A Trip to the Dominionate

I’m typing this in Springfield, Missouri, where I’ve just returned from visiting several places that do not yet exist, and won’t exist for nearly two thousand years.

Lemme back up a bit.

My Talespinner and I are writing a novel. Specifically, we’re writing a rather chonky (~160,000 word) far-future, post-Collapse magical realism literary novel called Spin, set in the Dominionate, a sort of quasi-Catholic/Calvinist theocracy that extends through much of the center of what is now the United States.

We are, as I write this, about 90,000 words in, and we were having difficulty nailing down a crucial bit of timing, when our protagonist is forced by an encounter with the Inquisition to head off-road through what is now rural Missouri, trying to reach the city of Kanzit, the capital of the Dominionate and home to a character she hopes can save her.

We’ve looked at maps and Google Earth, measured distances, made calculations, and finally my Talespinner was like “You know what? Fuggit. Ima follow her path and see how long it would take.”

About this time, I received a letter from Oregon Revenue, informing me I’d made an error in my 2022 state income tax (cue heart attack)…and that I’d overpaid by $208 (whew!). So I found a plane ticket for $206, and said “You know what, Ima go with you.”

We started following the footsteps of our protagonist from modern-day Stockton State Park, a park on a small peninsula jutting into Stockton Lake.

In two thousand years, after the Great Collapse, sea level rise, and two smaller collapses, this will become the small village of Half-Circle Cothold, where our protagonist Aiyah Spinner was born and raised.

On this spot, right here, will be a church and Mother’s Cloister two millennia from now. From this very spot, Aiyah will begin her journey toward Kanzit, built on what was once Kansas City, a journey that will absolutely not go as she expects.

From here, her plan will be to cross the bridge into Bridgegate, heading toward Brightchurch and from there, Kanzit itself, following the ancient roads still maintained and used after all these years.

Ah, Brightchurch.

If Kanzit is the head of the Dominionate, Brightchurch is its heart, a walled city that hosts Brightchurch Cathedral, the Temple of a Thousand Lights, one of the wonders of the future world, destination of an endless river of pilgrims. Brightchurch Cathedral, its windows shining like God’s grace itself every moment of every day and night, thanks to thousands of oil lamps fed from a cunning engineering marvel that distributes oil through a vast system of tubes and pipes, driven by pumps powered by human and animal muscle, tended by an army of novices, awe-inspiring beyond imagination. (The idea for Brightchurch Cathedral came from a pen and paper role-playing game I ran for a time a few years back, expanded and incorporated into the world of the Dominionate.)

Brightchurch Cathedral will one day stand on this spot, right here, in present-day Nevada, Missouri.

(Honestly, I would never for a moment want to live in the Dominionate, but I nevertheless wish I could see Brightchurch Cathedral. It’s truly a magnificent, incomprehensibly beautiful place.)

Aiyah, for various reasons, never reaches Brightchurch, but instead is forced to flee overland, through what is now farmland but will be, in the age of the Dominionate, forest. We followed her path, and I’m so glad we did, because we found all kinds of treasures along the way.

Like this tiny graveyard, which isn’t on any map or on Google Maps, but lies directly in her path and some remnant of which may still exist in the time the novel is set.

As for Kanzit, while it’s much reduced and sees countless changes, some of its buildings still exist, lovingly maintained over countless years.

The administrative center of the Church and, by extension of all the Dominionate lives in what is now the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, suited by both design and location to be repurposed to the head of the theocratic government. All the various aspects of the Church except the Inquisition are administered from here.

So let’s talk about the Dominionate.

When this novel publishes, I think people will compare it to The Handmaid’s Tale. The two stories have some superficial resemblances: social collapse, a theocracy carved out of what was once the United States, falling fertility that leads to sexual subjugation of women.

But that’s where the similarities end.

Margaret Atwood has said she explicitly modeled the government and culture of Gilead on the Islamic Revolution, a cautionary tale about what might happen in a society where reactionary religious zealotry comes to power.

But when I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I came away from the story with a sense that Gilead is fundamentally unstable. On a very deep level, the society doesn’t really work for anyone. Everyone is miserable—even the people on the top of the hierarchy. Offred, certainly, and all the other Handmaids…but even the Commander comes across as fundamentally unhappy. You really can’t point to anyone in Atwood’s story and say “yeah, those folks have a pretty good life, they seem happy and self-actualized.”

Which is, I think, part of the point she’s making.

The thing that makes Spin so horrifying, so deeply disturbing, is that the Dominionate works. The society of the Dominionate has long-term stability, peace, and prosperity. Many people—most people, really—are happy. Or if not happy, at least content. There’s little violence or crime. That sets Spin in sharp contrast to The Handmaid’s Tale (well, that and the fact Spin incorporates elements of magic, and a vastly different story).

Technology in the Dominionate is limited—the thing about the modern world is that we’ve largely stripped the earth of natural resources available to anyone without a post-industrial level of technology (there are no more surface deposits of iron, copper, tin, or coal, no oil available without modern drilling techniques, and without vast and available fuel, you might be able to “mine” landfills or junkyards for metals but you will have a very difficult time indeed smelting modern steels into things you can use)—but our knowledge remains. Even without modern levels of technology, most people still have a reasonably high standard of living.

But all of it—their standard of living, their society, their peace and prosperity—rests on a foundation of subjugation of (some) women. There’s no escaping it. They hide it away, in Mother’s Cloisters administered by the Church, and it’s been normalized for so long that everyone, even the people most oppressed, accept it as natural and necessary.

That is, I believe, way more horrifying than the society of Gilead, a society that does not have peace and prosperity, a society that seems unlikely to endure for two hundred years, or honestly even for twenty.

And more horrifying still, you can make a strong argument that the oppression and subjugation of the Dominionate is necessary. Without it, humanity will likely cease to be. Squaring that circle—trying to reconcile the idea that humanity has value with the horrific bedrock strata of sexual slavery on which not just this particular society but humanity’s future rests—is the core of the novel.

Spin is by far the most challenging, most ambitious writing project I’ve ever been part of. My Talespinner and I didn’t set out to write it this way. We’d originally imagined an 80,000-word young adult novel, something far more lighthearted. About 25,000 words in, we realized that story didn’t actually worked, tore it up, sat down, re-thought the story we wanted to tell, and came up with a detailed 27-page outline for something much, much different…and much, much darker.

I am absolutely thrilled my Talespinner and I took the opportunity to make this trip, following a character’s journey two thousand years from now. Everything we saw along the way will inform the novel. We have quite a lot of rewriting to do, particularly in the first third of the book, which will be far richer and more vibrant because we did this crazy thing.

I’m also profoundly grateful that one of my Talespinner’s other lovers was able to accompany us. His presence made the trip better, but even more, as we took copious notes—I still haven’t transcribed them into the outline yet—he offered ideas and suggestions that will make the novel so much better.

On Being a Writer in the Age of AI

AI generated image of an author sitting in front of a computer writing. Can you count the flaws in this image? And who the hell puts a glass of what I assume is whiskey behind the monitor?

People—by which I mean, the great teeming mass of human beings who make their livings by any means other than writing—are deeply weird about writers.

I make my living as a novelist. It’s not a particularly good living—I make less than an average fast-food worker in Oregon—but it’s a living. Like everyone who makes a living crafting words of whimsey, I have, on more than a few occasions, encountered folks with Great Ideas.

These encounters follow a predictable path, like water flowing down a riverbed. “Oh, you’re a writer?” says the person who’s just discovered that I’m a writer. “I have a great idea for a story! Why don’t you write it for me, and we’ll split the profits?”

There’s a strange, topsy-turvy logic in this proposal, a weird notion of how writing works that’s a bit like one of those maddening M. C. Escher paintings where the more you examine it, the less sense it makes.

On the one hand, the people with the Great Ideas seem to understand they lack the ability to turn the idea into a book, else they wouldn’t be making this (in their estimation, rather generous) offer. On the other, they trivialize the act of writing; it’s the idea that’s hard, see. The writing of it is a mere formality.

Inevitably, attempts to explain that ideas are really rather common and ordinary, and the difficulty lies in the turning of an idea into a book, fall on deaf ears. I have about half a dozen ideas for novels a day, no exaggeration. Ideas are everywhere. You can’t walk down the street without encountering ideas.

And I really mean it when I say ideas are everywhere. Eunice and I are just putting the finishing touches on a novel called London Under Veil, a contemporary urban fantasy that’s sort of Harry Potter meets The Matrix by way of Tom Clancy, but with sex.

That PHP is taken from a live, in-the-wild bit of WordPress malware.

Where did we get the idea to write a novel about a young British-born-Chinese infosec worker at a London webhosting company who gets sucked into a centuries-long underground war between a group of spellcasting sex workers and a society of rage mages that has infiltrated and captured the Tories?

From a social media question.

That. That sparked a conversation betwixt Eunice and me that led to a book.

Ideas are everywhere.

The folks with the Grand Ideas generally seem to believe that 75% of a book is coming up with the idea, and 25% is the writing (or, if they’re especially generous, that the idea is 50% and the writing is 50%). In reality, it’s more like the idea is 0.25%, and the writing is 99.75%, though if you’ve never written a book that might not seem credible.

I’ve talked before about the process of writing a book, and man, there’s nothing like the Writer’s Roller Coaster…largely because if there were, it would contravene the Geneva Convention.

So let’s talk about AI.

The advent of ChatGPT has led to a ton of folks who think that since the idea is the hardest part of writing a novel, and the writing is the trivial bit—a mere incidental—that in a world of ChatGPT, anyone can publish a novel. It’s so easy! Type your idea into ChatGPT and Bob’s your uncle! Fame and riches await!

Of course, it doesn’t work like that.

There’s a peculiar thing that happens with human beings where, when you lack the ability to do something, you also lack the ability to evaluate whether or not someone else who does that thing is good at the task. People who aren’t writers may sincerely be unable to tell that ChatGPT output is bland, dreary, inconsistent garbage—not really information so much as an information-shaped space, a suggestion of what information might vaguely look like.

I’ve been asked if I’m afraid ChatGPT will make me obsolete.

No. The answer is no.

Folks who think that ChatGPT can turn their amazing idea into a best-selling book…well, let’s just say I see disappointment in their future.

Will AI get better? Sure. Will AI ever replace technical writers? Mmmmmaybe, though I think it’s more likely it will enhance technical writers by creating a tool in their toolkit for certain formulaic parts of technical writing. A good technical writer needs to be able to imagine herself in the position of someone unskilled in the art being guided through an unfamiliar task, and I don’t see AI doing that untill it actually becomes, well, real artificial intelligence, which ChatGPT and its like most definitely are not.

Will AI replace creative fiction writers? I think that’s an AI-Complete problem—a problem unlikely to be solved until we have true self-aware general AI, at which point AI people are people, and like human people, may r may not be good at writing.

But I digress.

The point I’m making here is the fascination with ChatGPT producing a novel comes, I think, from a profound ignorance of how common ideas are and how difficult it is to turn an idea into something someone else wants to read.

I’m writing this from the home of one of my co-authors in Springfield. Tomorrow, we are driving out to rural Missouri to trace the path of the protagonist in our upcoming far-future, post-Collapse literary novel, Spin, because we need to get a sense of what it’s like to make that journey…and that’s exactly the sort of thing ChatGPT cannot bring to the table.

Some Thoughts on Bad Sex

Last weekend, while I was working with Joreth and Eunice on an upcoming episode of the Skeptical Pervert podcast, the conversation veered off in a direction I’ve been chewing on ever since: male expectations around sex.

Image: charlesdeluvio

Men and women have, by and large, grossly unequal experiences of sex: socially (men who have lots of lovers are “studs,” women with many lovers are “sluts”), physically (women bear a disproportionate amount of physical risk from sex: pregnancy, sexual violence, and so on), and even in their expectation of outcome (men are more likely to report a random encounter as physically satisfying, and often have an easier time reaching orgasm).

A lot of this imbalance is rooted in sexism, and we often talk about how sexism disproportionately harms women, but I think sexist ideas about getting it on hurt men, too. One of the ways that can happen is social pressure around sex: men are supposed to want it, supposed to take advantage of any opportunities to have it, and, I think, supposed to enjoy it even if it’s bad sex. Men are supposed to be opportunistic about sex.

In fact, I’ve often heard men say “there’s no such thing as bad sex.” I have literally never heard a single woman say this, but men? Oh yeah. All the damn time.

There is bad sex. Even for men. (As an old friend of mine was fond of saying, “if you think there’s no such thing as bad sex, you probably are bad sex.”)

The thing that got me to thinking along these lines was an event that happened in my sex life many years ago, back when I still lived in Florida, and had only recently started dating my ex-wife.

I came home from work one night to find all the lights low. Curious, I wandered into the bedroom, to find her in bed in a negligee, snuggled in with a female friend of hers. I was barely through the door before my wife dragged me down into the bed and started pulling off my clothes. Yadda yadda yadda, we had an unexpected threesome, me, my wife, and her friend.

Sounds like a Penthouse Letters, right? (Is Penthouse Letters even still a thing? I legit have no idea.)

But here’s the thing:

Her friend wasn’t someone I would have chosen as a lover. I tend, by and large, to decline offers of casual sex because casual sex doesn’t really work for me. And it was quite clear from the beginning that’s all this was: casual sex, no kissing, nothing beyond the grunt-n-thrust of two more or less emotionally uninvolved bodies.

It wasn’t good sex. I mean, yeah, I had an orgasm, she had an orgasm…but the thing that’s lingered, the overall psychic impression it left in me, was that it just…wasn’t fun.

I didn’t feel, back then, like I had any call to say no. And it wasn’t just because this woman I was dating had clearly gone through a lot of effort to set this up. No, it was more than that:

What kind of man turns down sex with a willing partner? What kind of man says no to a threesome?

Answer: Me, now. I’m way more likely to say no than I was when I was 22, and way more likely to decide that sex with someone I don’t feel connected to just isn’t worth it. But back then? It happened fast, I was in for the ride the instant I walked through the door, nobody at any point asked me if I was on board with this or not, and I genuinely didn’t feel I should—or could—say no.

And here’s another thing:

When I tell this story to other men, invariably, in-fucking-variably, the response I get is “What do you mean it wasn’t good sex? Are you mental? Your girlfriend arranged for you to have a threesome with another woman and you’re complaining about it? What’s wrong with you??!” (That is, when they don’t simply accuse me of making it up out of whole cloth—I get that a lot too, even about things I consider fairly mundane.)

Which leads me to think that for a lot of men, “good sex” is somehow…I don’t know if “performative” is the right word exactly, but good sex is in the context, not in how enjoyable it was or how you felt about it after.

Was she hot? Then it was good sex. Was it kinky? Then it was good sex. Did you get off? Then it was good sex. A threesome? Dude, that’s the brass ring, the sine qua non of awesome sex. You had a threesome with your girlfriend and another woman, arranged by her? You can’t get any better sex than that!

Whether it was satisfying, whether it met the needs of the people involved, whether it gave you what you want…irrelevant. Your girlfriend set you up with another woman! How jaded do you have to be not to think that’s good sex? Do you know how many men would kill for that experience?

The social construction of male sex is that men want sex, men should be grateful to have sex, and certain forms of sex—including the Holy Grail, sex with two women at once—is the pinnacle of the male sexual expression. The experience of that sex isn’t particularly important, or indeed even particularly relevant.

And I think that’s unfortunate. It means there are likely a lot of men out there having sex that…really isn’t that great, but that they’ve been told to believe is great, because what makes sex great is the display, the spectacle of it, not the experience of it.

But I rarely hear people talk about that, and that’s a damn shame.

I’m way more selective about sex now, and decline opportunities more often than I accept them (something else that often causes people to roll their eyes and say “yeah, sure, whatever, you’re clearly lying,” or in the case of one bloke I encountered on Quora who declared with absolute conviction, “no man anywhere would ever turn down sex”).

I wonder, sometimes, what the world might look like if we lived in a society that recognized men aren’t all cast from the same mold, and encouraged everyone to learn what works for them, and then have, you know, that kind of sex.

2024: The Year of Infinite Infosec Fail

First up in today’s game of “who fed it and who ate it:” Artificial Intelligence.

AI is everywhere. AI chatbots! AI image generators! And now, AI code assistants, that help developers write computer programs!

Only here’s the thing: AI doesn’t know anything. A lot of folks think these AI systems are, like, some sort of huge database of facts or something. They aren’t. They’re closer to supercharged versions of the autocomplete on your phone.

Which means if you ask an AI chatbot or code generator a question, it does the same thing autocomplete does: fills in syntactically correct words that are likely to come after the words you typed. There is no intelligence. There is no storehouse of facts it looks up.

That’s why AI is prone to “hallucinations”—completely imaginary false statements that the AI systems invent because the words it uses are somehow associated with the words you typed.

AI Fembot says: The Golden Gate Bridge was transported for the second time across Egypt in October of 2016. (Image: Xu Haiwei)

So, code generation.

AI code generation is uniformly terrible. If you’re asking for anything more than a simple shell script, what you get likely won’t even compile. But oh, it gets worse. So, so much worse.

AI code generators do not understand code. They merely produce output that resembles the text they were trained on. And sometimes, they hallucinate entire libraries or software packages that do not exist.

Which is perfectly understandable once you get how AI LLMs work.

What’s particularly interesting, though, is that malware writers can write malware, give it the same name as the packages AI code generators make up out of thin air, and devs will download and install them just because an AI chatbot told them to.

Bet you didn’t have that on your “Reasons 2024 Will Suck” bingo card.

And speaking of things that suck:

I woke this morning to a message from Eunice that a popular, trusted developer had inserted malicious code in an obscure Linux library he maintains, code that would allow him to log in and access any Linux system that his library is installed on.

In February, then again in March, the developer released updates to a library called “XZ Utils.” The update contained weird, obfuscated code—instructions that were deliberately written in a manner to conceal what they did—but because he was a trusted dev, people were just like 🤷‍♂️. “We don’t know what this code he added does, but he seems an okay guy. Let’s roll this into Linux.”

He seems a decent fellow. We don’t know what this code does, but what’s the harm? (Image: Zanyar Ibrahim)

Fortunately it was spotted quickly, befure it ended up widely used, so only a handful of bleeding-edge Linux distros were affected, but still:

What the actual, literal fuck, people??!

“This library contains obfuscated code whose purpose has been deliberately concealed. What’s the worst that can happen?”

Jesus. And it’s only March.

Developers should never be allowed near anything important ever.

Beware Bowdlerization of Google Docs

Image: David Pennington

I write novels almost exclusively in Google Docs.

It’s an aggressively mediocre word processor with two killer features: you have access to it wherever and from whatever device you have Internet access, and it is hands-down the absolute best thing out there for collaborative writing. Nearly all my books are co-written with other people. Google Docs makes this effortless; in fact, many’s the time I’ve been working with Eunice or my Talespinner as both of us type in the same Docs file at the same time.

Even when we aren’t writing at the same time, Google Docs makes it easy for us to leave notes to each other within the same document. It’s no exaggeration to say Docs is probably the best thing to happen to collaborative writing since the invention of the fountain pen.

So you can imagine when I opened my Messenger app a couple days ago and found a message from my co-author Eunice linking to a story by a writer who’d lost access to Google Docs and her manuscript because they contained sexually explicit content.

I’ve spent the last couple of days poring over the Google Terms of Service, and what I found is…worrisome.

Many of the novels I write contain sex. Some of them contain a lot of sex; the Passionate Pantheon series Eunice and I write, a far-future post-scarcity science fiction series where residents of the City worship AI gods through highly ritualized group sex, is a vehicle for us to explore sexual ethics, philosophy, and society in a setting where attitudes toward sex and violence are pretty much exactly the opposite of what they are here in the real world. And these books have tons of sex, some of it so kinky the kinks don’t even have names—we looked.

Naturally, the notion that Google can terminate your Google account and delete your manuscripts in progress for (consensual adult) sexual content is a little alarming.

The issue seems to be Google’s March 2024 anti-spam update.

What does spam have to do with sex and Google? Glad you asked.

More and more often, I am seeing spam that directs to Google properties: Google Sites and Google Docs, mostly. The spammers link to a Google page, which has a link that goes on to the spam site.

Why? Because it keeps the spam emails from being filtered by anti-spam filters (Google links aren’t flagged as spam) and helps prevent the spammers from having their sites shut down.

Sex spammers especially seem to be flocking to Google:

If you click on the link, you’re taken to a Google Site (as in this example) or a Google Doc that then contains a link to the spam site. The Google page includes a little circle-I icon that, if you click on it, brings up the option to report the Google Site or Google Doc for abuse.

If you hit the Report Abuse link, one of the options is “Sexually Explicit.”

So. It seems Google doesn’t permit sexually explicit content. But is that actually part of the Google Terms of Service? Well, kinda.

Here’s the relevant part of the Google Terms of Service:

This…isn’t actually terribly clear. It forbids distributing sexually explicit material, though it doesn’t ban creating sexually explicit material, nor does it say what constitutes “distributing.”


What follows is a completely unofficial speculation about what might be happening and what you might be able to do about it. I claim no insider knowledge of Google’s policies; this is simply informal noodling about the situation.

There are several ways to share a Google Doc. You can invite specific people to see it, and give them different levels of access (read only, comment, propose changes, edit, and so on). You can set it up so that anyone who has the URL can read the document, but can’t make any changes. The way you share it affects what people who view it will see.

If you invite specific people to be able to see and/or comment on the document, they will not see the little information bubble that gives them the option to report the site to Google’s abuse team.

If you set the document up so that anyone with the link can see it, which is what spammers do, then anyone who views the document will see the option to report the document for abuse.

I think—and let me emphasize again this is not based on insider knowledge of anything happening at Google—I think what’s happening is that authors who share Google docs with beta readers may be sharing it by setting the document up so that everyone who has the link can see the doc, and people are reporting the doc.

Why? Unknown. Maybe they’re undermining an author they personally don’t like. Maybe they’re just busybodies.

Point is, Google is a big company, with billions of files and docs on Google Sites and Google Docs and so forth, and they’re not generally proactive about deleting content that violates their terms. They’re reactive—they take action when someone calls attention specifically to a doc or file or page.

So it would seem that they consider sharing a read-only link to be “distribution,” and authors who “distribute” sexual content this way are prone to getting their stuff deleted.

If that’s true, what does it mean?

First of all, it suggests that sharing docs with sexual content to beta readers or reviewers is very dangerous. One person clicking that “report abuse” link may be all it takes to lose access to your Google Docs.

So if you’re sharing content with beta readers, especially beta readers you haven’t individually vetted, don’t do it by sharing a publicly-accessible link to any Google content. Create a Word file and share that, or host the copy you share on your own site…basically anything else.

But it also suggests that in the future, should they want to, Google can decide to be less reactive about enforcing their terms and simply search for sexual words or phrases. It would be trivial of them to do so. Their current terms forbid “distributing” sexual content, but of course they decide what distributing means, and they can change that whenever they feel.

The second thing it means is back up your Google content!

You can download from a Google doc to a Word file easily; it’s in the File menu in Docs.

Back up early. Back up often. (I’ve long had a policy of downloading Google Docs after every major change, because Google has been known to accidentally lose files, but this recent development has me doing so even more aggressively).

I plan to continue using Google Docs to write manuscripts. Thankfully, I don’t share the docs to dog+world, so I’m not likely at risk of having a malicious rando report me.

But I will continue to keep local copies of everything, and I’m in search of a replacement for Google if things should go pear-shaped.

Anyone out there who knows of any good collaborative writing tools, please shout out in the comments!

The Lads from Cyprus: Now on Quora!

Back in March 2016, eight years and one day ago, I published an analysis of a spam ring advertising phony pay-for-play scam “dating sites.” This particular group was responsible for about 90% of the “Hot Lady Wants to F*ck You” spam in circulation. The spam contained links to hacked sites that the spammers placed malicious redirectors on, that would redirect to other sites that redirected to other sites that redirected to a site that would promise sex and ask you a bunch of questions about what you were looking for, then take you to the actual scam site.

I called these guys “the Lads from Cyprus” because invariably the scam dating sites were registered to a shell company organized in Cyprus.

Times have changed, and the Lads from Cyprus have changed with them. While they still do send spam emails, I rarely see them any more—perhaps six or eight times a year, where I used to see them multiple times per day.

Instead, they’ve moved on…to Quora.

The Quora Connection

I spend most of my time on Quora these days. A few years back, I started noticing a certain type of profile: large number of profiles with consistent behavior: a profile pic of a hot woman in a kind of blandly generic Instagram pose, answering questions at an enormous rate (sometimes once a minute or more), with the answers all being a sentence or so that might or might not be related to the question, but that always included a photo of a scantily-dressed woman.

The profiles look like this:

The links (“Latest Nude Videos and Pics,” “Hookup [sic] with me now”) all lead to domains that are registered on Namesilo, usually with ultra-cheap TLDs like “.life,” that—rather amazingly—are still using the exact same templates I saw in 2016.

Go with what works, eh?

Anyway, these sites ask you a bunch of questions, tell you you’re about to see nude photos, then redirect you to a scam dating site—in this case, one called onlylocalmeets.com”—where you will immediately see a direct message request the moment you connect, though of course you’ll need to pay if you want to receive it.

It’s actually kind of amazing to me that they’re still running the same scams essentially unchanged, using the same templates they used eight years ago. They’ve clearly got this down to an art—the redirection sites even do some spiffy geolocation and collect as much information from your browser fingerprint as they can before sending oyu off to the scam site.

There are at least hundreds, possibly thousands, of these fake profiles on Quora, all of which use stolen photos of Instagram models, and all of which link back, through various intermediaries, to the same scam dating site.

I started recording the scam profiles in a Notes file. I deliberately didn’t go out searching for them; instead, I just browsed Quora as I normally do, and made a note whenever I encountered one of these scam profiles (and if I was in the mood, did a reverse image search to see whose photos were stolen for that profile).

There are…a lot of them.

Based on what I’ve seen, I’d say probably 800 on the low end and 1,500 on the high end.

One of them even used stolen Instagram photos of pro golfer and model Paige Spiranac. When I reverse image searched the photos, I looked up the email address of her agent (who was easy to find) and sent an email saying “hey, just so you know, your client’s photos are being used in a catfishing scam, here’s the link.” The profile was banned a few days later, so maybe she or her agent filed a DMCA takedown request.

I find it interesting that this organized spam gang is still at it, still running the same scam they’ve been running for at least ten years, but always looking for new ways to find fresh crops of victims.

I also find it interesting that it works. These scam profiles quickly end up with thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of followers.

And finally, if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a woman online, just look at the comments to the spam posts, which range from the drearily predictable:

To the completely unhinged:

(And what is it with these people not knowing the difference between “your” and “you’re”? You can be a completely deranged psycho who abuses women online or you can spell, but not, it seems, both.)

To the…well, I don’t know what the fuck this is. I’ve deliberately cropped off this fellow’s username.

Jesus, I do not understand why any woman would ever voluntarily go online.

On the one hand, it’s kinda hard to feel sorry for some of these blokes, who will no doubt be fleeced of all their money. That particular combination of toxic entitlement toward access to women’s bodies and aggressive stupidity makes it really hard to sympathize with the folks being ripped off here.

On the other, any scam is wrong, regardless of the victims it targets.

To terse or not to terse

I woke this morning thinking about work emails.

I emailed my lawyer and my therapist this morning.

When I write a work-related email to a client or a vendor or some professional I’m contracting for services, I tend to take a lesson from my experiences when I owned a computer consulting firm back in Tampa. Back then, I strongly, strongly preferred clients who sent me terse emails that got straight to the point in the first two sentences to meandering emails that took three paragraphs to get to the point, because the time I spent reading an email was time I wasn’t making money.

So for example, I really appreciated a client who sent me an email saying something like “We’re adding three new workstations to our network, but the network switch is out of ports, so we’d like you to come in and see about installing a larger switch and maybe get costs to upgrade to a faster network.” One sentence, spells out exactly what they need, boom, done.

I worked for a time as a print liaison for a small company that developed training manuals for businesses; they hired me to act as the go-between with printers and shipping companies, primarily, because at the time I already had a working relationship with most of the printers in the area.

I cc’d the business owner on all my emails with print shops and shipping companies. I remember a phone conversation with her one day where she complained about the brevity of my emails—she believed, strongly, that the emails should be longer, with introductory paragraphs like we really appreciate the work you did for us on the last print job and we’re looking forward to working with you again.” Where I would send a print shop an RFQ that might be two, maybe three paragraphs long, she preferred emails that were eight or ten.

I did it hr way, of course, because she was the client, but since I happened to be thinking about it, I’m curious. For those of you who communicate by email for professional or work-related reasons, what are your preferences?

The dumbification of social justice

This is an essay about cultural appropriation, except that it’s not really an essay about cultural appropriation.

This is actually about the way genuine, complex problems in complex societies get reduced to nattering virtue-signaling nonsense that become used as blunt instruments to ensure conformity and serve as tribalistic us-vs-them markers, in a process of ensuckitude that substitutes sloganeering for genuine thought, bleating of approved bumper-sticker platitudes for engagement, and tribalism for solutions.

Buckle up, Dorothy, ’cause Kansas is going bye-bye.

Let’s look at cultural appropriation

Odds are probably pretty good you’ve heard of cultural appropriation. Odds are also pretty good you have strong feelings about it, and that your strong feelings map closely to whether you self-identify as liberal or conservative, but can you actually offer a cogent description of what it is?

Cultural appropriation is a great proxy for the general dumbification of social justice and the generalized ensuckitude of real social discourse, because, oh my God, the prevailing culture-wars conversation around it is So. Fucking. Dumb.

This is how social justice dumbification in general works:

Step 1: Distort and water down the meaning of “cultural appropriation” until you use it for nothing more than “wearing vaguely ‘ethnic’ clothing” or “styling your hair in an unconventional way.” (To be fair, those who understand cultural appropriation is a real thing sometimes do this step for you.)

Step 2: Ignore and/or disregard actual instances of genuine cultural appropriation.

Step 3: Pretend your diluted, absurdist definition of “cultural appropriation” is the only definition there is; refuse to discuss, or even acknowledge, any other meaning.

Look, I get it. There are folks who make me roll my eyes so hard I can see my own brain stem when they talk about “cultural appropriation.”

Probably the greatest example of an absurd self-own was the Internet goon squad that accused a woman of “cultural appropriation” for wearing Japanese clothing when she was Japanese.

All the cringe. ALLLLLL the cringe.

So yeah, I get it. Stupid gonna stupid, man.

And it ain’t just cultural appropriation. Remember when James Cameron’s movie Avatar 2 came out? Some Native people complained that the movie peddled Native tropes for entertainment without actually recognizing Native history of defending biodiversity.

A lot, and I mean a lot, of white urban liberals jumped onto Twitter (yes, I’m totally deadnaming the name of Elongated Muskrat’s social media platform) to crow about how they were boycotting the movie and dish on people who saw it.

Some folks I know personally, folks I once used to respect and even admire, did this. And you know what was especially pathetic about it? They had no intention of seeing the movie in the first place, oh no. They took to social media to crow about how righteous they were for not watching a movie they never intended to watch, because it made them better people than the ones who did watch it…

…and yet, did they actually materially improve the lives of even one single Native person anywhere? Even one? Even a little bit?


See, I might respect someone who went onto social media to say “hey, this movie might be problematic, and here’s why, so I took the $30 I was gonna spend on tickets and popcorn and a gigantic tub of Coke, and I donated it instead to this charity that helps Native populations, and here’s the URL where you can donate too,” but did they?

Nah, bruh, because it was never about the Native people.

It was virtue signaling and bullying. It was “Look at me! Look at me! I’m better than you! Hey, everyone, look at me!” It helped nobody, because it wasn’t intended to. It was about preening and primping, about vanity disguised as social justice.

In love with my own virtue. Image: olly

I didn’t watch Avatar 2, but I didn’t crow about it on social media either, because I never intended to see it in the first place.

Not watching a movie you never intended to watch is not a virtue, and that’s really what this is all about.

But I digress. Let’s get back to cultural appropriation.

“Cultural appropriation” in the academic sense does not mean “woman who kinda looks maybe white on Twitter wearing a yukata that self-righteous white craft-beer liberal dumbfucks think is a kimono.”

Cultural appropriation is when a white businessman sees a Navajo pattern, thinks it’s pretty, and commissions a sweatshop in China to make millions of knockoffs that he gets rich from without, you know, contributing to the people who created it, or even bothering to learn anything about it at all.

And that’s not nonsense. It’s a real thing that happens, just like turning other people’s brutal oppression under colonialism into entertainment whilst you eat overpriced popcorn is a thing that really happens.

But bullying a Japanese woman on social media because she looks “too white” to be wearing the clothes you don’t think she should wear doesn’t actually strike a blow against cultural appropriation, does it?

The difference between social justice and bombastic bullying

Liberals tend to whine about conservatives who mock and deride “social justice warriors,” but if I’m to be perfectly honest, a lot of that is our own fault. We liberals are easy targets, because we have a habit of taking our own values and reducing them to bumper sticker platitudes that we use to bully others without, you know, actually doing anything to solve the problems we claim to care about so much.

I would like to propose a test to help separate genuine concern with social justice from the general enshittification of morality into empty tribalism and bullying. Don’t worry, it’s a simple test, one that can be applied in less time than it takes to drink a single soy-milk latte. Just ask yourself these questions:

  1. At the end of your social justice venture, can you point to any person whose life or situation is now a bit better for your actions, in any way, however small?
  2. Was your social justice venture invited by the people you, a rich white person, claim to be speaking on behalf of?
  3. Is your social media venture targeted at the people who are responsible for the injustice you see, rather than bullying people for not doing what you want them to do?

If you can’t answer “yes” to all three of those questions, maybe you aren’t as virtuous as you like to pretend you are.

Newtonian and Relativistic Morality

So let’s talk about Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Dragons is famous for basically three things: creating an entire cottage industry of weird foaming-at-the-mouth Evangelical cries of satanic doom that will sweep over the land, covering it in darkness forever and ever; giving socially awkward high school students of a certain era something to do and a way to make friends; and, of course, the D&D alignment system, which divided all of morality into a tidy grid with nine different possibilities.

What Evangelicals think D&D looks like

What D&D actually looks like, but with more dice and books (image: No Revisions)

The Dungeons & Dragons alignment system divided morality into Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic on one axis, and Good, Neutral, and Evil along the other. It’s become a cultural touchstone (or a cliché, if you’re less charitable) that has spawned a zillion parodies:

But here’s the thing:

The problem with D&D morality is that it assumes there’s some fixed definition of “good” and “evil.”

You know how relativity tells us all motion is relative? If two people go whizzing past each other in space, each one is at rest in his own reference frame and sees the other one moving.

Real morality is kind of like that. Most people truly, honestly believe they are good. That’s their local inertial frame. For example: Most people agree that violence in defense of your life or the life of another is morally good. The guy who plants a pipe bomb in an abortion clinic? That’s what he thinks he’s doing: defending the lives of babies being murdered. In his eyes, blowing the limbs off clinic workers is morally good.

That’s his inertial reference frame. He would consider himself neutral good; D&D would call him neutral evil, or possibly chaotic evil.

D&D morality, like Newton, assumes the existence of a fixed reference frame from which to evaluate all morality.

In real morality, various people have defined various reference frames. Some folks use “society” as a reference frame, which is all well and good until you encounter cases like “if a society says slavery is moral, then for that society, slavery is moral.”

Utilitarianism is kind of the equivalent of using the cosmic microwave background radiation as your reference frame. If you see a dipole in the CMB, you’re moving, and more specifically, your vector of motion is oriented toward the blueshift in the CMB.

It’s not a perfect analogy; motion is a single vector and D&D has two axes (good <-> evil and lawful <-> chaotic). But it gets the point across.

If we set the CMB to our D&D framework, then probably, yes. Most people are probably neutral, though they think of themselves as good. That’s the entire difficulty: almost all people think of themselves as good. The activist campaigning to legalize gay marriage and the fire-n-brimstone Fundamentalist preacher shaking his fist at the gays both believe they are good.

In Newtonian ethics, this clearly cannot be.

There’s also the issue that for most of us in our day to day lives, using the CMB as a reference frame just isn’t very useful. Right now, as I type this, I’m sitting on the couch in my living room. The couch, the chair next to me, the fish tank to my left, and my tea to my right all seem at rest. The fact that we’re on the surface of a planet spinning and whipping around the sun which is making its slow orbit about the center of mass of the Milky Way which is itself on a collision course with Andromeda at ludicrous speed isn’t relevant to me.

I’m not going to get out of a speeding ticket by saying “but officer, motion is relative, and if you measure our speeds by the CMB dipole they’re indistinguishable!”

Human beings are hard-wired to think differently about our in-group and our out-group. This is built into the structure of our brains. We also have a limit on how big that in-group can be. It’s about 150 people. This is called Dunbar’s number, and it sets a limit on the number of meaningful emotional connections we can make.

The in-group—the people in our Dunbar sphere—-is the ethical equivalent of my living room. When I get up to make more tea, the only inertial frame that’s relevant to me is the frame in which my living room is at rest. Trying to use the CMB as my reference frame isn’t useful.

Most people’s day to day inertial reference frame for their moral evaluations is their Dunbar sphere—the people in their immediate social group. That’s their inertial living room. In that living room, they can think of themselves as “good” even if their ethical actions with respect to utilitarianism is extraordinarily evil—that is, the CMB dipole is very large.

The people who built this place believed, from within their reference frame, they were good. (Image: Frederick Wallace)

Because they don’t think about any reference frame outside their Dunbar sphere, they do things that appear to be morally contradictory—like taking in a friend who has lost his job and his home, while at the same time saying “fuck those Syrian refugees. I don’t care if an 8-year-old girl dies in agony. Fuck her.”

They think of themselves as “lawful good” because they took in their homeless friend. They continue to think of themselves as “lawful good” when they casually condemn thousands of women and children to gruesome deaths. The walls of my living room are relevant to me; the cosmic microwave background of utilitarianism is not.

I would argue that in D&D terms, it’s quite possible that the majority of people are, if anything, neutral evil, if we use utilitarianism as our CMB. Most people believe slavery is evil. Most people would not support slavery making a comeback. Most people are totally 100% okay with buying a diamond engagement ring mined by slave labor, as long as the slavery happens somewhere out of sight to people outside their Dunbar sphere.

I suggest that in most cases, seen from the reference frame of utilitarianism, the majority of human beings, including those who see themselves as lawful good, are in fact neutral evil.