It’s all gone bad hasn’t it

The internet has never been so broken.

Where are the good conversations at? That was the core currency of the internet: newsgroups and bulletin boards, then blogs and forums, then social media and comment sections. And now it’s all gone.

Facebook is an unworkable mess, burying the things your friends say beneath piles of engagement-bait posts from groups you don’t follow or care about. Twitter is a collapsing building full of grifters and fascists. TikTok is linear TV for the algorithmic era. Comment sections are feral or gone because moderation cost too much (not to mention most of the good sites that hosted them have been stripped for parts, pour one out for the AVClub). Blogs are dead because outbound links are buried by every algorithm and RSS has been systematically strangled. There are a few dark-forest forums on discord and slack, and of course group chats, hidden spaces that only work well if participants are limited, and that’s about it.

Substack isn’t going to do it, either. We spent ten years getting all that stuff out of our email inbox, that pendulum isn’t going to swing back that far.

It didn’t have to be like this. But at least some awful people got very rich along the way.

The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost (2016)

Well. It’s a hefty tome, and a beautiful physical object. Engaging, frequently a page-turner. Often funny, and pleasantly studded with familiar voices. But whatever I was hoping for, I didn’t really get it. 

The book is presented as a dossier about the town of Twin Peaks, including notes by an archivist and reproductions of original documents of various kinds. It is by Mark Frost, co-creator of the TV show with David Lynch. It tells the whole history of the town, from the days of the native peoples, right through to the events surrounding Laura Palmer’s murder. And it bugs me.

It isn’t the inconsistencies. Yes, it’s inconsistent with the TV series in lots of ways, but none of them are obvious, and consistency doesn’t matter anyway. (The three classic tie-in books were similarly inconsistent, and Fire Walk With Me was also inconsistent with the show, so just chalk it up to a collective dream and move along.)

It isn’t the Zelig/Forrest Gumpian appearances of varied historical personages – even L. Ron Hubbard! Frost’s project appears to be giving events in Twin Peaks greater significance against the backdrop of American life and its ongoing mysteries. It isn’t really what I’m looking for, but it is coherent with some of the threads from the show which made clear American authorities were aware of strangeness in the town, and the subplot around aliens and flying saucers is a major focus of the narrative. 

What bugs me is more the fact that, considering how big a canvas Frost is working with, it all feels so insular and referential (and deferential). The same names crop up over and over again through the town’s history. Almost everyone interesting in this lengthy book was either on screen, or directly related to someone on screen. With the opportunity to point at a wider canvas full of the unknown, Frost repeatedly loops back to the same established ground.

Now this isn’t exactly inconsistent with the TV show which kept the focus relatively tight, going to the same circle of characters over and over again – as a TV show must do, to keep its contracted cast busy on screen. However, the same pattern feels myopic and overdetermined here, like fan fiction. Consider by contrast Lynch’s film Fire Walk With Me, which obsessively included the vast majority of the characters from the TV show, but also featured many entirely new characters and situations in prominent roles. In fact, most of the TV characters were left on the cutting room floor. Even those earlier spin-off books filled out their world more than here. 

This focus on the TV characters creates some secondary problems. The urge to feature them was no doubt strong because of their distinctive, memorable personalities, but Frost has varied success transferring them to the page. In particular the writings of Deputy Hawk, Hank Jennings and Audrey Horne all feel off-kilter. If these characters were not quite so indelible, Frost might have got away with it.

Also, frustratingly, the book doesn’t provide many answers to the TV show’s many cliffhangers. (One notable exception is the reveal of who survived the large explosion in the final episode.) Despite a framing device that has the evidence of events from 1989 being discussed in 2016, very little is revealed beyond what we saw on screen. So if you’re hoping this will carry you across the decades and set you up for the third season of the show, you will be disappointed.
Mark Frost, and the publishers, have doggedly insisted that this book is a novel. I guess we might as well call it that, but it feels like its own sort of thing. While there is one central thread across the varied tales in the book, it doesn’t real feel like a narrative as such – there is little to root for in the central character’s journey, and what transitions he experiences are very superficial. The book tries too hard to make a dramatic mystery of the identity of the archivist, but the mystery is inert – knowing who it is changes nothing and adds nothing to the experience, it is just obfuscation for its own sake. Frost is a skilled storyteller (I am very fond of his novel List of Seven for example) but here the many interesting pieces of the book don’t come together into any richer whole. 

So do I recommend this book? There’s plenty to enjoy (the account of a scout camp featuring young versions of some minor characters is a creepy highlight) and it is a beautiful physical object. Still, I end up feeling quite ambivalent. While it is “canonical” (for whatever that is worth), I think it is best viewed as an entertaining homage rather than a new revelatory piece of the wider Twin Peaks puzzle. As a fun celebration of the show, it fits well alongside the rather silly Guide to Twin Peaks and the earnest but necessarily limited Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and Autobiography of Dale Cooper. It is nice to have clear accounts of tangled storylines such as the Josie Packard/Catherine Martel rivalry (inconsistencies notwithstanding). I am glad to have it on my shelf. But it is undeniably inessential. 

I guess my ultimate take is this: I wouldn’t expect David Lynch will have read this book before making the new series. I don’t think that would be a problem.

 So that’s it, then. One for the curious aficionado, not to be taken too seriously.

Twin Peaks (USA, 1990)

Twin Peaks is widely regarded as a missed opportunity. Made by David Lynch as the pilot for a planned TV series, it was salvaged into a film by adding an ending sequence. The film’s roots in television are obvious, introducing a sprawling cast of characters – some of whom don’t even get lines of dialogue, such as the mysterious Log Lady. If an ongoing series had been made, it would have been delightful to learn more about these characters, but sadly we had to wait a few years until Mulholland Drive to get a proper taste of Lynchian television.

As it is, the film is often seen as a failure. The ending sequence does appear disconnected from the extensive busywork beforehand – after introducing character after character, each with their own problems and conflicts and each a potential suspect in the central murder mystery, the film abruptly reveals the murderer to be someone we haven’t even seen before, who is hiding out in the basement of the hospital. The murderer’s partner/foil shoots him, then apparently dies of a heart attack, and that’s it, except for a strange and dreamlike coda in a red-curtained room that is widely regarded as inexplicable.

However, I think Lynch has given us all the clues we need to make sense of this film. Let’s take a look.

The bulk of the running time is spent exploring the town. As mentioned, nearly everyone seems to have a secret – not just the teens caught up in Laura Palmer’s strange life, but the adults too. (Notable exception for contrast – the adorably literal sheriff’s receptionist Lucy who seems incapable of leaving anything unsaid, secret or otherwise.) The film is also named for the town. The fact that none of these characters is involved in the crime seems at first to be a pointless rebuke to murder-mystery expectations, but I believe the message is the reverse – that in some sense the town itself is responsible. The film’s focus on the network of secrets and sadness in the town suggests that these secrets in some way caused her death. Laura is the homecoming queen and loved by all – but she clearly is caught up in terrible things, and this picture-perfect town is implicated. (The Norwegian investors subplot, for example, makes perfect sense through this lens – Laura’s death stains the town so much they walk out on the deal, and the town, immediately.)

We get more evidence that the townsfolks’ secrets are the cause of the murder when we meet Mike and Bob at the end of the film. They seem ordinary enough on the surface, but these two men are clearly meant to be interpreted as strange, magical beings from somewhere else (there are two worlds, as the magician’s chant reveals). If Bob could hide in Laura’s room while her mother looked for her, he is clearly using some otherworldly nature to do so.

Mike tells the story of how they lived among the people, above a convenience store no less. The film seems to be telling us that Mike and Bob are drawn to people like the ones we have been watching for the previous ninety minutes – deeply flawed and full of secrets. Or, to flip it into the kind of magical logic suggested by the killer’s use of rituals and magic chants, the town’s many secrets bring down dark spirits upon their head, with Laura Palmer, the homecoming queen/drug user/friend-of-prostitutes-and-murderers, as the incarnation of the town’s dual nature and the prime target for sacrifice.

While Mike has reformed from his murderous ways, Bob promises to kill again, provoking Mike to murder him. The case seems to be resolved, but it is clear Cooper is unsatisfied. As candles blow out, Cooper makes a wish – and we immediately cut to 25 years later.

The meaning of this cut seems clear: his wish was to understand the strange logic of what he witnessed in Twin Peaks. He has spent his career on this quest, and finally, as a much older man, he has found his way to the somewhere else. There, he meets a spirit wearing the form of Laura Palmer. (Bob claimed to catch people in his “death bag”, which presumably means he steals the form of his victims and carries it back to the second world.) The spirit, we are told, is full of secrets. She whispers into Cooper’s ear the answers he was seeking. Credits roll.

I don’t make any grand claims that this film approaches the thematic coherence of later works like Lost Highway, but I think it holds together a lot more thoroughly than most give it credit for. Indeed, from my perspective there is only one piece of the film that remains with me as both unexplained and deeply disturbing. 

The final sequence of the film begins with Laura’s mother remembering that she had in fact glimpsed Bob in Laura’s room that morning. As she screams in terror and calls for help from Laura’s father, we can see over her shoulder a mirror on the wall. And, blurry but definitely visible in my Blu-Ray copy of the film, we can see a face in the mirror – and it is unmistakably that of Bob himself. He is apparently right there in the room watching as Laura’s mother loses her wits! Creepy as hell.

In any case, this film is recommended, and not just so we can imagine what a Twin Peaks TV series might have been like. Instead, let’s appreciate it for what it is – a satisfying and complete film in itself.


Ruminator: Pink vs Blue

Yesterday turned out to be an interesting day. There was winning at basketball, which happens rarely enough these days that it’s a happy moment indeed. There was completing the serialisation of “in move”, my teenage-boys-in-the-Hutt novel, about which more soon (I need to get the ebook version prepared for release). There was getting a heat pump installed, hurrah for that. But the big thing was Pink vs Blue.

Pink vs Blue was a post I wrote over at The Ruminator. It’s about how being a dad to a little girl has given me some new avenues for thinking about the way our culture codes and scripts gender in a really limiting way. I spent a while scooping together lots of bits and pieces I’d been thinking and feeling for a while, and lined them up in what I hoped was an illuminating way.

As usual with this sort of stuff, the writing of it is also the thinking about it – I look for turns of phrase or metaphors or rhetorical flourishes that feel like they help me understand. Like if I can just line up the words in the right way, I’ll unlock some hidden secret. Sometimes it does feel like that.

Anyway, I’m pretty proud of this post, because it’s very personal and also very general, and I tried hard to get it right. It’s taken off in a moderate sort of way, lots of shares by people I’ve never heard of. Easily the most widely circulated thing I’ve ever written (excepting that time I cut and pasted a few Wikileaks tweets and added the words “this is interesting” and it went crazy on Reddit).

You can find it here. I hope you’ll have a read, and if you are so moved, do pass it on to anyone else who might be interested.

BAT: Why they do it

I think I’ve cracked it.

A few days ago I made a lengthy post about how the British American Tobacco “agree disagree” marketing campaign made no sense to me at all, at all, at all. Since then BAT has launched a third phase of the campaign, which is even weirder and less likely to be convincing and what the hell what the hell didgeridoo noise what the hell.

And as I thought about that and tried, again, to work out what on earth the advertising company & BAT think they’re doing, suddenly I came up with an explanation that makes sense to me. It might not be the truth, but at least it puts a comprehensible motive behind this apparently nonsensical marketing.

Here goes: they’re trying to rebrand the tobacco industry.

The advertisements to the mass NZ public, the petition, the Twitter stream, the stunted website – none of these are trying to convince people of the merits of the plain packaging case. That’s what the campaign claims to be about, but it just ain’t true. They know the NZ public isn’t going to take up pitchforks and demand plain packaging be tossed aside. A campaign to actually get the public behind you looks more like the one they ran in Australia, where it was all about your tax dollars being misspent and your neighbourhoods falling into ruin.

Nope. The purpose here is bigger. Consider the detail of this campaign:

  • the name, “agree disagree” which suggests a willingness to engage and consider
  • the upfront admission that smoking is harmful (this must be the largest sum of money ever spent by a tobacco company to frontload the message that smoking is bad for you)
  • the technical nature of the arguments raised (IP ownership, international trade implications, legislative comparability between NZ and Australia)
  • the “sophisticated” tone taken – the word “CREATE” which is firmly the symbolic territory of the liberal arts; the wine industry, or more pointedly, bottles of wine which is still the drink of the social elite
  • the overall tone of restraint in voiceover, writing, general messaging – consider also the negative space where a more screechy, nasty campaign might be
  • the sheer size of the campaign, which suggests that this is an issue that genuinely matters to them

Look at what comes through: we are considered, honest, clever, sophisticated, restrained, sincere.
Or: we are not your daddy’s tobacco industry.

They’re trying to position themselves as reasonable actors. This is the *exact opposite* of what they were doing in Australia, which was hitting very hard all the notes that would push for public outrage without worrying about how it made them look. That didn’t work.

So, where’s the value in this kind of rebranding? If they do it right, it will make a difference to their lobbying environment. The broad push will hit a lot of people, and they’ll forget the technical detail of what’s up but they will remember this: “it sounds to me like those tobacco companies are actually being pretty sensible”. The decisionmakers and politicians will get this message from the community, as well as being caught up in the saturation marketing themselves.

That means, when a BAT rep makes a phone call to a business lobby group and tries to get them to carry water on their behalf, the person on the other end is more likely to agree.

It means when Campbell Live has a face-to-face on the issue between a Green MP and a BAT rep, the public give the tobacco person a better hearing and response.

And it means, when a BAT representative stands up at Select Committee to talk through why this is a bad idea, the people on the committee are better disposed to listen.

All of this counts. All of this makes a difference. It gives them a better shot at keeping plain packaging out of NZ, and that’s the big prize. That’s why they’re doing this.

I like this explanation. It brings all the weirdness into a single line that pushes hard towards the only result that matters to BAT. It justifies the amount of money spent and explains why none of the elements do what they claim to be doing.

There’s one sticking point: as I’ve noted, the three technical arguments made are actually not very convincing at all. How does that help them? Well, it doesn’t help them, but it also doesn’t invalidate this explanation. You see, the reason the arguments seem meritless is because *the arguments are meritless*. They don’t have stronger ones to call on. It’s a bluff, but not the obvious kind (“these are great arguments, honest!”). No, the bluff is to argue in the style of a considered, sensible person, so people conclude you actually are a considered, sensible person.

BAT are taking a gamble, and if I’m reading it right then it is indeed smart and perhaps it’s their only shot left. With that all said: I still don’t think it’s going to work. I think plain packaging is going to happen here. Our society turned against smoking years ago, and this is just another way to show that.

(That petition I was puzzled about is still hard to read, but I’d guess it’s for two purposes, private lobbying and message refinement. In meetings they can say “We sent people out to talk to ordinary folks. They got X many signatures in only Y days, and told us A, B and C. Obviously there’s no appetite for this change.” At the same time, they can improve the way they talk about the issues based on feedback from their people on the ground.)

Big Tobacco: why you do this?

I’ve mentioned previously the Agree/Disagree campaign that has been running prominently in NZ media for the last month. It has been hard to miss, with many television spots in prime time every day, full page ads in newspapers, and radio placements too. The spend is enormous. The initial stated amount of “hundreds of thousands of dollars” is, a month later, clearly revealed as something of an understatement. (The equivalent campaign in Oz spent $4.5 million.)

The campaign, by British American Tobacco, is in opposition to government moves towards mandatory plain packaging of cigarettes. It argues that plain packaging is bad because it impinges on corporate right to use the brands they have carefully developed; and it hurts us on international trade, making us vulnerable to legal challenges for example. They also state that plain packaging just won’t make a difference. (That last point appears to be quite wrong; the science is developing towards a clear signal that plain packaging reduces smoking rates.)

The website itself is quite small and uninteresting (and a close match to the Aussie version). It has a statement of the argument, and reproduces their print, TV and radio ads. That’s it. Missing: any call to action, at all. Anyone who responds to these ads and actually visits the site will find a few bullet points and nothing else of interest.

After a month of this with no end in sight, the mystery of what BAT are trying to achieve remains unsolved. Why are they spending so much money, time, and brand capital on this campaign? As another blogger has put it, what is the point of all this?

It isn’t to persuade the public to accept their argument. This is unconvincing on two levels. First, it just isn’t going to work. Public support is never going to muster behind support for tobacco marketing (and branding is marketing, make no mistake on that) or the details of international trade. (If you want to get the massed public behind you, you need a better hook than this. Compare the recent Australia “nanny state” campaign.) Second, even if you do persaude the public – so what? How does that get you what you want? This matter isn’t going to referendum. Are you hoping all your new supporters spontaneously decide to lobby government on your behalf? That’s a ridiculous notion.

In fact, this whole campaign is so poorly conceived that it’s actively turning smokers against BAT.

So you have the deeply weird spectacle of an enormous, expensive public persuasion campaign that is not actually interested in persuading the public.

A further wrinkle has appeared since: BAT have hired a small team of people to go around NZ gathering signatures and discussing the plain packaging issue. They were out in Wgtn recently and a few of my friends were approached to sign a petition against plain packaging. What petition is this? Your guess is as good as mine. But a small team being flown around the country for a month aren’t going to get enough names to make much of an impact on anything. If the petition mattered, it would be online as well, wouldn’t it? So add to the weirdness above: a petition that has no interest in actually collecting signatures.

Clearly something isn’t what it seems here.

What else is at work? Chris Trotter suggests the spend isn’t aimed at the public directly, but at editors and columnists who are influenced by the dollars coming their way. That could be part of the mix, because getting editors and columnists on-side is certainly a way to influence political action in NZ. I find the notion that this is the core purpose of the exercise hugely unconvincing. (“Here’s the plan: we spend loadsamoney advertising our argument, and hope some influential columnists decide that’s a good reason to take up our cause, know what I mean?” “But can’t we just get pretty much the same result by taking out a few small ads and sending a personalised letter to the columnists who are inclined to support our point?”)

Look again at their core argument. IP issues? International trade concerns? These issues are not addressed with public marketing campaigns. They are pursued through direct lobbying to government, submissions to select committee, and corridor conversations with influential people.

And yet a big national campaign is what we have. What are they up to?

Here’s another explanation: BAT have gone mad. No, seriously. They are so terrified by the ongoing shift in public opinion that will destroy their business sooner rather than later that they are running around like headless chooks, not talking to each other, throwing any random thing they can at the wall and hoping to somehow connect with a hidden reset switch. It’s a satisfying mental image, but probably unwise to give it any credence…

Okay, looking at what they’re actually doing isn’t giving me any clear picture. How about starting from the other end – what should we expect them to be doing? Obviously, this is important to BAT and other tobacco companies. They are, presumably, terrified of a public-health domino effect. Australia has fallen, and we are primed to go next. Other smoking changes swept the world with great rapidity, e.g. smokefree restaurants and bars. They have to fight this one here, before it gets out of hand. They don’t have many options in how to fight, really. They can directly pressure decisionmakers (which is how things have traditionally been done) and they can try and keep public opinion on side so there is no appetite for change. Can this gigantic mess of a campaign really be their best shot at public opinion?

Comparing agree/disagree to BAT’s Aussie campaign is interesting. The framing is completely different. It’s all: “Will plain packaging cost the taxpayers billions? Will it make tobacco cheaper? Where’s the proof?” Here, incredibly, the ads all front up with “we accept smoking is harmful” and talk about fairness and debate on technical issues. It’s a fascinating switch-up by BAT and/or BAT’s creative agency G2 Sydney (who I presume did the Aussie version too). Some possible reasons: the Aussie version really, really didn’t work; the temperature of the NZ market was so different they felt a completely different angle was needed; they’re trying out a new strategy that might cross borders more effectively; they’ve adjusted their behind-the-scenes lobbying approach and wanted their public strategy to align with that; some new manager came into a senior role and wanted to stamp his authority on things by making a change. All of these are unedifying, and impossible to test or verify based on what we can see from the outside.

So where does all this leave us? I wish I knew. I’m no closer to understanding what on earth BAT think they’re doing. One thing is certain: this public campaign is not the whole iceberg. There will be a whole huge pile of hidden work going on – lobbying politicians will just be the start of it. (Keith Ng covered some BAT lobbying action last year.) And if this enormous public campaign is just to support that, just to provide a few anecdotes and the thin impression of public support to give lobbyists just that bit of extra edge on influencing policymakers? If that’s the case, be very afraid, because that suggests the war chest big tobacco has to call upon is much, much bigger than I would like.

One other thing. I would not be surprised if the online discussion around this issue was being infiltrated by paid fake commenters pushing the BAT line. The “discuss this!” line is being pushed hard (although, notably, not on the campaign’s own forum) and buying some sock puppets is a cheap way to get some real push on your messaging. It’d be nice if sysadmins at media sites kept an eye out for this, although it ain’t hard to make it pretty much invisible.

Insights from readers most welcome, because I am mystified by this whole thing.

Stuff’s “Ice Age” story has changed

Following up on this post: In response to a complaint from me (and presumably communications from others as well), Stuff has stripped the inaccurate material out of their “Ice Age” story and added an apologetic note at the bottom.

It can’t take away the effects of the earlier version, but it at least ensures that this isn’t another link that can be circulated through the climate change denier echo chamber.

The person I communicated with sounded embarrassed by the whole affair – as they should be, it is a humiliating failure. Here’s hoping the lesson has been learned. Journalism Fail

Main story at for the last hour or two: “Solar Minimum could trigger ice age

Check the article’s opening paras:

The world could be heading for a new ‘solar minimum’ period, possibly plummeting the planet into an Ice Age, scientists say.

Researchers say the present increase in sun activity with solar flares and storms could be followed by this minimum period.

The period would see a cooling of the planet, refuting predictions of global-warming alarmists.

The research for this comes from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences.


“Refuting the predictions of global-warming alarmists”? What kind of language is that? Completely inappropriate.

To google, and in moments I’ve found the abstract and ScienceDaily’s summary. From the latter:

…those findings cannot be directly transferred to future projections because the current climate is additionally affected by anthropogenic forcing.

So, from “climate is affected by anthropogenic forcing” to “refuting predictions of global warming alarmists” in one easy step.

This is UNACCEPTABLE. Where did it come from? A media release from one of the “climate sceptic” pressure groups? Heads should bloody well roll over this.

Too angry about this to say any more.

EDITED TO ADD: see also Hot Topic and The Atavism

How Wrongness Happens

The BBC:

Photos uncovered by the National Archives show how the police spied on the suffragettes. These covert images – perhaps the UK’s first spy pictures – have gone on display to mark the centenary of the votes-for-women movement.

Ninety years ago, a Scotland Yard detective submitted an unusual equipment request.

It was passed up the chain, scrutinised, reviewed and finally rubber-stamped in Whitehall itself. Scotland Yard duly became the proud owner of a Ross Telecentric camera lens. And at a cost to the taxpayer of £7, 6s and 11d, secret police photographic surveillance (in the shape of an 11-inch long lens) was born.

Within weeks, the police were using it against what the government then regarded as the biggest threat to the British Empire: the suffragettes.

Documents uncovered at the National Archives reveal that the votes-for-women movement probably became the first “terrorist” organisation subjected to secret surveillance photography in the UK, if not the world.

The BBC photo caption, written by a subeditor:

In 1912, Scotland Yard detectives bought their first camera to covertly photograph the suffragettes.

Nope. Scotland Yard had cameras in use by 1888, as anyone who is brave enough to google “Mary Kelly” will discover. A quarter-century later they finally began to use cameras for surveillance.

But, everywhere else:

In 1912, Scotland Yard detectives bought their first camera, to covertly photograph suffragettes. – The BBC

That subeditor’s error in the photo caption wasn’t accidental. The idea that an entire new technology was first brought to bear as a means of suppressing dissent and protest? That’s our current moment affecting their assumptions about what has happened in the past. Stories corrupt across multiple tellings in predictable ways; most obviously they change in order to fit with our expectations and beliefs. Even an instance as small as this is not entirely harmless – right now there’s someone out there forming the belief that law enforcement’s eternal priority is to crush dissent on behalf of the state. (And heck, they might be right, but they ought to be forming that belief based on some actual evidence, not misinformation.)

[edit: fixed that link to google search results. took about four attempts. finicky!]