Book Review: The Lesser Devil

The Lesser Devil (2020) – by Christopher Ruocchio

Genre: Science FictionSpace Opera

Series: Sun Eater (1.5)

205 Pages

$3.99 (e-book), $20.99 (audio)

Amazon (e-book/audio)Kobo (audio)

Minor spoilers ahead

Setting

It is the far future, many thousands of years after the present day. Mankind has colonized a sizable chunk of the Milky Way, with the largest polity being the Sollan Empire, consisting of hundreds of millions of settled planets. Faster than light travel is not possible (interstellar travelers utilize cryonic chambers for the decades-long trips), so while the empire is ultimately ruled by a single emperor, the individual rulers (all appointed by the emperor) of the various planets have de facto control over their demesnes. The aristocracy, called palatines, are genetically enhanced, and can live for many centuries. The state religion of the empire, called the Holy Terran Chantry, is also its judicial arm, with a main point of emphasis curbing forbidden types of technology, especially anything related to artificial intelligence.

One of those planets is Delos. It began as a strategic commercial hub, only to gain further importance when vast uranium deposits were discovered on the planet and throughout the system. It is ruled by Duchess Elmira Kephalos, and her son-in-law Lord Alistair Marlowe of Meidua rules a small (but extremely wealthy, as it is home to said uranium deposits) prefecture on the planet. Alistair is the father of Hadrian, the main protagonist of the series, as well as Crispin and later (after Hadrian leaves) Sabine.

Characters

(from the beginning chapters….there are other major characters introduced later on)

With Hadrian’s departure, Crispin now is the heir apparent to Meidua. Even though it has been many decades since his brother’s disappearance, Crispin is still struggling to fill Hadrian’s shoes, not to mention still haunted by how he acted the night before his brother fled.

Sabine, who was conceived after Hadrian’s departure (children of palatines are essentially grown in vats) is now an adult, and is getting ready to depart with her brother on a trip to see their dying grandmother, ruler of Delos.

Kyra, who in Empire of Silence was a young woman, is now nearing retirement age (she is fated as a plebian to a normal lifespan) but still serves the Marlowe family as a trusted shuttle pilot.

Story/Review

Before he leaves to see his grandmother, Crispin’s father hands him a highmatter sword, a rare and deadly weapon, anticipating palace intrigue. After all, depriving Lord Marlowe of his heirs could mean his aunt Amalia, who is in line to inherit Delos, could also inherit the lucrative prefecture.

When their shuttle is shot down over the mountain wilderness, killing most of the guards assigned to protect them, Crispin is forced into a leadership role as the survivors of the crash flee what he believes is an assassination attempt directed by his aunt.

In Empire of Silence, Crispin is seen through Hadrian’s eyes, and the picture wasn’t exactly sympathetic. In The Lesser Devil, we see a different Crispin, who still has some of the flaws noted by his brother, but a side of him that Hadrian wasn’t able to perceive. This passage, from chapter 1, gives a different view of their relationship:

Crispin stood anxiously in the doorway, eyes taking in the two packed trunks stacked at the end of the bed, remembering - as he always did when it came to leave Devil's Rest and visit their mother's family - that last fateful trip with his older brother. He had gone to visit Hadrian that last night at Haspida. He had sneered, mocked Hadrian's friend - the old scholiast tutor Gibson. He wanted something, anything from his brother besides his aloof coolness. Any reaction. A kind word, a smile. He'd settled for anger instead, had been glad of any emotion from distant Hadrian, such that a piece of him leaped for joy when the older boy screamed and threw himself at Crispin. 

Crispin would never make it as a diplomat; an unfiltered outburst nearly costs him precious allies at a critical point if not for cooler heads around him patching things up. Even in his 50s he’s still a haughty, spoiled palatine that still has some growing up to do, if that makes any sense. But he also has a steadfast sense of honor and noblesse oblige which propels him to action, and thankfully he’s much better at that than cultivating relationships.

As always, Ruocchio’s world-building continues to astonish me. One of the things that drew me to this series and has kept me reading it is that although it takes place thousands of years in the future, chock full of weird creatures and situations, it balances the new with much that is familiar from past and present, much that is still recognizably of our times. That still applies here, especially in the interesting way an ancient religion is introduced as having survived millennia of drastic social and political change; these “adorators” are placed under restrictions but yet tolerated by the Chantry on Delos.

The action sequences are excellent as well, with that highmatter sword getting plenty of use (along with sundry other weapons and vehicles).

The main series is written in the first person (in Hadrian’s POV), so I went into The Lesser Devil not knowing how the change of viewpoint would affect the flow of the story. I need not have worried, as the prose is still as fluid in third person as it was in first.

Book/Series Information

This is a side story in the Sun Eater series, which begins with Empire of Silence (review). The Lesser Devil takes place after the first section of Empire of Silence, so if you wanted to read the series in strict internal chronological order, you could read the first 21 chapters of Empire, switch over to The Lesser Devil, then return to Empire, starting at Chapter 22. Or you easily could just jump in here as an accessible entry point into the series if you’re still unsure about committing to one of the mainline novels.

(all prices as of 31 May 2020)

#TitleYearPubReview?HCPBEBKAU
1Empire of Silence2018DAWYes$40$6$9$36
1.5The Lesser Devil2020indyYesn/an/a$4$21
2Howling Dark2019DAWNo$20n/a$9$21
3Demon in White 2020 DAWNo$27n/a$15n/a

There are also many short stories that take place in this universe:

TitleYearIn AnthologyPubTPBPBEBK
“Not Made for Us”2018Star DestroyersBaen$16$8$7
“The Parliament of Owls”2018Space PioneersBaenn/a$8$7
“The Demons of Arae”2019Parallel Worldsindy$15n/a$5
“Kill the King”2019The Dogs of Godindy$22n/a$5
“Victim of Changes”2020OverruledBaen$16n/a$7

For More

Fantastic FictionInternet Speculative Fiction Database

Just figure it out, players and owners

(For transparency: where my interests lie.)

Seven weeks after what should have been the beginning of the 2020 MLB season, there is now a reasonably detailed road map for to play a shortened version of it.

The plan right now is to have shortened spring training starting in June, leading up to the season starting in early July. The games would be played without fans (at least to begin with), and could be played either in the home stadiums, or if that can’t work because of local restrictions, then in neutral locations. The season is tentatively set at 82 games, though that too could change. Teams would only be playing teams in their division and the teams in the other league that correspond geographically. For instance, the Indians would play their AL Central rivals and the teams in the NL Central. At the end of the season would be an expanded playoffs, with the goal of ending at the normal time (late October/early November).

All of this is dependent on a couple things. First, that effective precautions can be put in place to minimize risk to the players, coaches, and other people who are necessary to put on the games. And second, that an agreement be reached between the players and the owners to split a smaller revenue pie that will be made even smaller if teams can’t sell tickets.

The first stipulation should not be contentious. Neither the owners nor the players want an outbreak to happen within a clubhouse, and judging by the details (The Athletic, $) that have reached the public, these concerns seem to have been taken seriously. Testing would be done often, using “the least invasive and fastest methods commercially available without adversely impacting public health needs,” temperatures would be taken twice daily, and family members would also have access to testing, etc. An almost comical set of guidelines would also preclude close contact off the field, including no fist-bumping, no showers, and no spitting (just to name a few). Thankfully, there are very few instances during play in which two or more people are close to each other (catcher/hitter/umpire, first baseman/runner) so little if anything will change to how the game itself is played. The only outstanding issue regarding player safety I see coming up is how at-risk players would be handled financially if they didn’t want to play, and who could be considered at-risk. But I don’t think that would sink an agreement.

The second stipulation is more intractable. The owners and players came to an agreement in late March, shortly after Spring Training was cut short, in which the players would be paid based on the number of games played in 2020, and if there were no games played at all, they would be paid a total of $170M. In return, all players on the major-league roster would receive a full year of service time regardless of what would happen. In other words, if the season is 82 games, all players would be paid roughly half of their original salary, but if they were a year away from free agency, they would be eligible for it at the end of the season.

However, because in most of the country bans on mass gatherings remain and are likely to continue for a while, that means teams will be without a significant portion of their revenue if games are played without fans. And so the owners have made another proposal to the players to pay them 50% of the total revenue made during the shortened season rather than 50% of their original contracts. This is a non-starter to the players, who view any attempt to base salaries on revenue as tantamount to a salary cap. MLBPA president Tony Clark said this back in April, when the issue was first brought up:

“Players recently reached an agreement with Major League Baseball that outlines economic terms for resumption of play, which included significant salary adjustments and a number of other compromises. That negotiation is over,” union head Tony Clark said in a statement Monday.

As Jeff Passan reports, there is a clause in the March 2020 agreement that can be interpreted as requiring a separate negotiation in case the games could not be played in front of fans or had to be played in neutral locations:

That said, on Page 1 of the agreement, the first point of the Resumption of Play section includes the words: "(T)he 2020 championship season shall not be commenced unless and until each of the following conditions is satisfied." One of those conditions ends with: "(T)he Office of the Commissioner and Players Association will discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators or at appropriate substitute neutral sites."

However that interpretation is not shared by the MLBPA, who feels that financial negotiations were completed in March, and so you have this standoff. That we’re even getting the details of these arguments (including a detailed accounting of how much each club is projected to lose if games are played in empty stadiums) is an indication of how far apart the owners and players are on this point. Now the negotiations will be held both in conference rooms and in the public, and both sides are hoping to garner enough public support to improve their negotiating position.


Given all this, I think it is crucial to understand the current sports media environment. Various media outlets and commentators are going to ramp up the rhetoric even more than usual in this now public financial negotiation, because unlike in previous negotiations, in which the two sides were divvying up a consistently growing pie of revenue, this time they will be fighting over a smaller pie. Most outlets have picked a side in this ongoing conflict, and because of that their coverage is slanted in one way or another. This is not a new phenomenon, but it has of recent years become more transparent as the economics of the industry has changed. No longer do most media outlets even try to attract a broad readership because the paradigm demands they sell their product (via Internet advertising) to a core base who will only countenance reading articles that reinforces their worldviews AND to readers of the opposing base who read the articles only to rail against them (aka hate clicks). There has always been media organizations with ideological agendas, but now the current paradigm states is that it is more profitable to operate a site with one. I disagree with that, especially in the long term, but that is what the media corporations, who don’t tend to prioritize things like public trust and long-term viability when next month’s traffic report is just a week away, think will keep them afloat in an era where a single person with an Internet connection can theoretically have the same amount of influence as the largest organizations on the planet.

So expect lots of over-the-top rhetoric. Expect documents and quotes that normally wouldn’t see the light of day in a good faith negotiation to be freely distributed to friendly media sources (as already has been done). Expect copious emotional arguments that reference the ongoing pandemic to try to sway you to one side or the other. Expect more Twitter outrage than usual, if that’s even possible. My advice is to ignore all of it, go do something else, and only re-engage when there’s an agreement to re-start the season. That’s what I plan to do here, so expect nothing but non-baseball posts until an agreement happens, whether it’s tomorrow or next year.


Ultimately this is a conflict that should be solved in (virtual) meeting rooms and not in the public sphere, because the players and owners have the most to lose. If no season is played, they will have thrown away a massive opportunity with all the other team sports sidelined until at least the fall to dominate live sports, and more importantly regain mental real estate in the minds of current and potential customers (fans). Fans just lose something to do in their spare time, while the owners and players lose their livelihoods.

If you break the habits of fans that for generations have gotten used to turning the game on every night during the summer months, you’ll lose a significant portion of them when you do return. Baseball is just one of many entertainment options now, and something will fill that gap if it’s not available. Think of the lingering financial effects of the 1994 work stoppage, and consider that was well before most people had access to the Internet, never mind video streaming or other related entertainment industries that didn’t exist back then.

So my response to this PR offensive by the players and owners is this: stop leaking your arguments to the public, stop wasting time engineering your narratives, and start figuring out how to make a season happen safely.


Update (5-25-2020): Here’s one of my comments at LGT, which repeats much of the above, though a bit more to the point:

Agree completely. Now that these positions are staked out in the open, it only makes it harder to retreat from them.

It’s obvious that the parties are trying to get their negotiating arguments out into the public (via their media mouthpieces) in the hopes of getting some kind of leverage if one side or the other gains the public support. IMO this is a colossal mistake, as the vast majority of MLB fans have way more important issues to work through right now rather than to take sides in a labor dispute in an entertainment (read: non-essential) industry.
The good news, if there is any, is that the longer this floor show goes on, the more money is lost, so they have an incentive to settle quickly. Based on the proposed schedule, they need to have some kind of agreement by early June at the latest. For every week of delay after that, that’s another week of games lost, and the more you alienate the fans you are trying to court. Think about the fans who have for generations gotten into the habit of turning on the game every evening in the summer. Already MLB is going to have to re-aquire those fans because they will have cancelled half a season, but they have a great opportunity to do so because every other team sport is sidelined. MLB should be the first one back because of how the game itself is structured (it’s not a contact sport, unlike the NFL, and to a lesser degree, the NBA and NHL).

But if they screw this up, and MLB is the last team sport to return, after those more exposed to outbreaks, then whatever financial pickle they are in now gets monumentally worse. Think about the aftermath of the 94-95 work stoppage and the lingering effects from that, and that took place in a stable economy and without many competing entertainment options (almost nobody had high-speed Internet, never mind streaming services or video games on demand) that baseball fans have now. Don’t just assume that fans will just come back, especially not if everyone’s entertainment budget has been slashed because of the economic downturn, not to mention the sour taste you left in their mouths. Don’t assume that your TV partners won’t want their money back even as they try to remain solvent themselves. Don’t assume that your franchise values will always increase, or that you’ll even have a willing buyer. Don’t assume that your salaries are always going to increase because that’s how it’s always been. Because if you cancel the season and are the last to return, good luck ever getting back to where you were at the end of 2019 in the minds of the public, and that ultimately determines how much money you make.

In other words, owners and players, stop your PR campaigns and narrative constructing, and treat this like the industry crisis it is by shutting the fuck up and getting to the negotiating table.

Life goes on

While our domain has been in an uneasy holding pattern the past couple of months, the rest of nature continues on unperturbed.

This is the third nest in as many years that the local robins have built around my house, but the first that I’ve been able to see down into. They built their nest on the outer sill of my garage window; I’m around it every day, but the robins don’t seem to mind too much, only flying away if I get within about 10 feet of the window. The mother laid all four eggs (one a day) before starting to incubate them, something I didn’t know before. Normally it takes about 14 days for the babies to hatch, and then another 14 days for them to fledge (or leave the nest).

I grew up in the country, but only since moving to the city have I been able to view many of these creatures up close, especially the deer, who seem to have almost no fear of humans.

The grosbeaks, catbirds, and orioles just arrived from the south in the past couple days, a sign that the weather will be getting warmer soon.

Another sign is the azaleas blooming.

Despite the cold weather (it even snowed yesterday), the peas I planted earlier this month have sprouted. I’ve planted a small garden for the past several years, but this year, given the uncertainty with the global food supply, I thought I’d get an early start.

Book Review: O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin Series, Books 1-3

Aubrey/Maturin series, Books 1-3 – by Patrick O’Brian

Genre: Historical Fiction

Setting the Scene

It is 1800, with Europe convulsed in the Napoleonic Wars. On the Mediterranean island of Minorca, a ship-less British lieutenant and an impoverished doctor attend a concert, sitting next to each other by happenstance. The officer has the temerity to keep time to the string quartet a half-beat fast, which draws the ire of the doctor…

Review

Don’t do what I did when I first tried to get into this series decades ago and get frustrated trying to understand all the 18th/19th century sailing lingo thrown at you. For an example, try to parse this passage in chapter 2 (page 79) of Master and Commander, the first book in the series:

 "Hitch on the runners," said Jack. "No, farther out. Half way to the second quarter. Surge the hawser and lower away." The yard came down on deck and the carpenter hurried off for his tools. "Mr. Watt," said Jack to the bosun. "Just rig me the brace-pendants, will you?" The bosun opened his mouth, shut it again and bent slowly to his work: anywhere outside Bedlam brace-pendants were rigged after the horses, after the stirrups, after the yard-tackle pendants (or a thimble for the tackle-hook, if preferred): and none them, ever, until the stop-cleat, the narrow part for them all to rest upon, had worked on the sawn-off end and provided with a collar to prevent them from drawing in towards the middle"

There is no glossary at the end of the book, or much of any kind of info-dump to this point. There is only a drawing of a typical square-rigged ship with all the different sails identified. But upon my second reading, I realized that you aren’t required to understand the jargon in order to enjoy the series. In fact, it’s the total immersion within the world of the British navy and life during the Napoleonic Wars that is one of the draws of the Aubrey/Maturin series. Reading them is akin to walking through a time portal into that era with no preparation; you will at first struggle to comprehend the lingo, the culture, the motivations of the characters, but slowly you begin to tease out the rules the society is based upon, then later begin to know the characters, and by then it doesn’t really matter if you still don’t know the difference between a spritsail and a topgallant. O’Brian almost never will tell you anything directly, instead you either hear it spoken of in conversation, or have to imply it from the actions of the characters.

Normally this steep learning curve wouldn’t keep the reader engaged long enough to endure those growing pains, but O’Brian has provided two of the most compelling characters I’ve ever come across to keep you turning the pages. Jack Aubrey is a talented leader of men and a cunning strategist on board a ship, a man of action, yet fails at practically every endeavor he attempts on shore. Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan physician, is a man fascinated with the natural world, a spy for the British government, and a man of introspection. These two could not possibly be more different, but as the series goes on, their friendship, though tested at times (including upon their first meeting), endures and if anything gets stronger.

O’Brian’s prose is another bright light to help you through your initial struggles. His words are of the time, but his style is certainly not. Unlike the authors of the early 19th century, O’Brian does not spend much time in setting the scene or spend hardly any time in authorial asides. He will flit from perspective to perspective at a whim, not caring too much if the reader doesn’t follow, at least right away. He will bring up subject matters the authors of that period would not touch with a 20-foot pole. His humor is subtle and dry and of course era-appropriate, so don’t be surprised if you don’t recognize much of it until your immersion training is almost complete.

Once you start to get a handle on O’Brian’s world, you will be irreparably hooked. That moment for me happened about half-way through the second book in the series (Post Captain) at which point I finished the last 250 pages or so in one sitting. I then waited impatiently for Book 3 (H.M.S Surprise) to arrive in the mail, then finished that 400-page book at a more leisurely pace (one week) only because I wanted to savor it. I am so far resisting the temptation to buy the next batch of volumes in e-book format, but I already have the first three in physical form and don’t want to mess that up (plus, the Aubrey-Maturin trade paperbacks, though expensive, are well-made).

What makes this series so great? I think the amalgamation of the sublime main characters, O’Brian’s almost poetic prose style, and his complete commitment to immersing the reader into the period gets you half an explanation. But ultimately it’s the plot that completes the package. After all, if there was nothing for Aubrey and Maturin to do, it would be a boring, though aesthetically pleasing, set of books that would be praised only in elite literary circles. Thankfully, O’Brian uses these brilliant foundations to support a cracking story. If you like naval action, you have it in abundance. If you like reading historical romance, you have plenty of that. If you like political intrigue, you have that in spades as well.

While the story is set during the Napoleonic Wars and the general historical events that occurred during this period, O’Brian does not limit himself to depicting naval battles that actually happened. However, it is clear that although much of the action that occurs in the books did not happen in real life, they could have happened because of his singular commitment to correct detail, and most of the characters, though they didn’t exist, feel as real to the reader as any who actually did. In his introduction to Master and Commander, O’Brian writes that “when I describe a fight I have log-books, official letters, contemporary accounts or the participants’ own memoirs to vouch for every exchange. Yet, on the other hand, I have not felt slavishly bound to precise chronological sequence.”

Prose Examples

Jack Aubrey addresses his men before an engagement in Post Captain:

"Shipmates," he said, loud and clear, smiling at them, "that fellow down there is only a privateer. I know him well. He has a long row of gun-ports, but there are only six- and eight-pounders behind 'em, and ours are twenty-fours, though he don't know it. Presently I shall edge down on him - he pepper us a while with his little guns, but it don't signify - and then, when we are so close we cannot miss, why, we shall give him such a broadside! A broadside with every gun low at his mizzen. Not a shot, now, until the drum beats, and then every ball low at his mizzen. Ply 'em quick, and waste not a shot."

(Chapter 9, page 330)

Stephen Maturin writes in his diary about an interaction with Aubrey in H.M.S. Surprise

"I must go down into the yard, said he: we are stepping the new capstan this evenings. Had there been powder-smoke in the room, a tangible enemy at hand, there would have been none of this hesitation, no long stare: he would have known his mind and he would have acted at once, with intelligent deliberation. But now he is at a stand. With that odious freedom I prattled on: in doing so I overcame my shame; but it was bitter cruel and sharp while it lasted....

(Chapter 7, page 222)

Book/Series Information

I’ve seen many say that the 20 books (and one fragment) in the Aubrey/Maturin series is one long book, therefore they should be read in order. Based on the first three books in the series, I think that is mostly correct. I think you can get away with starting with Post Captain and not miss much of the ongoing story (I think O’Brian originally intended Master and Commander to be a stand-alone novel, so all of the plot points were tied up neatly at the end), but for the remainder of the series I recommend reading them in published order.

(All books published by W.W. Norton)

  1. Master and Commander (1970)
  2. Post Captain (1972)
  3. H.M.S. Surprise (1973)
  4. The Mauritius Command (1977)
  5. Desolation Island (1979)
  6. The Fortune of War (1980)
  7. The Surgeon’s Mate (1980)
  8. The Ionian Mission (1982)
  9. Treason’s Harbor (1983)
  10. The Far Side of the World (1984)
  11. The Reverse of the Medal (1986)
  12. The Letter of Marque (1988)
  13. The Thirteen Gun Salute (1989)
  14. The Nutmeg of Consolation (1990)
  15. The Truelove (1992)
  16. The Wine-Dark Sea (1993)
  17. The Commodore (1994)
  18. The Yellow Admiral (1996)
  19. The Hundred Days (1998)
  20. Blue at the Mizzen (1999)
  21. 21 (fragment) (2004)

Prices (as of May 2020): $26.95 hardback, $15.95 trade paperback, $8 to $13 e-book, depending on the store or volume number (Amazon is the cheapest). If you’d like to try before you buy, your local library will undoubtedly have copies of at least the first few books in the series.

Other Works by the Author

Fantastic Fiction

Book Review: The Legacy of Heorot

The Legacy of Heorot (1987) – by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Steven Barnes

Genre: Science Fiction

Series: Heorot (1 of 4)

408 pages

Publisher store pageAmazonKobo

Setting the Scene

Consider the following assumptions…

  • In the near future, the National Geographic Society raised enough money to pay for a slower-than-light starship, sending several hundred of Earth’s brightest people to Avalon, an Earth-like planet in the Tau Ceti system.
  • Because of the long time it would take to get there, the settlers would be placed in state of deep freeze, a technology that wasn’t entirely worked out yet, with the result of killing a small percentage of the settlers and causing brain damage of varying severity to another significant portion.
  • Because of the expense and the distance, there would be only one ship headed to Tau Ceti, with no immediate re-supply, so whatever the settlers took with them would be the only supplies they’d have in their lifetimes.
  • Once there, parts of the starship would need to be used to construct a colony on the planet’s surface, so although the ship can still serve as a warehouse and temporary living quarters for a handful, it could not take them back to Earth or go anywhere else.

Given all this, what would happen to this colony if, one night, months after getting settled, one of their dogs go missing? And what if, soon after, some of their chickens are killed? And what if, the colonists discover that whatever is killing their livestock is more than capable of killing them?

Review

It’s apparent that the authors of this tale wanted to confine the people of the colony to the surface of the planet, and particularly the island they settled on. Otherwise the smart option would have been to either escape back up to orbit to buy themselves some time or even to leave the system altogether. However, the residents of Avalon have with them plenty of tools to combat this threat. They have helicopter-like vehicles called Skeeters, they have defensive and offensive weapons, and all the advanced technology they could cram on their starship.

Minor spoilers ahead….

Continue reading “Book Review: The Legacy of Heorot”

Please read the comments, part 2

First part is here.

Argument 4: The few ruin it for the many (aka collective punishment)

When cleveland.com shut down their comments section, one of editor Chris Quinn’s justifications was its general “incivility” despite the section not reflecting the general readership.

Let’s face it: The comments on our site do not reflect you. The people of Northeast Ohio are warm-hearted, generous and caring. When we are going about our days, we greet each other with smiles and hugs and good cheer. But anyone getting their impression of our region from comments on our site would think we are the grumpiest, meanest people in America. 

I maintain that this was purely a cost-savings measure given the state of the newspaper industry, but let’s take this argument at face value: that because a relatively few commenters were “uncivil”, the entire community should lose their ability to publicly comment on cleveland.com.

Let me illustrate why this is a terrible justification with a story of my own failing, a tale of my worst decision as site runner at Let’s Go Tribe.


[Note: I’m leaving out individual names, as my purpose is not to point fingers almost a decade after this happened, but rather to present an example that others may learn from. However, I will say I was not the main defender of LGT’s readers and interests, which is why it still haunts my conscience all these years later. Most of that heavy lifting was done by someone else, who I think was unfairly targeted for trying to maintain public comity between SBN sites.]

In July 2011, SBN’s baseball sites ran an advertising campaign from Head and Shoulders titled “Hats Off Moments”, with each team site contributing a countdown of the top 10 All-Star performances in franchise history while having a “sponsored by Head and Shoulders” at the top of the post. In addition, the game threads would also have the same message as well. The content was relevant to the site, it wasn’t hard to put together that content, the advertiser got its logo in the main body of the site, and the site got what was at the time a nice payday. It was a good thing for everyone.

However, one aspect of the campaign was that there would be also be a Head and Shoulders Twitter widget which would display prominently at the top of the site, displaying all tweets with a certain hashtag (ours was #HatsOffCLE).

Source: Internet Archive (July 13, 2011)

Those of you well-versed in Internet behavior can start to see the problem, which was obvious even back then…

A few Tigers fans (this was right in the middle of their AL Central dominance) saw the obvious opportunity and took it, using the hashtag to troll Tribe fans via the widget, circumventing the site rules. I couldn’t remove the tweets (obviously), and I couldn’t take down the advertisement. It was the perfect opportunity to troll another fanbase without any consequences.

But what made it worse was that this behavior was being encouraged by Bless You Boys (SBN’s Tigers blog) staff. By August, with the Tigers pulling away in the AL Central race, the tweets were constant. When asked (politely) to tell its readers to cut it out, BYB’s response was essentially “not our problem,” or referenced a May Fanshot that justified this so-called payback. This went against an unstated but universally understood principle among SBN blogs that you weren’t supposed to badmouth other sites, or encourage your readers to do the same. We were following that principle publicly, but behind the scenes there were heated e-mails flying back and forth. We just wanted an apology for the actions taken and for them to repudiate their previous encouragements, but the other site continued to double down. It seemed like a matter of protecting “their guy” being more important than following the network norms, especially because that other site was an Indians blog.

Leaving a lot of details out…the feud was escalated to the network, and instead of them telling the site that started the whole thing to cut it out and publicly disavow its previous behavior, the onus was placed in no uncertain terms on both our sites to bury the hatchet, lest it become a public feud and tarnish the network brand. I caved, and updated the Ground Rules with a 10th rule on September 7th while BYB posted something similar:

Our readers should treat users from other SBN sites with respect, even if they happen to root for the Yankees. In other words, everything that applies to your behavior towards fellow Tribe fans should apply to fans of rival teams; ground rule violations towards fans of other teams will be actively discouraged and moderated just as vehemently as violations against regular readers. 

The Yankees reference was a red herring. This was all about admonishing LGT readers to be nice to Tigers fans, an admonishment that didn’t need to happen because our readers weren’t doing anything wrong, and everyone on the LGT masthead was actively and publicly discouraging retaliation.

In cases like this, where the people that you represent are being unfairly lumped in with those who were causing problems, I needed to be an advocate for them, but failed to do so. I just wanted the mess over with, and was beginning to feel that if I didn’t get it over with soon, one of the other authors would get thrown under the bus or we’d all be sacked. I chose the path of least resistance, immediately regretted it, with that regret only growing over the years.


The moral of the story should be that you should, whenever possible, punish the rules violators only rather than the vast majority who did nothing wrong. Cleveland.com, rather than using their own overly broad community rules to weed out what they thought were the bad apples, decided to remove comments for everyone by closing their comments section entirely.

Please read the comments: Part 1

Background

As of February 27, there are no comments on any cleveland.com (the web home of The Cleveland Plain Dealer) article, ending a feature that’s been there for at least 20 years. It may surprise you to hear this, but I view this as a horrible move for both the site itself and Northeast Ohio readers.

Before I get into any further commentary, here’s how Chris Quinn, editor of cleveland.com, justified the move (emphasis added):

 In cleveland.com’s 20-plus year history, comments have been our biggest flashpoint. Screening comments for personal attacks, profanity or off-topic remarks has become an increasing drain on newsroom resources. Despite the invested time, money and effort, we have failed to dampen pervasive meanness. It’s such a shame. We genuinely wanted the platform to work, because people have so few places to meet others with different viewpoints who want to discuss the topics we cover.

As a result, beginning Thursday, we will eliminate the ability to freely comment on every story on cleveland.com and will remove comments from old posts. We want our site to contribute to the greater good. It’s why we’ve cut way back on using mug shots that perpetuate racial stereotypes. It’s why we have been a leader with our Right to be Forgotten policy, in which we remove names from dated stories about embarrassing things people have done. Not hosting a place where a tiny number of people spew caustic nonsense is our latest step to make for a better Greater Cleveland community. 

Add this example to a growing number of businesses that clothe what should be a simple cost-savings move behind a robe of piety: despite the other moralistic reasons thrown in, I think that this was done purely to save money by the company that owns cleveland.com, especially given that the archived comments are going away as well. Don’t believe me? Look at this article from another Advance Publications property (al.com) posted on the same day (February 25):

 Beginning Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020 at 5 a.m. CST, we’ll eliminate website comments, as have many other sites in our company and as have other news sites over the past decade.

Website comments have been replaced by better, more constructive spaces for meaningful engagement. And we want to continue conversations with you in those places. 

How about this one, from mlive.com (February 18)…

 I’m writing today to announce a significant change to the MLive.com website experience: At 6 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 20, we will permanently close the comment sections on our articles.

We’re not doing this lightly. Comment sections have been a fixture at the end of articles on MLive since the early 2000s, and there was a time that they were a vital part of our efforts to engage you in the work we are doing. 

[snip]

 But comment sections leave an out-sized impression. Conversations routinely go off-topic, the tone can get uncivil or even nasty, and our moderators (and a vendor our company hires) [emphasis added - Ryan] stay busy around the clock policing the conversations, addressing flagged comments and even going so far as to ban some users. 

and this one, from nj.com (February 25)…

 On Thursday morning, NJ.com will remove comments from the site. Archived stories also will have comments eliminated. We understand this will be upsetting to some of the people who read and post comments, but our editors will continue working to find the best ways to engage and hear your voice. 

syracuse.com (February 25)….

 On Thursday morning, we are joining many other media outlets in retiring our comments section. 

silive.com (February 17)….

 The Advance and SILive will stop hosting comments on our website’s articles Thursday. The move is in response to our readers’ steadily growing preference to engage with our content on social media; the proliferation of other communication options; and an increase in personal-attack comments that required around-the-clock moderation. 

…and I could go on. Every Advance Publication that I checked has closed its comments section as well, which looked to be a plugin from a third-party vendor. Perhaps the contract with that vendor was up, and that prompted the move. I should also mention that Advance Publications is the majority shareholder of Reddit, which is going to be one of the places readers are going to go to express their opinions on a news article. In fact, while searching for the various announcements, I came across a new subreddit, r/ Syracuse_Comments, set up explicitly to comment on syracuse.com articles now that you can’t do so on the site itself.

Commentary

I have a special insight into comments sections, as I was the managing editor and later moderator at Let’s Go Tribe, SB Nation’s Indians blog, for over a decade, a platform that grew into what it is today precisely because of the user community. And before that, I spent many hours on various message boards such as the ESPN.com Indians board, so I’ve also seen many examples of what not to do when allowing reader commentary. Those bad experiences on other boards influenced how I moderated Let’s Go Tribe.

So when I read the article explaining why comments were being shut down, I shook my head in disgust. Yes, the cleveland.com comments sections have been a running joke for decades now, but is that the fault of the trolls and bad actors or the people running the site? Let me address the various justifications separately.

Argument 1: Moderating comments was costly in terms of both time and money. This is the one that makes the most sense, so let’s start here. I will readily admit that adequately moderating comments is not a quick or an easy job, but it is possible. Let me walk you through how we did it at LGT:

Not many people commented at Let’s Go Tribe in the beginning, so it was easy to manage. However, once the site began to get some traction (thanks in part, ironically, to the state of the cleveland.com Tribe page), we got the same issues that many other sites have: comment spam, off-topic content (especially politics), name-calling, general trolling (“your team sucks, haha”). So Jay and I put together a list of ground rules; in other words, these were the categories of user comments or actions that would be moderated (original version, 1-25-2006):

1. Political talk. This is a baseball blog, not a political one. Fans who read this blog come from all points in the political spectrum, but have one thing in common: they are Indians fans. That's the community we want to cultivate here at Let's Go Tribe: a group of diverse individuals who love talking to each other about the Indians and baseball. Political debate is not something we want to bring into this community. 
2.Personal attacks. In other words, steer clear of "you're an idiot" or "you suck." A good rule of thumb: attack a poster's ideas, not the poster himself/herself. We want this place to be somewhere where people can debate various topics with civility, not a demolition derby.
3.Trolling/flame-baiting. Trolling shouldn't be too much of an issue now that registration is required, but I wish to avoid flame-baiting as well. Posting incendiary content in order to get a reaction out of other posters will not be tolerated. 
4. Profanity. Avoid the Seven Dirty Words, and you'll be fine.
5. Snobbery. Users are not required to like Arrested Development — neither the TV show nor the hip hop group — and should not be badgered about it.
6. Comment Spam. This is dumping a bunch of links into a comment in order to boost a site's search engine ranking. First offense: banishment.
7. Sock Puppets. These are users with multiple accounts. This hasn't happened all that often, but we'd like to nip this in the bud before it becomes a bigger problem. If you've forgotten your password, e-mail us and we'll send you a reminder. Don't create a new account.
8. Blatant Site Pimping. Don't miscontrue the title; we have absolutely no problem with users mentioning their sites/blogs here, and in particular posting a FanShot with a link to one of your articles. The larger the Indians blogoshere, the better for all involved. But please do not post content verbatim from your website or blog.  Post a proper FanShot link, and you'll get traffic. If you've started a new blog and would like to be added to our Indians Blogroll, please e-mail either of us.  Provided the blog (a) is relevant, (b) has original content, and (c) is updated regularly, we'll be happy to include it.
9. Please do not make your first contribution a FanPost. 
We feel that it is best to start commenting before posting original content, if only to get a better idea as to what this site is about. 

Other than the somewhat nebulous term “trolling/flame-baiting”, which makes sense in terms of a baseball site, the rest of the rules are clear and understandable to any reader. We were specific to the point where in most cases the decision to moderate was cut and dry, no matter who was doing the moderation. There were, as always, a few cases that skirted the line (those were the calls that ultimately I had to make), but the line didn’t move. I ended up banning perhaps two or three regular readers over the decade-plus I moderated LGT, which I think is indicative of how clear the rules were. We had tools, even in the infancy of the site, to get rid of troublemakers, especially those who would try to get around banishment.

In contrast, some of the community rules at cleveland.com are broad and mean different things to different people:

(1) Differences of opinion make for great discussion, but please do not abuse other users through name calling or ad hominem attacks. 

(2) Do not post dehumanizing material. This means content that is racist, obscene, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic or bigoted against individuals or groups. Please help the community by flagging such content. 

(3) Please use common sense. Do not violate anyone's privacy by posting identifying information or encouraging anyone else to do so. Do not encourage violence or criminal activity. 

(4) Please stay on topic. Posts that criticize moderation or distract from the article's topic by introducing unrelated hot-button topics may be removed. 

(5) Please be thoughtful. Comments that negatively characterize broad groups of people may be removed. Such assertions, which may feel satisfying to write, are unlikely to change anyone's mind and make it significantly more difficult to have a productive discussion. 

(6) Ask: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? 

I can now see why it was difficult to moderate the site with these guidelines. Numbers 1, 3, and 4 are straight-forward, but Numbers 2, 5, and 6 make practically any comment eligible for moderation, depending on the point of view of the moderator. In today’s society we are not only communicating with different vocabularies, but are using different definitions of the words that we do share. I think one of the major factors in the failure of modern sites (including social media sites) to moderate content without getting one group or another angry is that the terminology is too broad and open to interpretation. What’s “obscene” or “thoughtful” or an “ism” to one person may not have the same connotation to another.

However, putting together a list of rules is the easy part; it’s the enforcement of them that takes most of the effort. That means consistent and prompt moderation. To get more specific, that means reading (not just scanning for problems) as many comments as you can every single day, not only so you can anticipate any issues but also so you get a sense of the individual commenters as well as much-needed feedback on the original content (more on this in a later post). If you understand the interpersonal dynamics between individual commenters, you will be better able to address potential issues before they flare up into actual moderation (as in deleting a comment or banning a commenter). I’d often defuse a situation in the comments section before I had to delete a comment. Creating a “comments culture” is a slow and at times painful process, but once you get some momentum going the site began to police itself without much need for action from me.

Now, I understand that there’s a difference in scale between moderating a niche sports site and regional news site, both in terms of volume and in terms of content. I addressed political comments (which are usually the most heated in any type of forum) at LGT by simply deleting them, while a decent portion of cleveland.com’s content is purely political in nature, so they couldn’t do that. But even the non-political sections of cleveland.com had issues, so it wasn’t just the type of content.

With a better approach and a different understanding of the relationship between the publisher and the readers, it could have worked out. It seems, based on some references in the cleveland.com article and the comments (which unfortunately were deleted along with the rest of the comment archives), as if all the moderation was the responsibility of one person, with some automated assistance from the third-party comments platform. If instead, for instance, there was a Local News moderator, a Sports moderator, etc, and that moderator interacted with the commenters, being available to answer questions in a transparent way, and meanwhile providing his/her content manager with feedback from the readers, then it could have justified the expense of having those employees on staff. Paul Hoynes, the Indians beat reporter, would regularly interact in the comments section in his articles to answer a question or acknowledge a correction, and that was the type of interaction that should have been the norm in the other sections of the site.

“But,” you might say, “the newspaper/web news industry is contracting, so they just can’t afford to have all those section moderators on staff.” Which I agree with, in the present state of the industry. But comments on cleveland.com have been around in one form or another since at least the turn of the century, well before any appreciable decline had started to become apparent. The comments section has been mismanaged from the beginning; if it had been, it would have been much easier to maintain, as a good commenter culture, once it is established, can often on its own enforce the rules before a moderator even has to act, much like the players in the baseball clubhouse can diffuse a problem before the manager has to intervene.

Argument 2: Only a small number of readers actually commented.

This was a consistent point in almost every one of the announcements, but that’s missing the larger picture. A small number of people will comment on any platform, including well-run ones. There are always going to be way more lurkers than participants, for a number of reasons. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an interest in the comments section. Let’s Go Tribe is the only comments section I participate in, but I do read the comments (if there is one) on practically every other site I visit. In fact, an active comments section will draw more readers to your site, and more often. Readers may be drawn to a site initially by the articles, but they’ll stick out to read the reactions to the articles. One of the running jokes at LGT was that no one read the articles, and there’s a kernel of truth in there.

Most articles have a specific point of view, whether you are talking about baseball, movies, or politics, and often a comment will take the other point of view in response. Or perhaps it will point out an incorrect fact that a reader should know about, or provide some interesting content on its own. When done correctly, a comments section can be just as valuable to the site as the original article, and all the site has to do is to make it available. I think, as a result of this move, all the Advanced Publishing sites are going to see a much larger drop in traffic than just the small percentage that actually commented.

One thing to keep in mind: those that do take the time and gather the courage to comment are the ones that care the most about that article. Now that may not represent the average opinion, but you can at least learn what a portion of the reader’s opinions are and tailor your future content to take into account the concerns raised, even if only to refute them. Speaking of which….

Argument 3: There are other venues to publicly express your opinion, like Twitter and Facebook

This argument is true on its face. But, if removing on-site comments is truly about saving money, I think that the Advance Publications network will give back those savings because of the lost revenue. You can’t monetize comments that are on other platforms. In other words, Facebook and Twitter are not going to pay cleveland.com for comments left on those platforms. And let’s face it, many people on those social media platforms never click through to the site, instead feeling content to comment solely based on the headline and snippet available on that social media platform. Assuming this site still continues to operate on an ad-based model, the best way to keep the lights on is to keep people viewing your site, and one way to do that is to entice people to come back multiple times to see what the public has to say about an article.

By pushing feedback away from the original site itself, it allows the site owners to better control the messaging. For example, if an opinion piece (and given the state of the media today, what isn’t an opinion piece) is responded to only on Twitter or Facebook or Reddit, only a small fraction of the readers will know about it. It ceases to become anything resembling a “conversation,” with the points quarantined away from any counter-points.

Yes, the traditional letters to the editor and a texting program are going to be used as feedback, but those either depend on the editors allowing them to be published or will never be published at all. Maybe the editors at cleveland.com think this is a feature, not a bug.

(As this post is already getting ridiculously long, I’m going to stop here for now.)

Indians Announce Hernandez signing, Designates Haase for Assignment

It’s official now: the Indians have signed free agent second baseman Cesar Hernandez to a one-year contract worth $6.25M:

 The Tribe officially announced on Sunday that it has signed César Hernández to a one-year deal. A source told MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi earlier this week that Hernández's contract is worth $6.25 million, though the club has not confirmed the value. To make room on their 40-man roster, the Indians designated catcher Eric Haase for assignment. 

Hernandez was one of the better second base options available this winter; Fangraphs (Steamer) projects him to be worth 2.1 fWAR next year, though not significantly ahead of a number of other second sackers that were out there (Jonathan Villar, Brian Dozier, Jonathan Schoop, the list goes on). One of the reasons why I think the Indians got away with a one-year deal is that there were so many decent players available, and still are.

Hernandez has over five years of service time (the Phillies non-tendered him rather than pay him a projected $11M in his last year of arbitration), so he’s going to be a free agent after the 2020 season. That should suit the Indians just fine, as long as either Christian Arroyo or Yu Chang make some strides this season. At worst Hernandez gives the Indians a stable placeholder while they figure their future at the position; he’s appeared in at least 155 games in three of the last four seasons, and has been at least adequate offensively (for the position). 2019 was his worst season at the plate since becoming a full-time player, but repeating that campaign (91 OPS+) would be fine, assuming his glove remains in form.

I was somewhat surprised that the Indians designated Eric Haase this early in the offseason. Haase still has an option left, and after Kevin Plawecki was let go, was set to be the first catcher up in case of injury to either Roberto Perez or Sandy Leon. Maybe the Indians really liked Beau Taylor, the first minor-league signing of the winter, as their primary AAA catcher, and had soured on Haase’s future at the position, but I didn’t see the rush to make the call now. I had figured a more likely candidate for DFA would have been infielder Andrew Velazquez, who was lower on the depth chart (behind Arroyo, Chang, and even the re-signed Mike Freeman).

Now to address the elephant in the room: does this signing indicate that the Indians aren’t trading Francisco Lindor this winter? I would love to say yes, given that Ken Rosenthal was reporting the weekend before Christmas that the Indians were taking everyone’s last and best offers, but until I hear something definitive from the Cleveland front office, I’m still somewhat concerned. Not as concerned as before the Hernandez signing, though.

The other nagging question of the offseason remains as well: what exactly do the Indians have left to spend? Second base was the only spot the team was guaranteed to fill, but I see at least two more roles that the team can upgrade. Another outfielder would do wonders for the lineup, particularly with Tyler Naquin out until at least May. The Indians have been musing about using Franmil Reyes in the outfield regularly, but then that would leave the DH spot unmanned, and would weaken the overall defense. Better to grab a Marcel Ozuna, Starling Marte, or even bring back Yasiel Puig than placing your trust in Jake Bauers, Bradley Zimmer, or Daniel Johnson as everyday players. If any one of that trio breaks out, then that’s a great problem to have, but as we learned last year, banking on a breakout can also blow up in your face.

Link to live file (OneDrive)

An end is near

I guess my wish for clarity was granted:

According to Ken Rosenthal, the Indians have asked teams for their “best and final offers” for Francisco Lindor, and will presumably make a decision on whether to trade him this weekend.

The Indians have yet to make a significant addition this winter (beyond Sandy Leon), and free agents are being taken off the board rapidly. In my opinion that’s because of the Lindor trade discussions, as the roster needs after a Lindor trade may be completely different from the roster needs now. If, for instance, they receive a major-league infielder and outfielder for Lindor, then obviously that changes their free agent or trade targets over the rest of the winter.

This artificial deadline also helps on the public relations front. If the right offer doesn’t materialize, the Indians can then declare that Lindor will not be traded this winter, ending the speculation and uncertainty. In the Rosenthal video above, he mentions that one executive didn’t understand why the Indians wouldn’t just wait until later in the offseason to trade him. That may be true if the Indians were trying to just maximize the return on Lindor, but there are downsides to doing that. If the Indians did absolutely nothing except talk to teams about trading their franchise player until January, what do you think that would do to the season-ticket base, or more broadly, the fanbase’s opinion of the team?

I think the Indians should hold on to Lindor for another season, even if it means they don’t maximize their return on him. As I mentioned yesterday, the farm system is set up well for the post-Lindor era; this is not the same situation as in 2008 and 2009, in which the core was approaching free agency and there was nothing in the farm system to replace them. I actually wouldn’t have a problem with the Indians holding on to Lindor through the 2021 and just getting the compensatory draft pick after he leaves via free agency if it came to that.

That being said, I still have no idea what will happen. The Indians seem to be sticking to their high trade demands (the Mets apparently balked when the Indians demanded Jeff McNeil), but maybe someone will blink and give the Indians at least two core players for Lindor. Or maybe everyone stands their ground. Either way, we might know by the time the Browns take the field this Sunday.