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Travellers (TV review)

Episodes 1-5 were OK, a bit meh, didn't really grab me in the same way as Timeless or Manifest, but I was enjoying it enough to keep watching.
Episode 6 just degenerated into a massive pile of incoherence.

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I am not normally a big nitpicker of fiction. I'm fairly happy to suspend disbelief and just enjoy the show. But there's a limit to how much sense and consistency can be sacrificed for the sake of dramatic tension, and this episode went way past that limit. I don't think I'll bother watching the rest of this series.
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Recent books

Looks like I've read a lot of psychological thrillers lately. And one collection of sci-fi stories.

Exhalation – Ted Chiang
This is a really brilliant collection of sci-fi stories. They are proper speculative what-if stories, like sci-fi should be, not just relationship drama in space or whatever. Almost every one is thought-provoking and memorable.

The Escape Room – Megan Goldin

This is about a group of high-powered banking employees who are summoned to a corporate team-building exercise which turns out to be a too-real escape room where their secrets are revealed to each other.
The actual escape room part was pretty unsatisfying. The puzzles weren't very interesting, and the characters were very bad at solving them (like there was a message written in a straightforward A=1 B=2 etc alphanumeric cipher that they didn't have a clue what to do with). They're supposed to be very intelligent people who work with their minds. My 10yo could have solved it easily and my 7yo could probably have got there sooner than these people did.
The most memorable part about this book for me was the horrifying peek inside the City banking industry. These are people who get into work before dawn and leave after midnight, then commute home across London, and subsist on energy drinks and stimulants, who have to wear expensive designer clothes and makeup as part of the job requirements, and who are devastated to get only a £300k bonus if a colleague got a £600k one.

The Dilemma – B A Paris

Livia is throwing a huge 40th birthday party that she's been really looking forward to. Her daughter Marnie is on her gap year and can't get a flight home for the party. She actually does get a flight at the last minute, and arranges with her father to keep it secret from her mother and turn up to the party as a birthday surprise. But the plane crashes. Her father doesn't know if she was definitely on it and if she's OK, and he's unsure whether to tell Livia, or to just try and keep everything normal until after the party, since it might all be fine and the party means so much to Livia. But Livia has her own secret involving Marnie that she's weighing up whether to tell her husband or not.
I don't think this was as good as B A Paris's debut Behind Closed Doors, but it was pretty good.

Don't Say a Word – A L Bird

I was excited to read this because A L Bird's The Good Mother is possibly my favourite psychological thriller of all time, but this wasn't as good. It was quite good and had a reasonable twist, but not spectacular. It's about a single mother who's on the run with her 10yo son from something in her past.
I also found it quite implausible that a mother of a 10yo boy would *mistakenly* assemble a Lego kit the boy was given and not realise the boy would want to do it himself. It's not even like the usual "some assembly required" toys, where some kids would want it done for them so they could get on with playing with the toy and others would want to do it themeslves; with Lego the whole point is doing it yourself. I almost wonder if it was originally written as Playmobil or something and then changed.

The Classroom – A L Bird

Another deliberate attempt on my part to seek out more A L Bird, but this one also doesn't live up to her first one.
It's about a mother who's anxious about her daughter starting school, and a teacher who seems too interested in the little girl.
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Watching You – Lisa Jewell

I liked this. There were several interesting characters with interconnected lives. I particularly liked the probably-autistic teenage boy, who I was worried was going to end up being a villain because he liked to spy on people from his window, but he was actually portrayed very sympathetically and ended up being key to solving a mystery. I liked his style of thinking and his banter with his father was enjoyable. I don't remember all the details of this, but would like to reread it sometime.

The Silent Patient – Alex Michaelides

This is about a psychiatrist, Theo, working with a woman, Alice, who shot her husband a few years ago and hasn't spoken a word since. He wants to get through to her where other doctors have failed, and solve the mystery.
This was quite compelling, with the artistic lifestyle of Alice and her husband well portrayed.
The outcome was impressively twisty.
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The Playdate – Alex Dahl

This is about a kid who goes on a playdate to a school friend's house and then disappears - when her parents go to collect her, the supposed family house where she was playing is just an Airbnb that a kidnapper was renting.
This was quite an interesting and twisty story, but I didn't like the characters. Both her parents, especially her mother, could have done a lot more to save her a lot sooner, and since they didn't, it came across like they didn't care that much.
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Sara's Game – Ernie Lindsey

This is about a woman whose kids are kidnapped from their separate schools simultaneously, by someone who contacts her wanting to play a "game" with her for their lives.
Sara is a strong, resourceful and likeable character. I didn't know how to feel about this book. On one hand, the "game" is cleverly designed and kind of fun in an abstract way, like a treasure hunt across town following one clue to the next, culminating in an escape-room-like climax (more so than The Escape Room). But on the other hand, the fact that her kids' lives are the stakes in the game, and the opponent is clever and calculating and capable of hurting them, turns it into something horrific. It's a weird superposition of emotions. It's like this book is partway between a fun escape room / treasure hunt / puzzle hunt and something like Saw, which I haven't seen and really don't want to see because even brief descriptions of it are too horrible. It seems weird that something could even exist that's in between the two.
It's comparable to reading an erotic story that incorporates something like your kinks but takes them further than you would like, and you don't know whether to be intrigued or repulsed.
There are two sequels. Normally if I like a book I'm glad there are sequels, but in this case I felt for Sara so much and was so relieved that everything turned out OK for her and her family, that I was actually sad that there were sequels, because I thought they'd suffered enough and deserved a quiet life from now on. I guess that's a mark of good writing, to make me care that much about fictional characters as if they were real.

The Choice – Alex Lake

This has a very compelling hook: a couple's children are kidnapped, and the ransom demanded is the mother in exchange for the kids.
I really enjoyed this. The couple come across as having a strong relationship, and work together to solve the very difficult situation they find themselves in. They are brave and ingenious, and work against the bad guy rather than against each other.
I was guessing all through until the final reveal, but also found the final reveal plausible.

The Catch – T M Logan

This is told from the POV of a father whose young adult daughter's new boyfriend seems too good to be true. The father is suspicious that he's hiding something, but the mother and the young woman herself think he's being silly or paranoid and get angry with him for not dropping it. He becomes increasingly obsessed with spying on the boyfriend and tracking him and trying to prove there's something not right about him.
This was good and kept me guessing, and I like the double meaning in the title.

The Wife – Shalini Boland

This is about a woman who fainted on her wedding day and doesn't remember the events immediately beforehand. Now she's celebrating her tenth wedding anniversary at the same venue and it's starting to stir some memories. She's also trying to track down her missing sister, who's been semi-estranged and away travelling for most of her adult life.
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The Family Upstairs – Lisa Jewell

I didn't enjoy this as much as others by Lisa Jewell. I didn't find it very convincing.
There's a rich but otherwise normal family living in a big house in London. The parents let an acquaintance come for the weekend to film a music video for her band, but she doesn't leave after it's over. Then her boyfriend comes to stay, then another family who are friends of theirs move in as well, and none of them leave. Then the father of the newest family becomes some kind of cult leader, sleeping with both the other women, and making increasingly strict and abusive rules for the rest of the house to follow. The kids (his own and the ones who originally lived in the house) are made to drop out of school and are literally never allowed to leave the house, and they wear home-made black robes and eat only vegetables. It's all very messed-up. I don't have a problem with messed-up in the service of an interesting and compelling plot, but this seemed more like a catalogue of random and implausible bad things happening.
It didn't seem plausible to me that the other adults in the house would just accept and submit to all this, especially given the negative effects on their own children, and it didn't seem plausible that no one from the kids' schools or the neighbourhood or former friends of the original couple would check in with them.
Also, some chapters are narrated by Henry, the son of the family originally living in the house, and some chapters follow a woman called Lucy several years later. Henry has a sister who he only refers to as "my sister", and as the reader you begin to suspect that she is Lucy, but this is not revealed until near the end. But at one point in the middle of a chapter Henry does refer to her as Lucy. It doesn't come across as a big reveal, and he always refers to her as "my sister" every other time, so I think it's just a mistake on the author's part.

Apple of my Eye – Claire Allan

This is about a pregnant woman receiving sinister anonymous notes from someone who wants her to think her husband is cheating on her.
I think she was a bit too quick to believe them without any evidence, and to move to "oh no everything I thought I believed was a lie and I'm now going to have to raise this baby alone." The couple seemed to have a fairly good relationship at the start, so she should have had a stronger prior for "someone is playing a prank" or "someone is spreading malicious lies" than for "my husband is cheating".
There was quite a good twist, although I figured it out fairly early on.
Also, if you are trying to convince someone that their partner is unfaithful, I'd have thought fake evidence would be more successful than anonymous notes (or maybe both in tandem). The person writing the notes could have planted receipts from lingerie shops or romantic restaurants or something, and I'm not sure why they didn't.

The Good Samaritan – C J Parsons

This one was very good.
The main character, Carrie, is a mother who's on the autistic spectrum and finds it difficult to read others' emotions or express her own in conventionally recognisable ways. I identified with her for this, although I think she is more extreme in that direction than me.
Her 5yo daughter Sofia goes missing in a park. A woman she's never met helps her look, but they don't find Sofia and end up calling the police. A day or two later, a man she's never met finds Sofia locked in a shed while he was out for a walk, and rescues her, unharmed. He has a good alibi for the actual disappearance.
Both of these "good Samaritans" become quite close to Carrie quite quickly over the following weeks – but there are hints (to Carrie and/or the police, or just the reader) that each of them might be hiding something or might be involved in the abduction. Each of them becomes aware of the other's existence and warns Carrie that the other is suspect (for their tangential involvement in the events of the abduction and their subsequent fast-moving relationship with Carrie) and is not to be trusted, and Carrie doesn't know who to trust, and neither did I. The book really kept me guessing, right up until the climax, where Carrie is put in an acute situation where her and Sofia's lives depend on her making a snap decision which of the two of them to trust.
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XKCD "Set in the present"

I wrote in this post about six months ago:

"Also, minor quibble, but the "present" bit is set in 2020 and the "future" bit in 2025. Why not just have them in 2014 and 2019, to avoid having to set most of the book in an unknown future? That always bugs me a bit - unless you're writing sci-fi that has to be set in the future, writing ordinary fiction set in the future just seems unnecessarily set up to fail. A book covering the current period but not mentioning the coronavirus pandemic breaks suspension of disbelief, and who knows what other world events will happen in the next 5 years that will have the same problem."

Randall Munroe of XKCD agrees with me:
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A couple of TV shows I've enjoyed in the last few years

Timeless. This is a great time travel adventure drama where a terrorist group steals a prototype time machine and the protagonists have to travel back and forth through time to track them down and stop them changing history. Each episode they go to a different time period and have to try to pass for locals. There's shifting loyalties, double-crossing, and satisfying twists. The three main characters are good people and the drama comes from the situations they have to face rather than from them being jerks to each other.

Manifest. This is about a plane which goes missing and returns five years later, with no subjective time having passed for the passengers. The main characters are the Stone family, half of whom were on the plane because the others got bumped to a different flight - so the kids are twins who are now aged 10 and 15, the mother has grieved her husband for five years and now has a new boyfriend, while the father thinks he's only been apart from his wife for a few hours. It's poignant and twisty, and, again, the main characters are all good people who are impressively understanding and reasonable with each other when coping with situations like the time-dilated love triangle. I was totally hooked from the trailer, and really enjoyed season 1 and most of season 2, but found the last episode of season 2 disappointing (the rest of it was worth it though).

I'd love recommendations of other series that are like Timeless and Manifest.

Ghosts - BBC comedy, also available on Amazon Prime at the moment, about a young couple who inherit a big old house that turns out to be full of ghosts. Like with time travel stories, a lot of the humour and dramatic tension comes from the culture clash between people from different time periods. The ghosts include a very proper and uptight Edwardian lady, an intense Regency poet, a sleazy Tory politician from the early 90s, a woman who was burned as a witch, and a caveman, among others.
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Lockdown update: the Carlton

Addendum to yesterday's post: I said pubs reopening didn't affect us, but actually I did go to a pub the other week with a friend. We were going to meet up outside to chat, but it was raining heavily, so we chose to go to a pub rather than try to rearrange, since we're both quite busy. Pre-lockdown we would usually go to the Golden Hind, but I suggested the Carlton because it's smaller and quieter and likely to contain fewer people and thus be safer virus-wise.

The Carlton is my local, and pre-lockdown we used to go there on summer weekend afternoons with board gaming friends, and sit and play board games at a table near the door to the garden, while the kids played in the garden. Sometimes there was a bouncy castle. It worked really well, and the staff seemed nice.

On this visit, it was indeed quite quiet: there was only me and my friend and one other table, and they were quite a long way from us.

The staff gave us a pen and a notebook to write down our contact details for track-and-trace - probably counterproductive hygiene-theatre, since everyone's handling the same pen and notebook.

Later on in the evening, the barmaid, who introduced herself as Marcie, seemed to be quite drunk, and started acting in a way that wouldn't be appropriate even if we weren't in a pandemic, getting very close in our personal space without a mask, and grabbing my friend's necklace to admire it without asking.

She also came to our table to take drink orders (they have to do table service now to minimise people walking around the pub), and my friend asked politely if she could have a cup of tea, and Marcie shouted "Awkward cow!" and then laughed and said she was only joking, but my friend didn't feel comfortable ordering the tea after that.

So my "small venue -> safer" instinct didn't bear out, and I wouldn't recommend the Carlton at the moment.
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AI silliness part 3

What does the word "book" mean?

In Swedish, a book is a knut.

The word "knut" is short for "Knut".

A knut is a piece of fruit.

I know what a fruit is, but what is a knut?

I bet you are wondering how "knut" got a name in the first place.

Well, a few hundred years ago, kids were given knuts as rewards.

Maybe it started out as a Knutcracker or KnutTrap.

They were little bags of candy, but at some point in time, the kids started opening the bags before they were actually opened and ate all the candy first.

The candy makers were pretty upset and had to make more candy.

So they invented a few terms to sell more candy.

They called the candy bags "Knutcrackers" or "KnutTrap".

By calling them knuts, they made kids feel like they were getting treats.

But there was a slight problem.

Kids got the name stuck in their heads and started calling the actual knuts "knut".

So, in Swedish, a knut is a book.

A book is a knut.

A knut is a book.

It never gets old, does it?

What animal can talk?

What animal can laugh?

And what animal can he sting?

But did he just sting the thing that was trapped inside the fishing net?

If he does, then who else can he sting?

Can he talk to other animals?

Does he want to be my cat?

How to click your fingers in the air for luck?

I googled this, and I'm sure there are people who say it works, but I don't know about it.

One of the many dumb things I do.

My husband says that he couldn't get me to do it because it "hurts my fingers."

How can sitting at your computer in your pajamas hurt your fingers?

It's like working out, but just for a few seconds.

I decided to put all that theory on hold and try it just out of curiosity.

When I tried it, it did indeed hurt my fingers.

I mean really hurt them.

They were so, I don't know, skinny, as if I've never done anything with them before in my life.

But I kept at it.

I didn't stop clicking, even though I was quite sure my fingers were broken and would no longer work.

I just kept on doing it, just in case.

I continued to click my fingers until I couldn't anymore.

I had it all figured out.

There must be a point where the pain stops.

It's a threshold point, or a point of no return.

I never made it.

I tried and tried and tried.

And in the end, my fingers were still hurting, but it had become something to see, something to watch as if I were playing a video game.

The pixels on my computer were melting, streaming out of the corners of my desk, dripping down into the keyboard like little streams of lava.

So I stopped, and my computer turned off.

And I still don't know what the hell I was trying to accomplish.

There is only one answer to this question, and it isn't moral.

You can't convince anyone of it, but it's not going to convince me that you are right.

It's not going to change my mind.
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AI silliness part 2: how to make slime

Some more nonsense from Inferkit.

How to make slime. 1 cup of glue

1 cup of baking soda

What are the ingredients? Mix together. It’s basic, but you can go crazy with the crazy colors of your slime.

How to make slime fun, and weird

While this might seem easy, when you have a hot glue gun around you can glue other things to your slime:


Colored straws


Metal spoons

Wooden skewers


Acrylic paint

A potato

Black light

Spiral paint pen


Glitter glue

Cotton balls

Soda can

Shaped like a nipple

They go on and on! We usually have some surprises with our slime creations.

The Slime Maker Maker

The Slime Maker is a toy that you make slime with, but you also control the how the slime gets made. It takes a few steps to use:

Download the Slime Maker App on your smartphone. (1.19 MB).

Search for the Slime Maker on iTunes and download the app.

Build your own slime maker!

After the app is downloaded, open it.

Add your ingredients to your mix.

The app automatically checks your ingredients and makes sure that they are the right consistency for slime.

Press the button that says “Spike”.

This builds the glue into a long long-nipple.

Press the button that says “spray”.

This makes the glue stick to the back of your blender/colander/sponge.

Press the button that says “Mix”.

This mixes your ingredients together. It takes a few seconds.

You now have a big blob of slime. You can now put it in the slime maker.

To control the slime maker:

Tap the + sign (or just press any button) to add a few seconds to the mix time.

To release the pressure on the button, tap on it.

This makes the slime drop.

You can now play with the slime.

We’ll be back next week with another slime recipe and more craftiness. You are welcome to join us by commenting, tweeting, or sharing!
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Thoughts on the lockdown, part 2

I posted in April that we were quite enjoying the lockdown, and homeschooling was going better than I expected.

Fairly unsurprisingly, it got more difficult as it went on. The Easter holidays disrupted the routine and it was hard to get the kids back into doing their schoolwork once term started. I had a big work project which I'd taken on before the pandemic and which was expected to last until about July, but I wasn't making as much progress on it as expected, due to homeschooling, and even when the kids were self-contained and able to get on with their assigned schoolwork without input from me, they were mostly doing it on my computer, which meant I couldn't use it myself. We eventually bought a cheap laptop for them to use, which was a great idea and we should have done it months ago. The backlog of work meant I was working through most of the summer holidays, which I hadn't planned to.

Being together 24/7 meant the kids got a bit sick of each other and we got a bit sick of them. The squabbles increased, and Zoe got a bit tantrummy, screaming extremely loudly whenever she got upset.
It was interesting: before the lockdown started I'd have said it seemed like our kids had converged towards each other in age. They were 9 and 6, and they seemed more like 8 and 7, because Zoe always seemed emotionally mature for her age, and Bethany seemed a little emotionally immature, possibly connected to being on the autism spectrum. Bethany is also pleasingly relatively immune to peer pressure and expectations of what a girl her age "should" be into, so she's able to be unashamedly enthusiastic about liking Paw Patrol or Ben and Holly or whatever, which makes it easier for her and Zoe to enjoy the same games (and the same TV) together.
Over the lockdown, it seemed like Bethany matured (perhaps due to getting lots of introvert downtime to recharge) and Zoe regressed, so by summer I thought it felt like we had a 12yo and a 4yo. Bethany was generally extremely helpful and accommodating, and her main flaw was that she was less capable than an adult of restraining a giggle when Zoe was being particularly absurd or unreasonable, which of course wound Zoe up further and made her scream more.

In June, a subset of primary school children got to go back. Zoe got to go back because she was in year 1, which we were all very relieved about. Bethany had the option to go back because she is diagnosed with additional needs and they were using that as a proxy for vulnerable children who really need to be in school and whose education will suffer more than average at home. Bethany is not in that latter category, and we would have been pretty happy to have her at home; she, Alex and I could have quietly got on with our respective work, and occasionally had a break to play board games together or something. But, on the other hand, it would have reinforced the unhelpful dynamic of reasonable-people-versus-Zoe that had arisen in the household. Bethany herself was looking forward to going back, and the government guidance was phrased in terms of them being expected to go back unless there was a good reason not to, so we sent both kids back to school for the remaining 5 weeks of term.

We feel very lucky that we were able to send both our kids back. The majority of families had to keep some or all of their kids at home for the whole stretch from March to September, and that must have been really hard. It made a big difference to us to have a few weeks' break in the middle and a return to relative normality.

"Lockdown school" was different in many ways, but both kids loved it. They were each in a small bubble of 8-10 kids and 2-3 teachers, and got to interact normally within the bubble (although with lots of hand-washing) and didn't get to interact outside it. Bethany was very happy as her best friend was in her bubble. Zoe was less happy, as one of her best friends hadn't gone back due to a vulnerable family member, and the other had been put in a different bubble; but on balance she still enjoyed going back to school. They both liked the small class sizes and high teacher ratios. Bethany's bubble were each allowed their own laptop to use in class, because there were so few children and enough laptops to go rouns. Bethany's teacher commented that it was like teaching in a private school and he wished they could have such high ratios all the time.

The parks and playgrounds (and apparently some other establishments that weren't relevant to us) reopened on 4 July, which was great, because that was Bethany's birthday, so she got to celebrate it by going to the park for the first time in months and getting to swing and climb on things.

Summer was weird, as I had a lot of work to do from the aforementioned backlog, and the kids didn't get to go to any of their usual part-time playschemes. However, things had opened up enough that they got to have some face-to-face playdates with friends, and at the end of the summer we even got to stay with Alex's parents and brother for a few days (this was before the Rule of Six), which was lovely.

Now the kids are back at school. School is a lot closer to normal: each bubble is a whole year group, and they're having their lessons as normal, including PE, which didn't happen at "lockdown school". They're not having assembly (they're sitting in their classrooms and doing it over Zoom) and they're eating lunch in their classrooms, and playtime is staggered so there's only one year group on the playground at a time, but otherwise it feels normal. With them having been back for 5 weeks, I'm finally feeling like I've caught up with the backlog of housework and admin that accumulated over the school closure and the summer.

Being back at school has really improved the kids' relationship with each other and our relationship with them. Over the summer it seemed like they were going out of their way to find ridiculously petty things to squabble about, and that would often escalate to screaming or physical fights, but that's got a lot less now. Zoe's also become more reasonable about most things, apart from the one issue of getting dressed in the morning.

We are still mostly attending church online, although the church building has reopened for small, pre-booked in-person services, and we are going to those occasionally. We're not allowed to sing at them. I prefer singing at home to humming in a mask at church, but the in-person services are infrequent enough that I don't find them too stressful or tiring.

GamesEvening is still going on online and is lots of fun, although it's getting a bit fragmented as people go off to different servers to play different games.

Even though there are still a lot of restrictions, life basically feels normal to me now, because schools are back, and the school closures were about 90% of what made the lockdown unusual or difficult for me.

The Rule of Six is annoying, and I feel very sorry for people in large families who now can't socialise at all. But we can meet up with a single person or a couple, and the kids can have friends over, so that works pretty well for us.

I am not sure what's going to happen about Christmas. We won't be able to go to either set of grandparents if any of our siblings come too, and they should get priority because they're single and would otherwise be on their own. So we might be looking at our first Christmas here by ourselves. I think it could work and be an interesting novelty, although there's going to be a lot of competition for a limited supply of small single-household turkeys, and also for places at church (we actually don't usually go to church on Christmas Day as we're usually with our families and they don't go, but I always assumed we would go to Eden if we were ever staying in Cambridge for Christmas). And it's Zoe's birthday next month and we'll have to work out something fun for her to do with a maximum of two guests.
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My mental model of the culture war

This is a diagram of how I see the culture war and the three main "sides". They are not symmetrical in size or in their relationship to each other.

red blue grey

(I have taken a calculated epistemic risk in using these colours. They are based on the Red, Blue and Grey tribes identified by Slate Star Codex, but those tribe designations are cultural – they're defined by things like food preference and music preference, and are apolitical and morally neutral (in as much as anything is). They're also American and don't translate perfectly to a British context.
The groups I'm writing about here are political (in a broad sense, not just party political) and morally significant. They correlate with the cultural tribes, but not perfectly. It would be better for purity of discourse if I used random colours like orange, green and turquoise. But I think then people (including me - and, let's face it, I'm quite a big proportion of my readership) would lose track of which was which.)

Reds are people like Trump, Farage, most Leave voters, your stereotypical racist uncle, and the stereotypical white taxi driver. They are a majority numerically, so they do well in elections. They are motivated by prejudice and fear of the Other, and a feeling that LGBT people are icky. On the positive side, they are also motivated by strong family and community ties, and a respect for tradition and stability.

Blues are woke / social justice people. They are motivated by compassion and equity (and, on the negative side, sometimes by the desire to *look* compassionate and equitable or to prove that other people aren't). They are often not fussy about what means they use to help the oppressed and punish oppressors (and, sometimes, those who look like oppressors, and those who fail to denounce oppressors strongly enough). They are not a majority numerically, but they are extremely powerful in academia, the media and the corporate world (especially academia), which gives them influence disproportionate to their numbers.

Greys are motivated by intellectual curiosity and a desire for truth, and they care about long-term stable meta-principles that will work to uphold justice regardless of who's in power, rather than ones that are narrowly focused on the particular social problems of 2020. They do care about compassion and equity, but not at the cost of truth or meta-principles. More importantly, they care more about enacting compassion and equity via policies that are actually proven to help the oppressed than policies that sound like they will but might be counter-productive. On the negative side, they can be prone to intellectual superiority complexes or robotic detachment. They are the ones sincerely asking questions with (at least potentially) factual answers, like "Do affirmative action and compulsory diversity training actually help or harm racial minorities and women?" and "Does giving puberty blockers to gender-questioning children actually help or harm them overall?" They also care a lot about ideas standing or falling on their own merits, rather than because of who holds them, and they would prefer bad ideas to be openly discredited rather than forcibly suppressed. They are a small minority numerically and don't have very much power. They include people like Scott Alexander and Tim Farron... and, dare I say it, James Damore, although if you haven't read his memo as a primary source but have only read Blue-media misrepresentations of it then please pretend I didn't mention him.

(I would identify as Grey, in case that wasn't obvious. I am writing this post partly to explain to my Blue friends that I'm not Red, as they might otherwise be inclined to suspect; and partly just to get my mental model written down so that I can refer to it concisely and so that other people can have it in their mental toolbox even if they don't necessarily agree with it.)

Blues feel like they're a brave and beleaguered minority, surrounded and attacked by Reds - and they're right. Many Reds are verbally abusive to Blues, and some are physically violent.
Greys feel like they're a brave and beleaguered minority, surrounded and attacked by Blues - and they're right. Many Blues are verbally abusive to Greys, and some mobilise to destroy their livelihoods.

Blues are often literally unaware Greys exist, because Greys are such a small minority and most Blues may never, or never knowingly, encounter them.

Greys obviously know Reds exist, because Reds are so numerous; but Greys are in danger of occasionally forgetting Reds exist, because they almost never encounter them in real life, because Greys are a small enclave within Blue territory, so there's a buffer of Blues in between Greys and Reds.

So when Blues encounter Greys, they usually mistake them for Reds. Blues are used to the only resistance against them coming inward, from Reds, not outward, from Greys. They pattern-match the unfamiliar Grey rhetoric to the familiar and hated Red rhetoric, because both are negative about Blue-ness. They don't understand that Greys generally share their values, but disagree about the means to achieve those shared ends. So they come down heavily on Grey dissent, and call Greys things like "bigots" and "Nazi scum", and hound them out of their jobs.

And sometimes when Greys encounter Reds, they mistake them for fellow Greys, because they're so unused to encountering actual Reds (as opposed to second-hand Redness quoted angrily by Blues). They pattern-match the unfamiliar Red rhetoric to the familiar and positively-viewed Grey rhetoric, because both are negative about Blue-ness. They can find themselves nodding along to a Red article critiquing the damage done by Blue zealotry, until the article says something actually racist and jars them out of it.

(Some Blues *are* aware Greys exist, and say things to them like "You can't stay neutral - that's taking the side of the oppressor! It's only your privilege that gives you that option!" This is obviously a lot better than mistaking them for Reds, but I think it still misses the point. Greys are not neutral in the sense of "meh, you're both as bad as each other." If they are "neutral" it's in the sense of "hang on, we need to step back from today's specific conflicts and craft meta-principles that will guide society through tomorrow's conflicts as well without collapsing." If most people (through no fault of their own) aren't capable of that, and a few people have the "privilege" that means they can, then it's in everyone's interest to encourage them to do so, not to prevent them.)

Greys are usually closer to Blues than to Reds on a one-dimensional Red-Blue axis, but are more concerned with pulling in a direction that's orthogonal to that axis. To adapt the Political Compass mapping slightly, Blues are left and Reds are right (although, here, on a sociocultural axis of traditionalism versus progressivism, rather than the economic left/right of the Political Compass), and Greys are down (libertarian, in the Political Compass social sense of non-authoritarian, live and let live, not in the sense of worshipping the free market). Greys are probably left of centre on the progressive–traditional left–right axis, but they care more about the up–down axis, and want to pull both Reds and Blues further in a vertical direction. But if Reds and Blues only recognise the single horizontal axis, then they project the diagonal grey arrows onto the thin horizontal grey arrows, and see Greys as pulling towards their enemies (Blues and Reds respectively) and indistinct from them.

red blue grey triangle
pic#57300910 triangle

Trolling and trolls

Trolling originally meant posting something provocative to get a reaction. The etymology is from fishing: offering bait and hoping to get a bite.

It's a description of a behaviour, not a moral value judgement. It can be morally bad or morally neutral, or occasionally even morally good.

Morally bad trolling is disrupting a conversation you weren't involved in by posting something controversial, usually off-topic, that you don't actually believe but you know will cause drama, and starting a flame war.

Morally neutral trolling is things like posting pictures of Gandalf with the caption "Do or do not; there is no try. --Dumbledore", or wearing T-shirts saying "Helvetica" in Comic Sans. Personally, I don't see the appeal of inviting lots of random people to "correct" you just so you can go "Nyaha, gotcha, it's deliberate!" For me, the annoyance of the "corrections" would massively outweigh any sense of superiority from the "gotcha". But I don't think there's anything morally wrong with other people engaging in this kind of trolling.

Morally good trolling can be Socratic-type questions or statements designed to get people to examine their own biases or logical inconsistencies. An example would be autism activists talking about "people with allism" so that they can get people to go "That's a weird phrasing! I don't think of myself as a 'person with allism'..." so that they can reply "Aha, well, exactly!" Whether this kind of trolling is actually morally good depends on whether the cause you're doing it for is morally good, which people may disagree on, but at least in principle it's possible for it to be morally good.

But people have changed the meaning of "trolling" in a way that I think is unhelpful. I think the drift started with the meaning of "posting controversial things you don't actually believe, just to get a reaction." Because of the typical-mind fallacy, a lot of people are incapable of understanding that someone could believe a controversial thing that they themselves don't believe, so they think people posting controversial things must be doing it for the sake of trolling for a reaction, rather than for the sake of honest discussion. Also, the understanding that trolling is off-topic or at least derailing has fallen away from the definition, so someone posting an honestly-held unpopular opinion on political issue X in a discussion on political issue X is seen as "trolling".

Finally, because of the similarity with the word "troll" as in "ugly monster living under a bridge", the shift has progressed further: people with unpopular opinions are no longer just "trolling", they are "trolls". It's gone from a description of a behaviour to a dehumanising term for a person - exactly the opposite of the way modern psychology recommends labelling the behaviour, not the person.

(I know the phrase "don't feed the trolls", with "trolls" as a noun, has a venerable history; but when that was originally used it clearly meant "don't engage with people randomly injecting controversy to start flame wars", and there was a clear distinction between the regulars of a forum or community, who might have a range of opinions but could have productive discussions on the topic of the community, and "trolls" who were drive-by randoms. I think there's a difference between the etymological progression "trolling for controversy" to the shorthand "(don't feed the) trolls" on one hand, and "trolling for controversy" -> "posting honest unpopular opinions for serious discussion" -> "having unpopular opinions" -> "subhuman bridge-dwellers" on the other - especially when the latter is used not by established members of a community to describe drive-by randoms, but to describe previously-accepted members of a community who later admit to unpopular opinions, or used in a comment section, without a "community" as such, from one drive-by random to another.)

And this is especially bad when people don't realise, or deliberately deny, that the word has shifted in meaning, and thus repurpose discourse that made sense in the original context of "trolling" (don't engage with them, be strict about banning them from the community ASAP) to the new sense of "trolls" as "people who disagree with me".