MLB now offering partial refunds for MLB.TV subscriptions

MLB.TV is the out-of-market online streaming service for MLB baseball. I unfortunately live in the Cleveland market, so I don’t get to watch Indians games live, but it’s a better deal for me than having to fork over $50 a month to buy a TV package that includes STO, as I don’t really watch anything other than Tribe baseball anymore.

Early in March, I was charged $129.99 for the service (I purchase the league pass, because I’m a baseball junky), and as the COVID-related delay continued, a big open question for me was whether subscribers who had already been charged would get any kind of refund if/when the season began again, and if so, how much it would be.

Thankfully, I have good news. I received this e-mail today:

The price per game did go from $.80/game originally versus $1.33/game now, assuming you watched the equivalent of one team’s full season. However, that new price ($45.18) is about $15 cheaper than if you had waited to purchase a subscription until today ($59.99).

Granted, they’ve hung onto my money for over four months, so I was owed some interest, but even so, it’s nice to see. The refund was done via a website, and took about 10 seconds to submit, so there’s no runaround trying to get a customer service rep on the phone. Now, if they really want to get on my good side, MLB could figure out a way to offer live in-market games to fans….

On the benefits of reading fiction

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe or take for granted; nor find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.

Francis Bacon, The Essays

One of the upsides to having to spend several months largely confined to my home and without the normal distractions (read: baseball) is that I’ve been able to devote some attention to pastimes that for many years (decades?) have been largely pushed aside, only dabbled in when I’ve had nothing else to do.

When I was a kid, reading books was one of my main ways of entertainment. I didn’t have the Internet or cable TV to fill up my free time, so most summer vacations were primarily spent playing baseball or reading. We would head to the library at least every couple of weeks, participating in the summer reading program, and once school was back in session I would use the school library and the Bookmobile (essentially a bus with books from the local library in it) to get my fill of books.

But as time went on and technology entered our house less and less time was spent reading. First came cable TV when I was about 10 years old, then a couple years later dial-up Internet, and then when I went away to college, high-speed Internet. I still would haunt the shelves of whatever library I was near, but more and more time was spent in the digital world. And after a while I practically stopped reading fiction, or anything that wasn’t posted on a website.

That was fine at first, given that in the early days of the Internet most content was written in the style of print articles at the time, but as people adapted to the medium so did the style of article as well as the mechanism for reading them. Because users could and often did quickly click away or scroll past an article once they read the headline, it became more and more important to grab your attention. It was no longer profitable to cover an issue in a nuanced way, leaving it up to the reader to make his or her mind up. Instead, the average article not only told me who was right or wrong in stark moral terms, but told you how to feel about it. I was outsourcing not only my thinking, but also my emotions.

So when I first committed to reading fiction again, it was difficult to not fall back into “Internet reading mode” in which I was just skimming the words and not trying to understanding the content. I didn’t even know I was doing this until I sat down with a book; I had to force myself into reading each word aloud to follow the story, and then it slowly sunk in how screwed up my reading habits had become. I kept looking for the phrase or sentence that would tell me how to feel about a topic or a character, looking for that hit of emotion. But no, the novels I read didn’t reward in you that way. There would be heroes and villains, but the heroes would have their flaws and the villains their rationales. I had to supply the conclusions, the reasons why the decisions made were good or bad. I had to determine which characters I liked or loathed, and the reasons why. And it wasn’t as if I was reading some stuffy literary fiction that concentrated purely on character, but bog standard science fiction and fantasy. One of the novels was about a group of settlers on an alien planet taking on what essentially were intelligent giant gila monsters. Another one was about the travels of a young sorcerer who carries a chaos demon (and the memories of its 12 previous hosts) inside him. These were plot-centered novels in strange and interesting settings, but all of them, even those I ultimately didn’t enjoy, had far more subtle characterization than the typical online article.

As the weeks passed, I began to get used to this different mindset, and suddenly the online articles that used to appeal to me seemed simplistic, and in some cases, fraudulent and pandering. It was like drinking a pop after months of abstention. Before, I limited my social media exposure because I knew it was bad for me; now I limit it because I just don’t like it.

Reading fiction is an active form of entertainment, meaning that your mind needs to construct a picture of the action, the characters, and setting, things that spark creativity in ways that more passive forms of entertainment (TV, movies, etc) won’t do because entire picture is already there for you to see.

Reading fiction has also been a way to get my mind into a different place, at least for a couple of hours a day. Escapism seems to have become a dirty word in some circles, but I maintain it is a helpful way to reset your mental state; it isn’t healthy to constantly immerse yourself in whatever conflict is raging online or in the real world. Besides, by inserting yourself into another world, seeing it through a fictional character’s eyes, you can gain a new perspective on fundamental questions. Perhaps seeing how a fictional character deals with a similar situation in a different time and place may at least help you to understand another point of view better.

From a practical standpoint, reading for pleasure is one of the cheaper (and accessible) sources of entertainment out there if you know where to look. Sure, if you only buy new hardcovers at the bookstore you’ll exhaust your budget quickly, but there are many ways to get many hours’ worth of great reading material for much less than the equivalent of other forms of media. The obvious example would be your local library (meatspace or cyberspace versions), but there are many other ways to get your fix, such as used book sales, buying e-books instead of paper books, utilizing public domain sites like Project Gutenberg, or buying bundles of books. I’ll go into more detail on this in a separate post.

I’d like to end with a callback to the epigraph at the top. Many problems, whether they be of the moment or inherent in the human condition, have no easy answers. Fiction, while ostensibly taking place in far-off places and populated by beings that may have little relation to us, can still address these fundamental questions in subtle yet profound ways. By taking the time and space to carefully and honestly examine a character or situation, a book can not only entertain you, but (done right) can gently reveal new avenues of thought. To weigh and consider, not to contradict or confute.

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

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.)

Book Review: Today I Am Carey

Today I Am Carey (2019) – by Martin L. Shoemaker

Genre: Science Fiction – Hard (with slice-of-life elements)

320 Pages

Publisher Store PageAmazonKobo

Over the winter, I’ve gotten back into reading for pleasure, and specifically into genres that I hadn’t delved into since I was a teenager. Empire of Silence (see review here) was the first sci-fi/fantasy novel I read in many years, and since then I’ve picked up many more in quick succession. I don’t plan to write a review of every book I read, as that seems at odds with the whole reading for pleasure goal, but reviewing books that I particularly enjoyed would seem to strike a decent balance. With that said, here is a review of a book I thoroughly enjoyed…

Today I Am Carey is a story set in the near future. It concerns an android named Carey that is designed to assist terminally-ill patients who are suffering with dementia. It is able to comfort these patients because it contains two different neural networks that can work together: one that can empathize with the patient, and another that can emulate (as in physically become) friends and family, whether living or dead. In the first chapters of the story, Carey becomes whoever Mildred, who is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, asks for, whether it be her son, daughter-in-law, grandchildren, or even her departed husband.

Normally a medical care android’s memory will be wiped after their patient dies, but Mildred’s family asks for Carey to stay on with them, a request that is granted because something is unique with it, and Carey’s designer wants to try to understand why. The story takes off from there.

If you’ve read any of Isaac Asimov’s robot short stories, particularly Bicentennial Man (and the Robin Williams movie based off of it), you may recognize a similar theme at the beginning of Today I Am Carey: a robot/android that seems to be becoming almost human and the ethical and legal implications of that. But Today I Am Carey takes the story in a different direction, and in my opinion takes Asimov’s ideas into an entirely new realm of storytelling.

In Asimov’s robot stories, his Three Laws of Robotics prominently figure in just about every story. In the case of Bicentennial Man, the main issue is at what point a robot becomes physically human enough so that the Three Laws do not apply. In Today I Am Carey, there are some plot points that deal with Carey’s legal status, but the main thread of the story is more about its mental and emotional development towards becoming more human and how that affects the human characters in Carey’s life.

Although there are many ideas about artificial intelligence that Shoemaker explores throughout the book, Today I Am Carey also delves deeply into the human characters surrounding the protagonist. After all, what better narrator to use in a character-driven story than an android that has an empathy neural network? Carey, because of his unique construction, can infer things from its interactions that a human being would never be able to infer. I think that first-person narrative elevates the story from your standard exploration of ideas to something that every reader, not just those who enjoy science fiction, would enjoy and relate to.

Shoemaker’s prose is deceptively straight-forward. I still don’t know how he did it, but he was able to make a story narrated by an artificial intelligence in a matter-of-fact manner deliver powerful emotional impacts, even when you have an inkling that those impacts are coming. The ending ties the events of the story together in a way that was both perfectly appropriate and in a way I never saw coming.

Book Review: Addie Joss on Baseball

Joss on Baseball: Collected Newspaper Columns and World Series Reports, 1907- 1909  – By Addie Joss

Compiled and Annotated by Rich Blevins (2012)

349 Pages (including biography and appendices)

Publisher pageAmazon page (kindle version)

Or in truth, an expansion of my previous review of the book. I originally reviewed this collection of Addie Joss’s newspaper writings at Let’s Go Tribe in 2013, and all of my comments back then still hold true, but I want to dive in a bit deeper now that I have the leisure to spend more time on it.

Addie Joss has been a fascinating player to me in part because there is so little information about him. He died suddenly in 1911 at age 31, while professional baseball was still growing into the national pastime it later became. Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times, a ground-breaking collection of reminiscences by former players that sparked a rush to record the history of early baseball, was first published in 1966. By that time practically all of Joss’s immediate family were no longer alive. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1978, but by that time, as Blevins writes in his preface, it was “almost like an afterthought.” His contributions had been recognized despite his brief career, but almost nothing of his personality could be passed down.

Joss was hired in 1906, without any previous writing experience, to be the Sunday edition sports editor of the Toledo News-Bee. Joss had moved to Toledo in 1900 when he signed with the Mud Hens, and still made the Northwest Ohio city his offseason home. The hiring was designed to help win readers over from the established Toledo Blade, and it paid off in spades. Joss not only wrote articles about baseball, but edited and wrote articles about other sports. That he was able to quickly learn a business he had no prior knowledge about was quite a feat, and that would lead to him writing a weekly column as well as covering covering three World Series (1907-1909) for the Cleveland Press. By the end of his brief writing career, he was known nationwide as not only a great pitcher, but also as a baseball columnist.

 The collected columns are arranged thematically, not chronologically. There is a chapter about Joss’s personal friendships in baseball, one entirely about humorous incidents on and off the baseball diamond, and one on great feats and plays. There are sections devoted to dealing with fans, “inside baseball” (or would be called strategy today), the way baseball was played in the decades before his time, and his game reports from the 1907-1909 World Series. The collection ends with some columns about larger issues within the sport.

You get a sense of Joss’s generosity and good nature through some subtle touches in his columns. For example, the first column in this collection deals with his debut, made in 1902 against the St. Louis Browns. After a couple of innings, the Browns hurled a series of insults (“long legged toothpick,” “human sign post,” et. al) his way, then later gave him looks that “would have made a saint want to fight.” But it was all a test, and Joss passed with flying colors. Later, after the game, Emmet Heidrick of the Browns shook hands and congratulated him on the well-pitched game. Joss ends the column with “And from that day to this I have not had better friends than that same bunch of ball players, the St. Louis Browns.”

Some of that generosity is only learned once you learn the context, which is why Blevins’ annotations are so valuable. He wrote two columns about his friend Win Mercer, who committed suicide while on the 1902-03 barnstorming tour of the West: the first of which talks about Mercer’s career as a star pitcher and “matinee idol,” and the second of which is about the events that took place just before his death. There were allegations that Mercer attempted to steal the barnstormer’s pot to pay back gambling debts, but Joss, who was on the tour, recounts a more generous version of those events, in which the note to the hotel clerk to send the money was not written by Mercer but was a forgery.

Source:Wikipedia/ Western Reserve Historical Society

Joss was a tall (6’3″), skinny (185 lbs) man with long arms, hence nicknames like the Human Hairpin and the other less generous ones noted above. His sidearm pitching motion, a delivery that hid the ball from hitters, his stuff, and impeccable control was why he was so successful as a pitcher, and Joss goes into some of these concepts in his columns, though never in a boastful fashion. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that he was one of the best pitchers in baseball by reading his columns. That even extends to the columns he wrote on his specific accomplishments, like his 1908 perfect game, in which he downplays as much as possible his role in it. Note the date from the article, which was one day after his masterpiece:

About the seventh inning I began to realize that not one of the [White] Sox had reached first base...I did not try for such a record. All I was doing was trying to beat Chicago, for the game meant much to us, and [Ed] Walsh was pitching the game of his life. (10-3-1908)

Although Joss was writing in a time that we now might think as the distant past, there are many columns that have just as much relevance today as they did back then. Witness this piece of introspection:

One constant worry to a ball player is the fear he has of losing the strength of his arm. A ball player's arm is a peculiar thing. There is never any way of telling when it is liable to go back on him. (12-9-1908)

The section on “inside baseball” also has many timeless baseball thoughts. For instance:

Numberless instances could be related by all players who have been playing the game for any length of time, but they would only tend to strengthen the opinion that luck is an essential factor in a team's pennant aspirations (1-27-1907).

One thing that has changed considerably since the first decade of the 20th century are the baseball terms used, and that did take some getting used to. Joss uses “twirler” often in place of “pitcher” and “sphere” as often as he uses “ball,” and though at first those terms seemed rather bizarre and forced, after a while they started to become familiar, and I could begin to understand why they were so popular. Heck, I’ll probably start referring to pitchers as twirlers here and there just to liven things up.

Joss loved to relate humorous anecdotes in his columns, including one about how Connie Mack once had to resort to tricking Rube Wadell (who was famous for being…um…eccentric) to stop throwing his “slow ball” back when they were both in Milwaukee:

Mack realizing the probable result became desperate and leaving the bench went over to a policeman on the bleachers and held a whispered conversation with him....

.....Just as the big fellow was winding up to pitch the next one, a fog horn voice shouted: "Get out of there you big stiff, you're all in! You've lost your arm."

You can well guess how Rube responded to this heckle, which played right into Mack’s hands.

Joss stopped writing for the News-Bee in early 1909, instead choosing to spend his winters running a pool hall and singing in a vaudeville quartet. He still would pop by his old workplace from time to time, and that he was still beloved by his former co-workers is evident by the way the paper covered his death.

Toledo people will feel a keener loss, for they knew Joss as a man and a citizen and knew nothing but good of him. His personal friends will long miss the ready smile, the kindly word, the cheerful optimism that were his constant companions and made his company a delight. He was a big man, mentally, morally, professionally. (4-14-1911, Toledo News-Bee, page 8)

Tributes also poured in from around baseball, one of which captures exactly the impression that I got from reading his columns:

"He was studious and ambitious and serious, but when I say serious I do not mean sober, for had that rare and divine gift, a sense of humor. He was always cheerful. He seemed always to have some good news for you. He never whimpered or complained; he could smile even over the injury to his right arm last season - the arm that meant so much to him."
- Brand Whitlock (4-14-1911, Toledo News-Bee, page 1)

His teammates threatened a strike if their game in Detroit was not postponed so that they could attend his funeral in Toledo. And there was the proto-All Star game held in Cleveland later that year to raise money for his widow, which is a fascinating topic in and of itself.

There are biographical profiles on Joss, such as the one in the Deadball Stars of the American League, and there is one full-length biography of Joss available (Addie Joss: King of the Pitchers). But this collection of columns is the closest we’re going to get to any sort of understanding about Joss the person, as it’s written in his own words. Blevins writes in his preface:

I like to think Addie's baseball writing as our own direct line to one of Cooperstown's most disappeared inductees. The extant articles are Addie's first-person observations of the game and its players, many of them baseball immortals and most of them his good friends, from the first decade of the American League.