits and while I could identify the artists from their handiwork, I wanted to identify the writers so I did some detective work. At one point, I realized Denny had a staff job at Marvel at the time they were done. He was writing Millie the Model so I figured he might have written the Millie the Model mini-book and called to ask him. It turned out he hadn't written the Millie one but he did vividly recall writing the Captain America one depicted above.

In fact, he said it was the first super-hero comic he ever wrote and he told me he did it in about two hours and loved writing it and that as far as he knew, I was now the only human being in the world who knew he'd done that.  I was going to save that "scoop" to be divulged in the foreword but it seems more appropriate to give it up here.

I said, "Then you never autographed a copy?"  He said, "Never.  No one knows I did it."  And then he offered, assuming he could find a pen with a fine-enough point, to sign the copy in the new replica set to me when it comes out and never sign another one for anybody.  "You'll have the only autographed copy that ever exists," he promised.  I'm sorry that's not going to happen, not because I wanted the collector's item but because I don't get to talk with Denny anymore.  He was one of the brightest, nicest guys I've met in comics and maybe one of the most important writers the field has ever had.

18 May 16:02

wow that t-rex sure does like star trek, unlike that handsome author, ryan north, who is adept at creating fictional characters who are not him

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May 18th, 2020: I was going to say "don't listen to Utahraptor, there's no Pride and Prejudice/Star Trek crossovers, but then I searched and found 2013's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND VOYAGER, so hop to it everyone!!

– Ryan

18 May 16:00

Fred Willard, R.I.P.

by evanier

A very funny man, onstage and off…and very nice. And a good dresser. Fred was the kind of guy who showed up in a tie and jacket when jeans and a t-shirt would have been just fine.

And polite and friendly and approachable. And humble. People surrounded him once at an event I attended, all telling him how great he was on Fernwood Tonight or in This is Spinal Tap or a bit with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show or somewhere. Fred thanked them but quickly changed the subject to anything but himself.

Oh — and a great audience. I sat next to him at a show where great comedian after great comedian performed. There are comics and comic actors who either won't laugh at someone else or they give out with a kind of fake chuckle, trying to look like it doesn't bother them when someone else is scoring. Not Fred. He howled as loudly as anyone in the place and now and then the guy on stage would get a monstrous guffaw and Fred would turn to me and say, "Isn't this guy great?"

Getting back to funny: Fred was. He was fast. He was funny. From the day I first saw him in the Ace Trucking Company out at the Ice House in Pasadena, I watched as he would crawl into a character and play it for all it for every possible laugh. Every possible laugh and then some.

And loved and respected. Everyone liked him. Everyone wanted him on their show. That was Fred Willard. Wasn't that guy great?