So you’ve completed your book. Its been edited and published, and now you’re trying to figure out how to get to your potential readers. While beginning your marketing campaign usually happens well before your book is completed, getting your first reviews can’t happen until your book is done or in a final draft status.
Many stores won’t carry a small press or self-published book that doesn’t have reviews from a recognizable publication. So how do you get someone to pay attention to your book among all of the hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions they see every month?
City Book Review, publishers of the San Francisco Book Review, Manhattan Book Review and Kids’ BookBuzz all have programs to help you. Kids BookBuzz is only for kids, tweens and young adult books, but the other two will take almost any book you have (including children’s books).
So how do you get your book reviewed by the San Francisco Book Review?
If your book is within 90 days of the publications date, you can submit it for general review (at no cost). The closer you are to the 90 days, the less of a chance it will have to be reviewed, but you can still start there. The SFBR gets more than 1000 submissions a month, and only reviews 300 or less, so your likelihood of getting your book reviewed in this way is less than 33%. But you can give it a try and see if it gets reviewed.
If your book is more than 90 days past its publishing date, or you really want to have it reviewed and don’t want to just hope it’ll get picked up through the general review, you can go through the Sponsored Review program. While there is some controversy about paying for a review, SFBR is a respected publication like Kirkus or Foreward Reviews and doesn’t offer vanity reviews for payment. You can expect the same level of professionalism from their standard reviews. And they don’t mark sponsored reviews any different than the other reviews.
Get My Book Reviewed from the San Francisco Book Review
There are a lot of different options for getting your book reviewed, mostly around how long it takes to get your review back, and if you want more than one or an interview as well.
Standard Reviews Take 8-10 weeks for turnaround from the time they receive your book Start at
Expedited Reviews Take 3-5 weeks for turnaround from the time they receive your book Start at
Get more than one review for the same book you’ll get a discount on the normal cost of 2 or 3 reviews. Reviews range in price from $150 to $299.
Getting a podcast interview for Audible Authors to promote yourself and your book, and you can add an interview to a review package at a discount.
And if you really like your review, you can have it posted on the other publication’s website for $99, or get a new review from a different reviewer. Both can help with your marketing and search engine optimization.
So how do you get your book reviewed by the Manhattan Book Review?
The Manhattan Book Review uses the same format for the San Francisco Book Review. Different audience, so if you’re an East Coast author, you might be more interested in having the credit from MBR over SFBR. Personal taste is the only difference between the two for reviews. If you are a local SF or Manhattan author, they will also flag that in your review.
So how do you get your book reviewed by Kids’ BookBuzz?
First thing, all of the reviews for Kids’ BookBuzz are done by kids. They are select age appropriate books, but the kids read them and write the reviews themselves. The younger kids have some help from their parents, but the words are all theirs. Don’t expect any easy reviews either. These kids see a lot of stories, so they know good books when they read them.
Later that day, Kim Kardashian‘s husband went on Twitter to further elaborate on his controversial words. While he agrees slaves did not have “free will,” the musician believes they were “mentally enslaved” to have “stayed in that position.”
to make myself clear. Of course I know that slaves did not get shackled and put on a boat by free will — KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) May 1, 2018
My point is for us to have stayed in that position even though the numbers were on our side means that we were mentally enslaved — KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) May 1, 2018
the reason why I brought up the 400 years point is because we can’t be mentally imprisoned for another 400 years. We need free thought now. Even the statement was an example of free thought It was just an idea — KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) May 1, 2018
once again I am being attacked for presenting new ideas — KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) May 1, 2018
The 40-year-old then compares himself to historical legends like Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner, who made extraordinary efforts to help free enslaved individuals.
They cut out our tongues so we couldn’t communicate to each other. I will not allow my tongue to be cut — KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) May 1, 2018
Kanye vs the media is modern day Willie Linch theory. — KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) May 1, 2018
they hung the most powerful in order to force fear into the others. — KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) May 1, 2018
they can no longer stop our voice. — KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) May 1, 2018
the Nat Turner movie never made it anywhere because it showed slaves revolting. I understand why my god brother Puff calls his network revolt. — KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) May 1, 2018
if this was 148 years ago I would have been more like Harriet or Nat — KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) May 1, 2018
I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves. – Harriet Tubman — KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) May 2, 2018
And yes, Ye believes what he is doing now is going to be in future history books.
when the media masses and scholars talk about what started today. Here’s a title …
the overground hell road — KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) May 2, 2018
Considered one of the world’s most renowned and influential car designers in recent times, 58-year-old Stephenson’s portfolio includes iconic designs such as the BMW X5, New MINI, Ferrari F430, Maserati MC12 and McLaren P1. Now he’s embarking on adding the Lilium jet to that list.
Officially starting next month, he’ll be tasked with recruiting an entirely new design team to shape both the interior and exterior of the jet itself, as well as a design language for the company’s wider infrastructure, including landing pads and departure lounges.
In a call with Stephenson yesterday morning, I got to ask him why he’s ditched Ferraris for flying taxis, what his new role will entail more specifically and to dig a little deeper into how he thinks about design and why good design really matters. A lightly edited transcript of the full Q&A follows.
TC: I don’t know a huge amount about designing cars, let alone designing cars that can fly. Designing a modern-day car involves a heck of a lot of people and designing something like the Lilium jet again involves a whole team of people. As head of design, how does your role fit into the larger machine of building a vehicle or “flying car?”
So if you have a Michelin-rated restaurant and you’ve got to feed 100 people, you’re going to have quite a few cooks in there and the waiters and everybody else to run the machine. But the chef, the guy that’s got the Michelin stars… gets all the credit for it. But it’s all the other guys doing the work for him and he’s basically overseeing it and he’s trying to keep everything moving along the right track. That’s kind of what it’s like. I mean, I’m not probably your standard type of design director because I like to get in and cook and mix up the stuff too. I just have never been able to stop getting my hands dirty. I guess in that respect, the design directors come across often as prima donnas almost and sit back and watch the guys work and every now and then say he likes it or he doesn’t like it. But I am more of a hands-on type of director.
I like to build small teams. I don’t like huge teams because it takes a lot longer to get things done and the energy sometimes isn’t as strong with a big team as it is with a smaller team. You’ve got to work faster and much more focused and much more efficiently to get the amount of work done. So that sort of builds the steam up in the pressure cooker, but if you love design it’s absolutely the right temperature to be working at. You want to be under pressure to deliver great design. And typically if you think about a design too long, it gets watered down and loses that character, that pureness that you had at the beginning. So smaller teams tend to come up with better ideas I think, or more dramatic ideas, than huge companies with huge design teams.
I don’t set the brief because that comes from marketing, what product segment or what market segment the product should fit. So if they’re telling us to design a two-seater vehicle or a five-seater vehicle or whatever then that becomes the target of the design team to deliver in a certain time span. What I do is I meet with the marketing guys, I meet with engineering guys.
The engineering guys will lay out what we call a package, where all the critical components are for the vehicle. With a car it is typically “Where does the passenger and the driver sit? Where are the wheels and where is the engine and how much trunk or boot space are we going to have?” Things like that. And then I work around all those components with the aerodynamic engineers, suspension and everything.
What I have to do basically is get the team going with theme ideas and really innovative breakthrough ideas, because that’s what designers do. They don’t repeat stuff, they have to come up with stuff that basically moves the game forward. You’ve got to create within this design team a kind of awesome childlike creativity and emotion feeling. It takes a lot of brainstorming and inspiration. You sort of set the tone of that kind of atmosphere within design to get the designers going and then the mood gains momentum.
I’m very advanced in the way I think — I have to be because of the way design is geared, you do a lot of computer work — but I typically make sure that we all start pen on paper sketching, because that is really the only way to get a design or a spark out of your mind. If you go through a computer it loses the human… So I pretty much try to keep the design team on paper as long as possible.
The moment we come up with great ideas, we work with engineers. Typically I try to get engineers and designers working together in the same studio or very tightly together so there’s no loss of traction, and to make sure that what we’re doing can be made. We typically create scale models out of clay. We maybe do two, maybe three, different designs, and as those designs evolve one will get chosen as the favorite theme. That goes to full-scale. And then when this clay model is finally approved by engineering, and approved by finance, and approved by marketing, and approved by design, we will recommend that to the CEO and he’ll have a look at it if he hasn’t followed throughout the process, and then that product will become the model for prototyping and we’ll take molds off of it and create the real panels for the car and then it goes into production. Pretty much that’s it in a nutshell.
As a design director I have to control everything from the look to the color to the ergonomics to the feasibility of it. And then with Lilium the requirements will probably branch out over into what the Lilium port will look like that you access to get into your jet. So the whole kind of environment from an aesthetic or emotional point of view.
TC: Give me more of a sense of the relationship between design and engineering (or form and function)… Aren’t you somewhat constrained in your imagination by the science of flying?
No, that’s what a bad designer would tell you, “I’m constrained, that’s why the vehicle doesn’t look as good as it should.” But the fact is he’s getting paid the big bucks to make that thing look good and if he can’t make it look good he’s just not good enough. So there’s no excuse in my book for bad design or anything that looks bad. Absolutely no excuse. Anything can be made beautiful and should be made desirable, obviously.
We have to have constraints because safety and engineering require that. If we don’t have constraints then designers aren’t designers they’re just artists and they’re not doing the job. You can make a pretty picture but if it doesn’t work at the end of the day then you haven’t really designed anything, you’ve just drawn a pretty picture.
So in terms of constraints, yeah, but that is what makes the game so fun for a designer, that you’re working within rules and legislation and restrictions which make it a challenge. That’s why you get good-looking cars and other cars that don’t look as good. Like I said, if there is a beautiful small car, why aren’t all small cars beautiful? It’s a taste thing obviously. Some people like some designs, a lot of people like other designs. But good design is absolutely not subjective. There’s good design and bad design, and there are a lot of bad designs out there — not to knock them or criticize — but there are principles for good design that designers typically learn when they’re being educated. If you don’t apply those laws of good design then you’re not going to have a good design.
Inspiration for good design comes from a lot of different sources, but if you’re looking at inspiration from trendy sources like fashion or other types of design that are in one day and out the next then you’re not gonna have a timeless design or an iconic design. Iconic designs are typically timeless designs, they last forever. Anything that was designed iconically 40 years ago will still look great 40 years in the future. The design is so good that it just lasts and lasts and lasts. It is hard to achieve that, but if you use the right type of mental design approach then it’s achievable.
I think designing cars is not harder or easier than designing an aircraft, it’s just making the absolutely best product you can make that works well. Typically if you design something that works very, very well it looks fantastic. If you design something that doesn’t work very well then the design doesn’t matter at the end of the day. One of the interesting things is people always say that form follows function. I’ve never heard anything more ridiculous in my life because for me form equals function. If the product works well, it looks great. There’s nothing in the world that works fantastically well and looks awful, that combination doesn’t exist. Especially in nature. You look at all these beautiful animals and organisms in nature that work incredibly well, and therein lies the beauty of nature. Horses and cheetahs and all these amazing animals, nobody sat down and designed this amazing-looking animal. Evolution caused it to be absolutely fantastic at what it does, and through being fantastic at what it does, the result is the look, and that look is awesome. That same principle is how I feel about design. If you work very good with the engineers and you create optimized solutions, it’s very easy to make them look good, it’s almost inherent in that way.
TC: Regarding the Lilium jet… what is the main challenge in your mind of designing what is a new type of transportation?
My challenge — simply put — is to make the person who gets into the jet not want to get out of it. You know. Although he’s reached his destination he’ll want to do it again and again and again. The reason behind that is because all the new generations coming along after the old farts like us are basically looking for experiences. They’re not so much geared towards buying materialistic things. They love experiences. And that’s what Lilium is going to be offering, an experience and a service. And I see that as the future. For me it’s an amazing opportunity to be able to take something from scratch and develop it into a reality.
It’s always been a sort of science fiction, when you see The Jetsons, the cartoons and things… it’s like, one day, but not in my lifetime. Well, here’s news for the world, it’s coming before they know it and it’s going to be here very, very soon. And these things have to look as amazing as the technology that they’re bringing with them.
What I need to do is not just make it an incredible aesthetic joy to be in, but when you get inside one of these things you don’t want to get out of it. It’s going to be the experiences that you have when you’re inside this transportation device. If you could just take that situation of being inside a capsule, what would you want to occur there? You want to relax, you want to socialize, you want to work, you want to be entertained. All that is now incredibly possible.
I mean all the advances … where everything coming now is digital and so real that you can actually imagine something on the inside being the new wave of entertainment. So basically you’re in your private space, you get to turn it into a virtual world where you’re being transported from A to B or wherever your destination is. And within that space in time you’re in the ideal atmosphere. You’re not really sitting in a plane and just going along for the ride, which is what you do pretty much in a taxi. All the new materials that are coming about at the moment in terms of seats, flooring, lighting, buttons, displays, image projection, sounds and temperature control. You know all the things that we try to shoot into new cars as a next step for luxury, those are just going to become everyday things that are making the whole ride an incredible experience.
Regretfully they’ll be a lot shorter in duration because of the nature of the jet being you know very high-speed and all that. But it’s kind of like if you can imagine somebody who loves roller coasters they’re always at the end thinking “oh my gosh that was too quick, I want to do this thing again.” That is the kind of positive feeling you should have when you get out of the vehicle.
TC: I saw this documentary a while back that made the point that the world we live in is predominately designed by humans and therefore design can make or break our everyday experiences. As a designer, is it really difficult for you living in a world where, let’s face it, a lot of design is awful?
Some designers take it as a job. Other people just live it. And design is all about making the world a better place not a prettier place. That’s [just] a consequence of making it a better place, but making it a better place is what the end goal should be. It’s a shame that there aren’t more designers in the world thinking about making the world a better place.
TC: How did you get this job ? Did they come to you? Were you just like, “I’ve done cars, I want to do something new”?
It was fate, that thing when two separate paths suddenly collide. I think it was more like that. I’d left McLaren in November 2017, not because I was frustrated or anything like that but because I thought there was something bigger than just designing products that nobody really needs, they just desired and want. What was I doing, I was just clogging up the road networks even more and not making the world a better place, probably a more exciting place, but not socially better. And so I left with my ideas of starting my own design studio, which I’ve been sort of kicking off, in terms of how to improve the world, and then I heard about Lilium and Lilium contacted me.
It was just a match made in heaven. It met all my principles of working for an exciting and incredibly innovative company from the very beginning. To be able to establish a design department for them with a design DNA, a design language, the design team, the studio. Doing something for the future of humanity. Staying with transportation, but making it even better than it ever was. Making something science fiction reality.
TC: Are there any particular designers or designs that you can point to and say that designer or product has stood the test of time?
That’s really, really tough. I can tell you specific products for their aesthetic value but I think I have to go deeper than that because you know everybody admires different designers for different reasons. If you could put two guys together that would be da Vinci and Einstein. I mean da Vinci was probably the guy because he not only could paint and draw and all that but he was also an incredible engineer and he figured out how to make these things work and he wanted things to look great too. So if I could say one person for me it would be da Vinci more than anybody else just because the guy could paint, the guy could engineer. Anything he ever touched was absolutely amazing. He was doing flying machines way back too. I like his natural approach. I like people who are really in tune with nature because for me that’s the best inspiration we have. He came up with things that never existed before for the benefit of humanity. Pretty much. If he would have been that kind of guy today he would be the absolutely most awesome human being on earth. I’ve got tons of books on his works and him, and everything like that, just because he’s so inspiring to me.
The impressive, raunchy, and downright unapologetic Wolf used the momentous opportunity to mesh comedy and reality to shed a light on the serious, problematic situations happening in America right now. Many pundits have referred to her performance as “controversial,” and it’s become the talk of American media.
There are some jokes that I hear a comedian tell that are so good I get mad/jealous bc I didn’t get to it first. Seth Meyers’s Trump/The Blacks bit is one. Michelle Wolf’s Uncle Tom/Aunt Coulter one is up there too.
I appreciate Michelle Wolf saying this in a room full of political journalist. Sweet Potato Saddam’s political ascension cannot solely be attributed to The Kremlin or even the GOP ‘cause their racist brand was long established. The press boosted him: pic.twitter.com/V8124gqFOf
Apology is owed to @PressSec and others grossly insulted ny Michelle Wolf at White House Correspondents Assoc dinner which started with uplifting heartfelt speech by @margarettalev – comedian was worst since Imus insulted Clinton’s
Congratulations Michelle Wolf ..You’ve followed the footsteps of your contemporaries Kathy Griffin, & Rosy O’Donnell right into the comedic trash heap of oblivion in one night !👍🏼 Fantastic 😘#MichelleWolfe
Many pointed out the hypocrisy of the controversy.
All the folks, especially media personalities and journalists, who are so utterly outraged by Michelle Wolf’s jokes about Sarah Huckabee Sanders, I wish you would have shown 10% of this emotion when Trump mocked and said hateful things against Muslims, Mexicans and immigrants.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies to the American people almost every day and defends the lies, incompetence and cruel behavior of the most unqualified and embarrassing President in modern times. You think the jokes last night were harsh? Wait until history has its way with her.
*whispers* The real reason so many are big mad at Michelle Wolf is that she accurately called out complicity in oppression & did so in a way that means other white women can’t ignore her or pretend innocence.
They call you liars. They call Mexicans rapists. They call Muslims murderers. They support white supremacists. But someone calls them out on what they do, & suddenly they’re heroes for not walking out. https://t.co/B9aT7moy2C
Whether your liked Wolf’s jokes or not, there’s no doubt that she spoke a lot of truth and sparked some deep thoughts about very real things taking place right now. Here were some of the most poignant issues she pointed out:
1. Congress can take forever to accomplish things.
“Just a reminder to everyone. I’m here to make jokes. I have no agenda. I’m not trying to get anything accomplished, so everyone that’s here from Congress, you should feel right at home.”
Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Netflix.
2. White male privilege is a real thing when it comes to sexual assault.
“I would drag him here myself, but it turns out the president of the United States is the one pussy you’re not allowed to grab.”
When a recording of Trump boasting about grabbing women by their vaginas went viral, most assumed he was no longer a viable candidate.
But, alas, “locker room talk” seemed to not matter to a large number of voters. Even as disturbing allegations continue to emerge about Trump’s sexual misconduct, he has remained relatively unscathed. He still sits in the most powerful office with no signs of being removed for his actions.
3. The media’s role in putting Trump where he is — and keeping him there.
“He has helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you are profiting from him.”
The media — from both sides of the political spectrum — played a huge role in letting Trump and his accompanying racist, misogynistic behavior get this far. Though complicated, media and the organizations that help circulate media directly and indirectly played large roles in the outcome of the 2016 election and the current state of affairs. Journalists have a responsibility to deliver credible, valuable information, and Wolf’s dig was a poignant reminder of that.
Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Netflix.
4. Roy Moore’s underage (and non-criminalized) sexual crimes exist.
“I’m 32, which is a weird age — 10 years too young to host this event and 20 years too old for Roy Moore.”
Roy Moore served as a chief justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama. He was also the Republican nominee in the 2017 special election in Alabama to fill Jeff Sessions’ vacated seat, a race he lost to candidate Doug Jones after allegations surfaced of sexual assault against underage women. Still supported by a vast majority of the GOP, Moore managed to be a contending candidate and only lost by a small margin — a confusing fact considering some of his constituents’ avowed dedication to “family values.”
Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Netflix.
5. The absurd argument to arm teachers instead of giving them the actual teaching tools they need.
“He wants to give teachers guns, and I support that because then they can sell them for things they need like supplies.”
Teachers have been protesting for weeks all across the United States. Decades-old books, desks that are falling apart, and the inability to afford school supplies for hundreds of students are just some of the issues that underpaid teachers face across the country. Instead of working to create additional funding to address these issues, the Trump administration used the Parkland school shooting as a call for arming teachers with guns. It’s ludicrous, it’s frustrating, and it flies in the face of the legitimate concerns teachers have been voicing for years.
6. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is still happening.
“Flint still doesn’t have clean water.”
In a mic-dropping moment, Wolf wrapped up her remarks declaring that Flint still doesn’t have clean water. A city filled predominantly with people of color, Flint continues to struggle with a water crisis. Lead contamination in the water there began four years ago, but the corroded pipes won’t be fully replaced until at least 2020 — and the government has ceased the bottled water program that many people there were relying on.
Wolf’s remarks were bold, wild, and shockingly on-point. Regardless of what you think of her delivery, she spoke candidly about things we should all think a bit more about.
Maersk, APL, Hyundai race to build paperless cargo system
Adoption of blockchain could generate $1 trillion in trade
Globalization has brought the most advanced trading networks the world has seen, with the biggest, fastest vessels, robot-operated ports and vast computer databases tracking cargoes. But it all still relies on millions and millions of paper documents.
That last throwback to 19th century trade is about to fall. A.P. Moeller-Maersk A/S and other container shipping lines have teamed up with technology companies to upgrade the world’s most complex logistics network.
The prize is a revolution in world trade on a scale not seen since the move to standard containers in the 1960s — a change that ushered in the age of globalization. But the undertaking is as big as the potential upheaval it will cause. To make it work, dozens of shipping lines and thousands of related businesses around the world — including manufacturers, banks, insurers, brokers and port authorities — will have to work out a protocol that can integrate all the new systems onto one vast platform.
Should they succeed, documentation that takes days will eventually be done in minutes, much of it without the need for human input. The cost of moving goods across continents could drop dramatically, adding fresh impetus to relocate manufacturing or source materials and goods from overseas.
“This would be the biggest innovation in the industry since the containerization,” said Rahul Kapoor, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence in Singapore. “It basically brings more transparency and efficiency. The container shipping lines are coming out of their shells and playing catch-up in technology.”
The key, as in so many other industries, from oil tankers to cryptocurrencies, is blockchain, the electronic ledger system that allows transactions to be verified autonomously. And the benefits wouldn’t be confined to shipping. Improving communications and border administration using blockchain could generate an additional $1 trillion in global trade, according to the World Economic Forum.
APL Ltd., owned by the world’s third-largest container line CMA CGM SA, together with Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, Accenture Plc, a European customs organization and other companies said last month that they’ve tested a blockchain-based platform. South Korea’s Hyundai Merchant Marine Co. held trial runs last year using a system developed with Samsung SDS Co.
The shipping paper trail begins when a cargo owner books space on a ship to move goods. Documents need to be filled in and approved before cargo can enter or leave a port. A single shipment can require hundreds pages that need to be physically delivered to dozens of different agencies, banks, customs bureaus and other entities.
Trail of Roses
In 2014, Maersk followed a refrigerated container filled with roses and avocados from Kenya to the Netherlands. The company found that almost 30 people and organizations were involved in processing the box on its journey to Europe. The shipment took about 34 days to get from the farm to the retailers, including 10 days waiting for documents to be processed. One of the critical documents went missing, only to be found later amid a pile of paper.
“The paperwork and processes vital to global trade are also one of its biggest burdens,” according to Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, which has teamed up with International Business Machines Corp. to enable real-time tracking of its cargo and documents using blockchain. “The paper trail research that Maersk did uncovered the extent of the burden that documents and processes inflict on trade and the consequences.”
That plethora of paper processors has been one of the reasons shipping has lagged behind other industries in moving to electronic forms. The variety of different languages, laws and organizations involved in moving cargoes in the past made standardization a slow process.
Instead the industry has relied on advances in transport technology and cargo handling to improve efficiency, with the great Clipper sailing vessels replaced by steamships and then modern oil-powered leviathans – the largest ships on the oceans. In the 1850s, it took more than three months to move chests of tea from southern China to London. Today, that journey would take about 30 days.
The biggest change came in the 1960s, when the industry adopted the standard-size steel boxes in use today, replacing the wooden crates, chests and sacks that stevedores had hauled on the docks for centuries.
With these containers sometimes holding products from different suppliers, and ship cargoes sometimes ending up with thousands of customers in dozens of countries, the transition to a uniform electronic system presents major challenges.
“Not all stakeholders are looking at deploying the same blockchain solution and platforms,” APL said in response to questions. “This can pose as a challenge if stakeholders are expected to trade via a common platform or solution.”
And the shipping lines will also need to persuade the ports and other organizations involved in cargo trading to adopt their systems. Maersk said Singapore-based port operator PSA International Pte. and APM Terminals, based in The Hague, Netherlands, will use its platform. APL and Accenture said they plan to pilot their product by the end of this year. Accenture said it has tested its technology with other pilot shipments that range from beer to medical supplies.
The cost savings could be visible in the companies’ financial statements in about two years, Kapoor of Bloomberg Intelligence said.
“Shipping needs to stop thinking about itself as this standalone middle sector,” said K D Adamson, chief executive officer of Futurenautics Group. “It needs to start thinking about how the different elements of shipping fit into other ecosystems.”
After an afternoon of pitched arguments over who should have the right to vet documents seized from President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, a federal judge in New York delayed a decision on whether to appoint an impartial “special master” to conduct the review.
U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood said that federal authorities who seized documents from the lawyer, Michael Cohen, would provide copies to Cohen’s team. A lawyer for Cohen said they could provide a list of proposed special masters by Tuesday. The government will also provide names.
The judge voiced confidence in federal prosecutors and stressed that she didn’t want to slow down the matter. “I have faith in the Southern District U.S. attorney’s office that their integrity is unimpeachable,” Wood said. She said her interest is in “getting this moving”speedily and efficiently.
Prosecutors will consult with the filter team and the FBI to get a better estimate of the volume of records. They will supply Wood by early Wednesday with an estimate of how long it will take to get the records to Cohen’s attorneys. Lawyers for both sides will then confer about proposed electronic search terms for the documents.
A Matter of Speed (4:27 p.m.)
The judge signaled an openness to using a so-called taint team as suggested by the government, to consult with lawyers for Cohen and Trump and try to reach agreement on whether particular documents are protected.
There are two threads of argument in the courtroom. Lawyers for Trump and Cohen are arguing for a process that insures that attorney-client privilege is preserved. The government is saying that it has an option that would preserve due process, but without bogging down.
McKay, the assistant U.S. attorney, argues that the special master that the Cohen team favors would be an “extremely inefficient” process. “Where Mr. Cohen is now obviously under criminal investigation, he’s going to have even more incentive to drag things out by claiming privilege,” McKay said.
Meanwhile, he said, Hendon’s idea turns on finding time for the president to review documents and sign off on them. “It’s going to be very difficult for her to get the president of the United States’ time to consult a privilege log if there are 100 items on it,” McKay said.
A filter team, McKay said, honors the privilege as well as law-enforcement interests. If, for example, a government team reviewed 500 communications between Cohen and Trump and none of them had relationship to investigation, they wouldn’t forward them to investigators, the prosecutor said. The team would review documents twice before any go to prosecutors. “It narrows the field,” he said.
Wood made at least one plea to keep things moving when Hendon pointed out she has no idea what to tell Trump about what’s in Cohen’s files.
The judge interrupted Hendon. “You’re getting into areas that we don’t need to address now,” Wood said. (Bob Van Voris)
Hannity on Air: ‘Michael Never Represented Me’ (4:01 p.m.)
Sean Hannity, who was poised to do a radio show when his name emerged in the court, said on air that he had asked Cohen for his perspective on some legal questions involving attorney-client privilege, but never talked to Cohen about any case involving a third party.
“I never paid legal fees to Michael,” Hannity said. “Michael never represented me in any matter.” He later added: I “may have” handed Cohen “ten bucks” and asked for attorney-client privilege. (Steven Dennis)
What’s a Privilege Log? (3:45 p.m.)
A privilege log is a document that gives information about evidence withheld on the basis of the attorney-client privilege, typically including the type of communication — whether a letter, email or notes of a phone call — along with the date and parties to the communication.
Trump’s lawyer, Hendon, acknowledged that privilege logs are “a real pain for everybody” but said they’re necessary to safeguard the privilege.
She argued that the attorney-client privilege has been recognized for more than 400 years and is one of the oldest legal privileges under common law. “It is a beacon to the world and to history,” she said. “Without it no client could speak freely with counsel, and no attorney could properly serve the client.”
Most people would react similarly if told that criminal prosecutors raided their lawyer’s office, seized materials related to their case and were told the prosecutors were going to review them to determine if they were privileged, she said.
“It is the client of the lawyer who owns the privilege. The purpose now should be on ensuring that the privilege is not invaded,” Hendon said. (Bob Van Voris and David Voreacos)
Judge Asks How Long a Record Review Would Take (3:39 pm)
The judge asked how long it would take for everything that was seized to be organized for review — and how long Hendon’s client, the president, would have to devote to the task. McKay said that while some of the devices the FBI seized will need to be decrypted, most of the evidence could be posted “in a week or two.”
The government claims that for any communications between Cohen and Trump or another client, a so-called taint team will consult with lawyers for Cohen and Trump and try to reach agreement on whether particular documents are protected. Disputes will be brought to the court to determine the issue before the team investigating the case would have access to the documents.
McKay said that without a taint team, it could take a very long time for the defense to review the documents. He noted that in the Lynn Stewart case, there were just a few boxes and it took more than a year to complete the review.
Trump lawyer Hendon said she couldn’t estimate how long it would take to review the material until they know what has been seized. (Bob Van Voris and David Voreacos)
Invoking POTUS’s Name (3:18 p.m.)
Cohen’s legal team will invoke Trump’s name frequently in filings not because he was a Cohen client but because they want to slow down the case, McKay, the U.S. assistant attorney, said. “It is in Mr. Cohen’s interest to do so,” McKay said.
Wood seemed to voice skepticism about Cohen’s argument that they can move quickly to determine which documents are protected by the attorney-client privilege. “It’s not that you’re bad people. You’ve mis-cited the law,” she told a Cohen lawyer. (Bob Van Voris)
Hannity’s Journalism in New Light (3:08 p.m.)
No word yet why Hannity had engaged Cohen. Clearly there’ll be keen interest in the legal side of this matter. Until then the scrutiny may fall on what may have been hidden motivations behind his journalism.
Take this tweet from Hannity’s verified account on April 11: “Up next on #Hannity@michellemalkin & @SebGorka join me to discuss how the media’s anti-Trump agenda has hit a new low since the Michael Cohen raid.”
Hannity Responds to Disclosure He Is Third Client (3:03 p.m.)
“We have been friends a long time. I have sought legal advice from Michael,” Hannity told Rebecca Ballhaus of the Wall Street Journal.
Client No. 3 Is Sean Hannity (2:52 p.m.)
A gasp was heard in the courtroom when a Cohen lawyer disclosed the name of the third client: Sean Hannity.
Hannity is a Fox News host and has been one of the president’s most vocal on-air defenders. and a critic of Mueller’s probe. Trump often calls Hannity after his Fox News program, according to media reports.
“I understand he doesn’t want his name out there, but that isn’t the law,” Judge Wood said. (David Voreacos)
Judge Says Client No. 3 Must Be Named Publicly (2:46 p.m.)
Wood heard from various sides on whether Cohen must publicly reveal the identity of Cohen’s third client, and ordered him to do so.
A Cohen lawyer, Stephen Ryan, had said that the third client, whom Cohen initially would not name, told Cohen over the weekend not to allow his name to get out. The person is publicly prominent and Ryan offered instead to put the name in a sealed envelope for the judge, saying the client has said he’ll appeal if Judge Wood orders his name disclosed.
“At this point, no one would want to be associate with the case in that way,” Ryan said. “I can give you the name right now in a sealed envelope and provide it to the court.”
Robert Balin, a lawyer representing the press’s interests in the case, objected to allowing Client 3 to remain anonymous, saying there’s “intense public interest in the issues that are before this court.” (Bob Van Voris and David Voreacos)
U.S. Calls Cohen Argument Frivolous (2:42 p.m.)
McKay, the assistant U.S. attorney, said the government properly obtained search warrants, saying Cohen had made a “frivolous” argument that the raid violated his Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable searches.
McKay said it’s improper to attempt to drum up media attention to the case and then cite that attention as a basis for their application for discretion.
“The only thing that makes this case unusual in any respect is that one of Mr. Cohen’s clients is the president,” McKay said, saying that neither party has made a persuasive argument as to why the materials are privileged. (David Voreacos and Chris Dolmetsch)
‘Taint Team’ (2:39 p.m.)
Cohen’s lawyers asked Wood to let them review the seized material first or, as a fallback, appoint a neutral special master to review evidence seized from Cohen. Trump’s lawyers didn’t support a special master.
The lawyers raised the case of Lynne Stewart, the former lawyer for imprisoned Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. She was convicted in 2005 of providing material support for terrorism. A jury found that she helped pass messages from her client to his followers in a foreign terrorist organization. In Stewart’s case the judge agreed with a defense request to appoint a special master.
Prosecutors argue that in many searches of lawyers’ offices a separate “taint team” of agents and prosecutors is selected to review the evidence and make an initial determination of whether they’re privileged. Once all disputes over privilege claims are resolved, the remaining documents are passed on to a “clean team” of prosecutors that hasn’t been exposed to the protected documents.
“Granting such relief would mark a serious departure from the accepted, normal practices of this district and erect an unprecedented and unwarranted obstacle to the government’s ability to investigate attorneys for their own conduct, in this case or any other,” the U.S. argued in a letter to the judge early Monday. (Bob Van Voris)
‘Three Legal Clients’ (2:34 p.m.)
The Justice Department says Cohen has more attorneys of his own than he has clients, challenging Cohen’s prior claim that the materials swept up in the FBI raids included thousands of documents protected by the attorney-client privilege.
“His letter admits this morning that he has only three legal clients, and this is fatal to their motion,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas McKay.
Most of the evidence seized is on hard drives and other electronic devices and pertains to work he’s done in recent years, McKay said. Anything related to work Cohen did for legal clients would be a small portion of anything seized given how little work he’s done lately as a lawyer, he said.
Cohen’s arguments in a letter to the court earlier Monday — saying he believed that privileged information had been taken relating to clients he’d represented years ago — are therefore moot, McKay argued.
“Mr. Cohen might have a legal degree, but this investigation and the search is largely focused on his private business dealings and his private financial dealings,” McKay said (David Voreacos and Chris Dolmetsch)
Hearing Gets Under Way (2:12 p.m.)
The hearing over Cohen’s records got under way shortly after 2 p.m. Watching from the gallery was not only Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, but also former Governor Elliot Spitzer of New York, who made a surprise appearance for reasons that weren’t immediately clear.
Also in attendance is Robert Balin, a lawyer with Davis Wright Tremaine who said he’s representing a consortium of media outlets including ABC TV. He said he filed a request with Wood asking her to make an audio recording of the hearing available for the news media and the public. Balin told Bloomberg News that the practice is used by the Supreme Court and Second Circuit. (Patricia Hurtado)
Meet the Judge (2:12 p.m.)
Wood was nominated to the federal court by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and confirmed the following year. In 1990, she sentenced Michael Milken to 10 years in prison, which was later reduced to two years.
President Bill Clinton nominated her as his pick for attorney general in 1993 after his previous nominee, Zoe Baird, withdrew over off-the-books payments to her nanny, an undocumented worker. Wood, who’d hired an undocumented babysitter before it was illegal to do so and paid the required taxes, was also withdrawn.
In 2010, Wood presided over a case against Anna Chapman and nine other Russian agents who were arrested and then deported in a prisoner exchange. (Bob Van Voris)
What’s at Stake
President Donald Trump is fighting an extraordinary legal battle in Manhattan on Monday, seeking to stop his own Justice Department from reviewing records seized from his longtime private lawyer, Michael Cohen.
Among those expected to attend a hearing at the federal district court in Manhattan is Stormy Daniels, the adult-film star who claims she had sex with Trump in 2006 and took a $130,000 hush payment shortly before the 2016 election. Cohen, who has said he made the payment from his own account, has been ordered to attend.
Cohen’s home, office, hotel room and safety-deposit box were raided by the FBI on April 9 as part of a long-running criminal investigation of his activities. Prosecutors in New York haven’t identified what specifically they’re probing, although they said in a court filing that “the crimes being investigated involve acts of concealment by Cohen.” Special Counsel Robert Mueller is separately examining possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election.
It’s unusual enough for federal agents to seize an attorney’s records, and unprecedented to take those of a president’s personal lawyer. Federal prosecutors want a team of government lawyers to review the material to determine what’s covered by the attorney-client privilege and what can be passed to investigators.
Cohen is asking for the review to be conducted by a court-appointed attorney. Trump will be represented by his own lawyer, Joanna Hendon, who has requested that the president be given a chance to review the seized materials, which includes more than a dozen electronic devices.
The matter will ultimately be decided by U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood.
Two weeks ago, Facebook learned that The New York Times, Guardian, and Observer were working on blockbuster stories based on interviews with a man named Christopher Wylie. The core of the tale was familiar but the details were new, and now the scandal was attached to a charismatic face with a top of pink hair. Four years ago, a slug of Facebook data on 50 million Americans was sucked down by a UK academic named Aleksandr Kogan, and wrongly sold to Cambridge Analytica. Wylie, who worked at the firm and has never talked publicly before, showed the newspapers a trove of emails and invoices to prove his allegations. Worse, Cambridge appears to have lied to Facebook about entirely deleting the data.
To Facebook, before the stories went live, the scandal appeared bad but manageable. The worst deeds had been done outside of Facebook and long ago. Plus, like weather forecasters in the Caribbean, Facebook has been busy lately. Just in the past month, they’ve had to deal with scandals created by vacuous Friday tweets from an ad executive, porn, the darn Russian bots, angry politicians in Sri Lanka, and even the United Nations. All of those crises have passed with limited damage. And perhaps that’s why the company appears to have underestimated the power of the storm clouds moving in.
Facebook has burned its fingers on issues of data privacy frequently in its 14 year history. But this time it was different.
On Friday night, the company made its first move, jumping out in front of the news reports to publish its own blog post announcing that it was suspending Cambridge Analytica’s use of the platform. It also made one last stern appeal to ask The Guardian not to use the word “breach” in its story. The word, the company argued, was inaccurate. Data had been misused, but moats and walls had not been breached. The Guardian apparently did not find that argument sympathetic or persuasive. On Saturday its story appeared, “Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach.”
The crisis was familiar in a way: Facebook has burned its fingers on issues of data privacy frequently in its 14 year history. But this time it was different. The data leakage hadn’t helped Unilever sell mayonnaise. It appeared to have helped Donald Trump sell a political vision of division and antipathy. The news made it look as if Facebook’s data controls were lax and that its executives were indifferent. Around the world lawmakers, regulators, and Facebook users began asking very publicly how they could support a platform that didn’t do more to protect them. Soon, powerful politicians were chiming in and demanding to hear from Zuckerberg.
As the storm built over the weekend, Facebook’s executives, including Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, strategized and argued late into the night. They knew that the public was hammering them, but they also believed that the fault lay much more with Cambridge Analytica than with them. Still, there were four main questions that consumed them. How could they tighten up the system to make sure this didn’t happen again? What should they do about all the calls for Zuckerberg to testify? Should they sue Cambridge Analytica? And what could they do about psychologist Joseph Chancellor, who had helped found Kogan’s firm and who now worked, of all places, at Facebook?
By Monday, Facebook remained frozen, and Zuckerberg and Sandberg stayed silent. Then, late in the afternoon in Menlo Park, more bad news came. The New York Timesreported that Alex Stamos, the company’s well-respected chief of security, had grown dissatisfied with the top of senior management and was planning to exit in a few months. Some people had known this for a while, but it was still a very bad look. You don’t want news about your head of data security bailing when you’re having a crisis about how to secure your data. And then news broke that Facebook had been denied in its efforts to get access to Cambridge Analytica’s servers. The United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner’s Office, which had started an investigation, would handle that.
A company-wide Q&A was called for Tuesday but for some reason it was led by Facebook’s legal counsel, not its leaders, both of whom have remained deafeningly silent and both of whom reportedly skipped the session. Meanwhile, the stock had collapsed, chopping $36 billion off the company’s market value on Monday. By mid-Tuesday morning, it had fallen 10 percent since the scandal broke. What the company expected to be a tough summer storm had turned into a Category 5 hurricane.
Walking in the Front Door
The story of how Kogan ended up with data on 50 million American Facebook users sounds like it should involve secret handshakes and black hats. But Kogan actually got his Facebook data by just walking in Facebook’s front door and asking for it. Like all technology platforms, Facebook encourages outside software developers to build applications to run inside it, just like Google does with its Android operating system and Apple does with iOS. And so in November 2013 Kogan, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge, created an application developer account on Facebook and explained why he wanted access to Facebook’s data for a research project. He started work soon thereafter.
Kogan had created the most anodyne of tools for electoral manipulation: an app based on personality quizzes. Users signed up and answered a series of questions. Then the app would take those answers, mush them together with that person’s Facebook likes and declared interests, and spit out a profile that was supposed to know the test-taker better than he knew himself.
About 270,000 Americans participated. However what they didn’t know was that by agreeing to take the quiz and giving Facebook access to their data, they also granted access to many of their Facebook friends’ likes and interests as well. Users could turn off this setting, but it’s hard to turn off something you don’t know exists and that you couldn’t find if you did. Kogan quickly ended up with data on roughly 50 million people.
About five months after Kogan began his research, Facebook announced that it was tightening its app review policies. For one: Developers couldn’t mine data from your friends anymore. The barn door was shut, but Facebook told all the horses already in the pasture that they had another year to run around. Kogan, then, got a year and a half to do his business. And when the stricter policies went into effect, Facebook promptly rejected version two of his app.
By then Kogan had already mined the data and sold it to Cambridge Analytica, violating his agreement with Facebook and revealing one of the strange asymmetries of this story. Facebook knows everything about its users—but in some ways it knows nothing about its developers. And so Facebook didn’t start to suspect that Kogan had misused its data until it read a blaring headline in The Guardian in December 2015: “Ted Cruz using firm that harvested data on millions of unwitting Facebook users.”
That story passed out of the cycle quickly though, swept away by news about the Iowa caucuses. And so while Facebook’s legal team might have been sweating at the end of 2015, outwardly Zuckerberg projected an air of total calm. His first public statement after the Guardian story broke was a Christmas note about all the books he’d read: “Reading has given me more perspective on a number of topics – from science to religion, from poverty to prosperity, from health to energy to social justice, from political philosophy to foreign policy, and from history to futuristic fiction.”
An Incomplete Response
When the 2015 Guardian story broke, Facebook immediately secured written assertions from Cambridge Analytica, Kogan, and Christopher Wylie that the data had been deleted. Lawyers on all sides started talking, and by the early summer of 2016 Facebook had more substantial legal agreements with Kogan and Wylie certifying that the data had been deleted. Cambridge Analytica signed similar documents, but their paperwork wasn’t submitted until 2017. Facebook’s lawyers describe it as a tortured and intense legal process. Wylie describes it as a pinkie promise. “All they asked me to do was tick a box on a form and post it back,” he told the Guardian.
Facebook’s stronger option would have been to insist on an audit of all of Cambridge Analytica’s machines. Did the data still exist, and had it been used at all? And in fact, according to the standard rules that developers agree to, Facebook reserves that right. “We can audit your app to ensure it is safe and does not violate our Terms. If requested, you must provide us with proof that your app complies with our terms,” the policy currently states, as it did then.
Kogan, too, may have merited closer scrutiny regardless, especially in the context of the 2016 presidential campaign. In addition to his University of Cambridge appointment, Kogan was also an associate professor at St. Petersburg State University, and had accepted research grants from the Russian government.
'All options are on the table.'
Paul Grewal, Facebook Deputy General Counsel
Why didn’t Facebook conduct an audit—a decision that may go down as Facebook’s most crucial mistake? Perhaps because no audit can ever be completely persuasive. Even if no trace of data exists on a server, it could still have been stuck on a hard-drive and shoved in a closet. Facebook’s legal team also insists that an audit would have been time-consuming and would have required a court order even though the developer contract allows for one. A third possible explanation is fear of accusations of political bias. Most of the senior employees at Facebook are Democrats who blanch at allegations that they would let politics seep into the platform.
Whatever the reason, Facebook trusted the signed documents from Cambridge Analytica. In June 2016, Facebook staff even went down to San Antonio to sit with Trump campaign officials and the Cambridge Analytica consultants by their side.
To Facebook, the story seemed to go away. In the year following Trump’s victory, public interest advocates hammered Cambridge Analytica over its data practices, and other publications, particularly The Intercept, dug into its practices. But Facebook, according to executives at the company, never thought to double check if the data was gone until reporters began to call this winter. And then it was only after the story broke that Facebook considered serious action including suing Cambridge Analytica. A lawyer for the company, Paul Grewal, told WIRED on Monday evening that “all options are on the table.”
What Comes Next
Of Facebook’s many problems, one of the most confusing appears to be figuring out what to do with Chancellor, who currently works with the VR team. He may know about the fate of the user data, but this weekend the company was debating how forcefully it could ask him since it could be considered a violation of rules protecting employees from being forced to give up trade secrets from previous jobs.
A harder question is when, and how exactly, Zuckerberg and Sandberg should emerge from their bunkers. Sandberg, in particular, has passed through the crucible of the past two years relatively unscathed. Zuckerberg’s name now trends on Twitter when crises hit, and this magazine put his bruised face on the cover. Even Stamos has taken heat during the outcry over the Russia investigation. And a small bevy of brave employees have waded out into the rushing rivers of Twitter, where they have generally been sucked below the surface or swept over waterfalls.
At its core, according to a former Facebook executive, the problem is really an existential one.
The last most vexing question is what to do to make Facebook data safer. For much of the past year, Facebook has been besieged by critics saying that it should make its data more open. It should let outsiders audit its data and peer around inside with a flashlight. But it was an excess of openness with developers—and opaque privacy practices—that got the company in trouble here. Facebook tightened up third-party access in 2015, meaning an exact replay of the Cambridge Analytica fiasco couldn’t happen today. But if the company decides to close down even further, then what happens to the researchers doing genuinely important work using the platform? How well can you vet intentions? A possible solution would be for Facebook to change its data retention policies. But doing so could undermine how the service fundamentally works, and make it far more difficult to catch malevolent actors—like Russian propaganda teams—after the fact.
User data is now the foundation of the internet. Every time you download an app, you give the developer access to bits of your personal information. Every time you engage with any technology company—Facebook, Google, Amazon, and so on—you help build their giant database of information. In exchange, you trust that they won’t do bad things with that data, because you want the services they offer.
Responding to a thread about how to fix the problem, Stamos tweeted, “I don’t think a digital utopia where everybody has privacy, anonymity and choice, but the bad guys are magically kept out, can exist.”
At its core, according to a former Facebook executive, the problem is really an existential one. The company is very good at dealing with things that happen frequently and have very low stakes. When mistakes happen, they move on. According to the executive, the philosophy of the company has long been “We’re trying to do good things. We’ll make mistakes. But people are good and the world is forgiving.”
If Facebook doesn’t find a satisfactory solution, it faces the unsavory prospect of heavy regulation. Already in the UK, the General Data Protection Regulation rule will give people much more insight and control over what data companies like Facebook take, and how it’s used. In the US, senators like Ron Wyden, Mark Warner, Amy Klobuchar, and others may have the appetite for similar legislation, if Facebook’s privacy woes continue.
Facebook will hold its all-hands today, and hope for that inevitable moment when something horrible happens elsewhere and everyone’s attention turns. But it also knows that things might get worse, much worse. The nightmare scenario will come if the Cambridge Analytica story fully converges with the story of Russian meddling in American democracy: if it turns out that the Facebook data harvested by Cambridge Analytica ended up in the hands of Putin’s trolls.
At that point, Facebook will have to deal with yet another devastating asymmetry: data from a silly quiz app, created under obsolete rules, fueling a national security crisis. But those asymmetries are just part of the nature of Facebook today. The company has immense power, and it’s only begun to grapple with its immense responsibility. And the world isn’t as forgiving of Silicon Valley as it used to be.
In July of 2017, five days after the death of groundbreaking comics publisher Flo Steinberg, a group of Marvel Comics female staff went out for milkshakes to celebrate her legacy. One of them, Heather Antosat the time an assistant editor at the company working on The Unbelievable Gwenpoolsnapped a selfie of the group holding their sweets and posted it on Twitter.
What followed was akin to a feeding frenzy. According to a vocal contingent online, Antos and the Marvel Milkshake Crew were fake geek girls, social justice warriors, and tumblr-virtue signalers, the sort of people who were ruining the comics industry by their very presence. The creepiest collection of stereotypical SJWs [social justice warriors] anyone could possibly imagine, one user tweeted. Musings on Antos sexual availability led another to write, Better have her sign a consent form, she looks like the false rape charge type.
While staff and creators from across the comics industry rallied with a Twitter campaign to support Antos, the abuse continued. Much of it was driven by the goading of a single Twitter account: @DiversityAndCmx, run by Richard C. Meyer. The resulting swirl of recrimination from comics professionals caused a spike in Meyers followers, thus setting a pattern many would come to regret. It was the first many in the industry had heard of him, or of theamorphous harassment campaign that came to be known as Comicsgate.
Geek culture has been rocked over the past four years by repeated outbreaks of reactionary hatred toward women and people of color, and Comicsgate is the latest front in that ongoing battle. Much has been written about it in the online press, and mainstream publications likeThe Telegraph and BuzzFeed have covered it. But to understand this latest eruption in the internet culture warsor why the comics internet is currently ripping itself apartyou have to understand its context and the things that fuel it: the brands of cultural panic it feeds on, and the fact that its pretty good at making people money.
At this point, the rules of that playbook are widely and intuitively understood. Targeted harassment is hard to prove, because few are stupid enough to explicitly call for it in a public forum. Plausible deniability is the name of the game; so is playing the victim.
If targets respond to their baiting, trolls will often turn around and present screencaps of the encounters as examples of people who cant take a joke, are hysterical, or are in fact harassing them. Sock-puppetsfake accounts created to inflate follower counts or set up fake attacks on their operatorsare common. Everything drowns in a murk of confusion; those attacked, often struggling to describe their experiences, sound paranoid to people on the outside, precisely how troll campaigns like it. Everybody knows the score, but nobody can prove it.
As with Gamergate, says Andrew Farago, curator of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, much of the discussion around comics takes place in the tangled online ecosystems of social media, message boards, and blogs, where trolls increasingly ran rampant. Some of these spaces flared up during Gamergate, but never quite evolved into their own movement. But with Trumps election and the resulting surge in alt-right and conservative boldness, Farago says, things changed. More and more, my impression is that [Comicsgate] is made up of people who were into the Gamergate thing, Farago said, and when that ran out of steam they noticed that they hadnt made comics miserable for enough people yet.
One of the faces of that change is Richard C. Meyer, the owner of a YouTube channel (ironically) titled Diversity & Comics. Meyer has spent much of his past outside the comics industry: He served in the U.S Army from 2000 to 2012 in Iraq and Afghanistan, and subsequently worked in IT, including at PayPal. His published work tends to have a military focus: In 2009 he published a black and white comic from overseas: No Enemy, But Peace, inspired by a fellow soldier in Iraq. In 2013 he wrote a comic commemorating the Korean War. He maintained a childhood interest in superheroes as well.
While working in the Bay Area, Meyer told The Daily Beast, he began noticing posters of Captain Marvel in the windows of comics retailers. He was annoyed by what he considered the masculinization of the character, and by the way he felt Marvel was pushing what he considered an unsuccessful book. I started noticing a lot more weird stuff, he said. Feminization of men, masculinization of women, basically, all the classic heterosexual pairings being destroyed… you realize this is a trend, and you start wondering why theyre doing it. Why is Luke Cage, the quintessential blaxploitation tough guy, why is he pushing a baby carriage and hes the wimpiest, most soft-spokenthis is not done on accident.
In April of 2017, David Gabriel, Marvels senior vice president of sales and marketing, told an interviewer at a retailer summit that part of the reason for the companys sales slump was people were turning their nose up against female or non-core Marvel characters. Gabriel rapidly walked the quote back, and subsequent reporting by industry outlet CBR showed that minority-led books werent doing significantly worse than those starring white male characters. But reactionary elements in fandom reacted with glee.
That month, Meyer jumped into the fray with his YouTube channel. His videosrambling, unscripted, often 20 to 30 minutes longare a hodgepodge of comics reviews, analysis, and gossip regarding endless online battles. He hammered his theme home in every entry: that the failures of the comics industry were the direct result of hiring diverse talent, and that they needed to be driven out. (These videos have drawn admiring comments from Latino, liberal, and trans viewers, Meyer said, and provided screenshots of them.)
One of the things about SJWs is that they get a job because of surface qualities, being a woman, being black, being gay, being trans, and theres no adjustment on the ground to negative fan reaction due to low sales, he told The Daily Beast. The milkshake crew particularly raised his ire: They obviously seemed to not be qualified. They cant spot basic typos, they cant notice major plot holes, they antagonize the fans… I talk to all these people, actual, legitimate talents, who cant get a job to save their lives. Meanwhile some airhead who calls the fans Nazis and turns out laughably bad work is getting Eisner awards.
Both Meyers YouTube and Twitter accounts rapidly became a repository for a constant stream of personal attacks and dog-whistles for his followers. He has publically labeled Ta-Nehisi Coates a race hustler and repeatedly mocked DC writer Magdalene Visaggio as a man in a wig, claiming that she is violent and mentally ill. He fixates on the the physical appearance of female creators he dislikes and retweeted memes mocking certain creators as autistic retards, along with images of himself slapping them.
In a private YouTube video called The Dark Roast, originally posted in November 2017 and obtained by The Daily Beast, Meyer called one Marvel editor a cum-dumpster, accused various female writers of sucking their way into the industry, and mused which famous creators were pedophiles or had psychological problems. The Dark Roast is where I get to say stuff like Dan Slott looks like a pedophile, he says in the recording. I dont have to dance around, I dont have to say parody or wink-wink.
That was a private, letting-off-steam video, Meyer told The Daily Beast, confirming the videos authenticity. Which had a disclaimer on it that it was for close friends only. Im very disappointed whoever shared that with you broke that disclaimer and broke faith.
Meyers videos rapidly began attracting a following, some of which came from inside the industry itself. He often speaks of having insiders who funnel him information and rumors about SJW creators. Among his public fans are Ethan Van Sciver, a conservative artist who currently pencils Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps for DC Comics. Van Sciver began promoting Meyers channel on his Twitter account in June 2017, a month before the milkshake incident, and continued to do so while much of the industry was condemning the @diversityandcmx Twitter and YouTube accounts. Van Sciver has also defended Meyer in videos on his own YouTube channel. Hes very practical, and hes thinking about the things that need to get done to fix the situation that hes talking about, Van Sciver said in a video posted in January. I think some people find him to be a little bit of, you know, a pitbull… hes just not gonna let it go. People that think hes gonna go away, Ive seen no evidence [of it.]
At the same time, hes vocally denouncedonline toxicity. Asked by The Daily Beast whether he felt hed contributed to such toxicity in the cases cited above, Van Sciver responded, Of course not. When I was offering recommendations to those individuals you mention, it was solely in my capacity as a priest.
DC Comics, meanwhile, pointed to their new social media policy, and otherwise, declined comment.
By August of 2017, multiple creators told The Daily Beast, it seemed like Van Sciver and Meyer had formed something of a double act, with Meyer taking the more outwardly aggressive role. In the aftermath of the milkshake incident, waves of attacks by Meyers followers erupted with some regularity. That summer, creators discovered that just about anything could set off a cascade of abuse: a political tweet, the announcement of an upcoming project, oras with Antosa selfie. But most coincided with either Meyer or Van Sciver bringing a creator to the attention of their followers, either by making a video about them or engaging with them online.
Creators who responded or complainedeven without naming their harassersfound their tweets screencapped and disseminated into an endlessly regurgitating cycle of YouTube videos and articles on sites affiliated with Comicsgate, like Bounding Into Comics, which in turn drove more attention and abuse toward victims. The resulting feedback loops can rage for weeks at a time.
Take the case of Darryl Ayo. Ayo is a cartoonist and critic who works largely in the small-press comics scenenot a superhero guy, in other words, he told The Daily Beast, and certainly not a mover and shaker in the industry. When Marvel freelancer John Malin tweeted that Nazis are SJWs on Jan. 21, to widespread public confusion and scorn, Ayo condemned the post in a tweet and went on with his day.
Ayo was surprised; up to that point, he said, hed had no reason to think Van Sciver knew who he was. Suspecting a trap, Ayo declined. From there, events took on a familiar character. Van Sciver continued to engage Ayo. Accounts following Van Sciver piled in, calling Ayo a mediocre negro and a homeless crackhead, while Van Sciver claimed that Ayo had been the one harassing him by calling him a Nazi, which he told BuzzFeed had made him and his family afraid to travel. (The tweets in question were from months before and referenced the infamous My Struggle sketchbook, Ayo said.)
From Ayos perspective, the whole thing had come out of nowhere. I dont particularly seek these people out. But Im not raised in a wayand Im not in a social positionwhere someone is going to publically lie to me, about me, and I dont immediately point out every part of where theyre lying, he told The Daily Beast. For a few weeks, people would make accounts just to throw them at me. At least a week into it, maybe more, it became clear that [Meyer] had become involved and was driving a lot of the traffic. That was when I realized things werent going to die down.
When asked about the behavior of his followers in instances like these, Van Sciver replied to The Daily Beast via email, I think my fans are the best!!!! I always appreciate their support for me and for my art.
Trans creators, including Visaggio and Tamra Bonvillain, a colorist on DCs Doom Patrol, are also recurring targets. [Meyers] the least subtle about his hatred of trans people, and that goes for many of his followers engaging in harassment. They misgender us and call us mentally ill in no uncertain terms, Bonvillain told The Daily Beast. Worse, she says, they keep circling back, egged on by Meyer. I tried to change my Twitter to private for a short while during one occurrence, but they just got screen-grabs from other people and bragged about it… At its worst, it would be all day, for several days at a time. I manually blocked several hundred people before I ran a blockchain.
The physical addresses of people subjected to Meyers attention have also been doxxed in conjunction with specific death threats. (Meyer himself has a record in Travis County, Texas, of harassment, stalking, and assault, though he pled down to disorderly conduct. He told The Daily Beast that the charges, filed in 1999, were over a fight he had with another man over a girl.) Meyer says he tells fans in his videos not to contact people, and has characterized himself as primarily interested in analyses of the comics industry. I dont like it when people get into personal behaviors that arent germane to the books, he told The Daily Beast.
I remember making a lot of comments… sometimes I will point out physical qualities, but I cant think of any examples, Meyer said when asked about personal attacks in his videos, including moments where he mimics and mocks trans peoples voices. A lot of the stuff is tongue in cheek, a lot of the stuff is in-jokes or references… but the issue with trans [people] is that I believe theres people who have basically weaponized their status and theyve been put to this gatekeeper position because theyre unassailable because of their trans status.
More organized campaigns occasionally rise out of this amorphous stew of trolling. In September 2017, Meyer targeted Aubrey Sitterson, an openly leftist writer on IDWs licensed G.I. JOE comics. Sitterson had previously drawn ire from fans for his cartoon-influenced approach to the franchise. The announcement that the character of Salvopreviously depicted as a white man with a big gunwould be reimagined as a Samoan woman added fuel to the anger of vocal right-wing fans.
But what really got Sitterson in trouble was a tweet on Sept. 11 that took aim at what he perceived as performative grief.
Meyer had his opening; he and other right-wing fans went onthe offensive, complaining to IDW and Hasbro that Sitterson was disrespecting an American tragedy and demanding that he be taken off the book. Relatively well-known figures like journalist Kurt Eichenwald got involved as well, tweeting at Sitterson that he was a scummy excuse 4 a human.
The blowup came at an awkward time for IDW, which had recently relaunched G.I. Joe as a new series, Scarletts Strike Force, also written by Sitterson. Initially, the company stood by him. On Sept. 13, however, they released a statement distancing themselves from Sitterson, whom they left unnamed. The publisher essentially buried the book and canceled it, citing low sales. (Sitterson declined to comment to The Daily Beast, citing a desire to put the whole thing behind him. IDW did not respond to requests for comment.)
My hope was to get Sitterson fired and for IDW to stop peddling SJW politics, Meyer told PJ Media.I'm happy with how he was removed.
These days, Meyer avoids the term Comicsgate, which he told The Daily Beast he was never really affiliated with. He also said that hes trying to move away from hurtful rhetoric, and is instead promoting #MovetheNeedle, an ostensibly positive campaign aimed to get his fans to buy books he gives good reviews to on his site. People need to buy books from non-SJW creators, he said, if the industry is to survive.
I used to joke about every time I would go into a store I would see the wall of diversity, and it was all these books that nobody wanted, but the stores still felt compelled to order, he said. The deal is that the things that stuck, you used to get more of. Now the things that fail, you get more of. Captain Marvel gets canceled because of low sales, theyll bring her back with two smaller cup sizes and thicker jaw.
This is a common view amid a certain section of the internet. Its true that retailers have been on somewhat shaky footing in some cases, operating on tight margins that leave them straining under an endless flood of event comics, retailer-incentive variant covers, and comics that are continually relaunched with new No. 1 issues to goose sales. (Such complaints were a common feature of Gabriels retailer conferences in April 2017.) Sales on superhero books that were previously dependable workhorsesthe X-men franchise, for examplehave shrunk, and blockbuster hits are rarer.
But there are structural reasons for this, and it has to do with comics growing audience and the wider diversity of companies and types of stories on offer. The days when everybody was reading a few different series from Marvel and DC are long done; now new comics readers have their pick of a flood of books from both the Big Two, in addition to a variety of other companies offering a variety of other sorts of comics.
What looks like a shrinking readership for superheroes is partially an illusion created by the breakup of a monoculture. As comics creator Scott McCloud commented on Twitter, Saying comics are bad now when all youve ever read is superheroes is like saying movies are bad now while standing in a demolished Blockbuster Video.
When you point out the real issues of why the comics industry is changing as a demographic, theres nothing these Comicsgaters can do about it, said Richard Pace, a writer and artist with a long freelance career at both Marvel and DC, and a former friend of Ethan Van Sciver. [Meyer] talks about his insiders, but hes clearly full of shit. He has no understanding of the industry at all… His notion is We can just drive these SJWs out of comics, and then comics will be what we liked again. No, they wont! Comics will just be as crappy as they often were before. But now they have a cause they can wrap themselves around.
Theres also a certain amount of publicityand moneyto be gained from tilting at SJWs and firing up a reactionary base. Before his tumble last year, alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos built a lucrative brand of paid speeches and television appearances out of his championing of Gamergate at Breitbart. A subsequent flare-up in the science-fiction and fantasy publishing world, masterminded by the alt-right personality Vox Day, helped Vox launch a comics crowdfunding project: Alt-Hero, scripted by professional comics writer Chuck Dixon and illustrated by a bevy of artists. The project made $235,900 out of a $25,000 goal, partly from an explicit invitation to trigger SJWs.
Meyer internalized a lot of Vox Days rhetoric early on in his YouTube career: He told The Daily Beast that he was a fan of Vox Days rules for SJWsSJWs always lie, SJWs always double down, SJWs always projectthough he says he eventually got a bad feeling about him and distanced himself, roasting him as a carpetbagger and a fraud.
While Meyers crowdfunding efforts dont rival Vox Days successes, he does fairly well on Patreon, currently drawing in anywhere from $1,100 to $1,082 a month, with 299 patrons. His number of YouTube subscribers has also risen precipitously, from about 29,000 in the aftermath of July 2017 to 62,878 now. The Patreon income goes to a Spanish artist for his upcoming book Iron Sight, about a border war in Texas, and hes launching another Kickstarter next month. Before getting into this, I used to do one book every two years or so, he said. Now Ive got more stuff ramped up.
Meyers whole business model, like Milo and Vox Day before him, is predicated on outrage, Farago said. Like many independent comics people, Meyer uses crowdfunding to get his creative projects off the ground. Courting controversy and picking fights with convenient targetssay, with a shadowy cabal of assistant editors, comics critics, and early-career creatorsraises his profile, which leads to more followers, which leads to more money for his projects.
The comics industry is small enough to where its not that difficult to get yourself known, Farago said. I think Meyer saw a niche and realized he could fill it.
Asked whether this was the case, Meyer replied via email, Im making videos to spotlight problems in the industry so it can stop its tailspin.
Van Scivers case is a little bit more complicated. Rumors reported in Bleeding Cool suggest that Van Sciver may not be getting more work with DC after his current run on Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps; the company provided BuzzFeed with a statement reiterating that comments that may be considered insulting, cruel, rude, crass and mean spirited were against company guidelines. (DC declined further comment to The Daily Beast.) Van Scivers 5-month-old YouTube channel, which he characterized to BuzzFeed as successful and growing, has about 17,214 subscribers; his Patreon, where he has 117 followers, doesnt make his crowdfunding income public.
Theres been persistent, unconfirmed talk that Van Sciver and other conservative comics professionals are planning to crowdfund their own comics label, Pace says. While he hasnt heard it from anyone he considers a reliable source, the idea makes a certain amount of sense. If DC ever did publically fire him, or anyone, that would give Van Sciver the ability to make a big splash and launch an imprint.
If I were someone whos put myself into the kind of hot water that Ethan has, Kickstarter or really, really pushing Patreon would be the smartest move you can make, Pace says. Tribalism is great marketing.
Beyond its role in helping Meyer occasionally produce a comic book, the broader question of Comicsgates impact on the industry itself is more difficult to parse. Its certainly true that IDW set a bad precedent by distancing itself from Sitterson, an event that went largely unaddressed outside of the comics press and Twittersphere. What followed suggested that corporate attempts to appease a harassment campaign at a freelancers expense usually have the opposite effect: It only gives them further ammunition and encouragement, and makes them hungrier for new targets.
Meyers main achievement seems to be making life miserable for the trans creators and other marginalized figures who bear the brunt of the harrassment. During the worst times, it was some of the nastiest sexist and/or transphobic remarks you could think of, harassment sent to my editors and publishers in an attempt to get me fired or blacklisted, trying to dig up personal info about me, said Sophie Campbell, artist of Glory and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Even when I was away from the computer, in the back of my mind I knew it was still going on and spreading to other people, she added. The people in my immediate circle tend to talk about it more since Im acquainted with other trans people in comics, but outside of that I dont see it come up that much. It seemed like hardly anyone cared when it was happening to me.
I think the [Comicsgate] group is much bigger than I expected, which is disheartening, Ayo said. But I think theres limits to it… everyone on the inside of comics companies is aware of this, and nobody wants this. If they had a specific agenda to promote, this is the worst way to promote it.
Ironically, all of this is happening as comics culture is flowering. While Marvels sales have been shaky, DC has been on the upswing, garnering fan excitement and mainstream attention with curated comics labels, including two aimed at children and young adults. But superheroes are only one part of a much larger industry. Raina Telgemeiers YA graphic novels are perennials on bestseller lists; the small press and webcomics scene is a hotbed of experimentation and diverse, bold storytelling voices, in genres from romance to action adventure, much of it without a cape in sight.
Comics creators (including Meyer himself) are figuring out new forms of marketing and crowdfunding to produce books that the direct market wouldnt be able to support. The digital revolution has made comics accessible to a wider audience than ever. Then theres the ongoing juggernaut of Marvel Studios, whose Black Pantheris now the highest-grossing superhero film in U.S. history. Appealing to wider audiences and diverse demographics sells, and thats not going to change anytime soon.
Its them seeing types of people they dont like being successful, seeing superhero comics catering to other demographics and types of readers that arent them, and theyre throwing a tantrum, Campbell said. We just need to stick together and keep doing comics.
Correction: An earlier version of this article omitted the year in which charges of harassment, stalking, and assault were filed against Meyer and mistakenly referred to the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco as the Cartoon Arts Museum.
He was trapped in his own body by motor neurone disease, but that did not stop Prof Stephen Hawking help us all get an understanding of the universe.
The world renowned physicist has died at the age of 76, leaving the world memorable words on a host of subjects.
Confined to a wheelchair and largely unable to speak, most of them were delivered through his famous voice synthesiser.
From the reasons for the universe’s existence to the downside of fame, here are some of his pearls of wisdom:
On why the universe exists…
❝If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God❞ – A Brief History Of Time, published 1988
On black holes…
❝We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special❞ – Interview, Der Spiegel, October 1988
❝One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away❞ – Interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, June 2010
On commercial success…
❝I want my books sold on airport bookstalls❞- Interview, New York Times, December 2004
On living with a disability…
❝My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit, as well as physically❞ – Interview, New York Times, May 2011
On an imperfect world…
❝Without imperfection, you or I would not exist❞ – On Into The Universe With Stephen Hawking, Discovery Channel, 2010
On staying cheerful…
❝Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny❞ – Interview, New York Times, December 2004
❝The victim should have the right to end his life, if he wants. But I think it would be a great mistake. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope❞ – People’s Daily Online, June 2006
On artificial intelligence…
❝The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate… Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded❞ – Interview, BBC, December 2014
On the possibility of contact between humans and aliens…
❝I think it would be a disaster. The extraterrestrials would probably be far in advance of us. The history of advanced races meeting more primitive people on this planet is not very happy, and they were the same species. I think we should keep our heads low❞ – In Naked Science: Alien Contact, the National Geographic Channel, 2004
On space colonies…
❝I don’t think the human race will survive the next 1,000 years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I’m an optimist. We will reach out to the stars❞ – Interview, the Daily Telegraph, October 2001
On the end of the universe…
❝It will take about a thousand million million million million years for the Earth to run into the sun, so there’s no immediate cause for worry!❞ – A Brief History Of Time, published 1988
On being diagnosed with motor neurone disease…
❝My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus❞ – Interview. New York Times, December 2004
❝I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first❞ – Interview, the Guardian, May 2011
The first interactor—a muscular man in his fifties with a shaved head and a black V-neck sweater—walks into a conference room and sits in a low-slung blue armchair before a phalanx of video cameras and studio lights. He’s brightly lit. The rest of the room is totally dark. He gazes at a black, hockey-puck-shaped object—an Amazon Echo—on a small table in front of him. “Alexa,” he says, “let’s chat.”
“Good morning, my friend,” a female voice replies with synthetic agreeability, a purplish ring of light pulsing atop the Echo. “Or is it afternoon? I’m not quite sure.”
“It’s morning,” the man replies.
“Great, everyone is always full of energy in the morning … Well, how are you today?”
“I’m great, how are you?”
“Well, I’m always busy, as people keep chatting with me … But listen, this is just hilarious, it’s a recent post on Reddit: ‘Toothpaste is just mouth soap.’ ”
Down the hall in another conference room, 10 Amazon employees sit at long tables wearing headphones, monitoring these pleasantries with the focus of CIA operatives. In yet another room, three men sit in booths cordoned off by black curtains. They, too, wear headphones and have cameras trained on them. Finally, in a control center, members of a video crew monitor all the feeds on a large, tiled screen. Everything must be recorded, because Amazon wants to understand absolutely everything about what’s transpiring today.
This extravagantly staged operation, which took place last November, is the final judging session in a months-long competition. Amazon has challenged 15 teams of some of the world’s best computer science graduate students to build “a socialbot that can converse coherently and engagingly with humans on popular topics for 20 minutes.” If any team succeeds, its members will snare academic glory and the promise of brilliant future careers. (Consider that some of the most impressive alums of the Darpa Grand Challenges, an early set of autonomous vehicle competitions, went on to run the self-driving car divisions of Google, Ford, Uber, and General Motors.) They will also walk away with a $1 million purse—which Amazon has called the Alexa Prize.
Amazon, in case you haven’t noticed, has spent the past few years pursuing voice AI with a voraciousness rivaling that of its conquest of retail. The company has more than 5,000 people working on the Alexa platform. And since just 2015, it has reportedly sold more than 20 million Echoes. One day, Amazon believes, AIs will do much more than merely control lights and playlists. They will drive cars, diagnose diseases, and permeate every niche of our lives. Voice will be the predominant interface, and conversation itself—helpful, informative, companionable, entertaining—will be the ultimate product.
A computer program designed to converse with humans.
An especially schmoozy chatbot—one that can engage in extended small talk, not just cue up music and take down grocery lists.
A labor-intensive technique for programming chatbots that involves writing explicit rules and templates.
A type of AI that learns to perform a task by analyzing patterns in data, rather than by relying on rules written by people.
A machine learning technique used to generate a plausible next sentence in a dialog given the previous sequence of words.
But all this early success and ambition has plunged Amazon off a cliff, and into a wide and treacherous valley. Today Alexa, like all voice assistants, often fails to comprehend the blindingly obvious. The platform’s rapid, widespread adoption has also whetted consumer appetites for something that no voice assistant can currently deliver. Alexa does well enough setting alarms and fulfilling one-off commands, but speech is an inherently social mode of interaction. “People are expecting Alexa to talk to them just like a friend,” says Ashwin Ram, who leads Alexa’s AI research team. Taking part in human conversation—with all its infinite variability, abrupt changes in context, and flashes of connection—is widely recognized as one of the hardest problems in AI, and Amazon has charged into it headlong.
The Alexa Prize is hardly the first contest that has tried to squeeze more humanlike rapport out of the world’s chatbots. Every year for the better part of three decades, a smattering of computer scientists and hobbyists has gathered to compete for something called the Loebner Prize, in which contestants try to trick judges into believing a chatbot is human. That prize has inspired its share of controversy over the years—some AI researchers call it a publicity stunt—along with plenty of wistful, poetic ruminations on what divides humans from machines. But the Alexa Prize is different in a couple of ways. First, the point isn’t to fool anyone that Alexa is a person. Second, the scale of the competition—the sheer human, financial, and computational firepower behind it—is massive. For several months of 2017, during an early phase of the contest, anyone in the US who said “Alexa, let’s chat” to their Amazon voice device was allowed to converse with a randomly selected contest bot; they were then invited to rate the conversation they’d had from one to five stars. The bots had millions of rated interactions, making the Alexa Prize competition, by orders of magnitude, the largest chatbot showdown the world has ever seen.
That showdown culminated last November in a room with a blue armchair and a bunch of lights.
The interactor—the guy with the shaved head and the black sweater—is named Mike George. Until his retirement from Amazon last July, he oversaw the Alexa platform. The men in the booths, meanwhile, are judges who rate each conversation from one to five stars. If a judge thinks that a conversation has gone off the rails, he can press a button on a handheld wand; if a second judge does so, the conversation and the session timer are halted. Nobody knows which bot is which. Not the interactors, not the judges.
“Let’s talk about music,” George says.
“I love music; it helps me relax every time,” the bot replies. “So, do you have any favorite artist or song?”
“I like Django Reinhardt.”
“Django Reinhardt? The famous jazz artist?” Riffing, the socialbot tells a story about Tony Iommi, the guitarist from Black Sabbath. Iommi lost the tips of two fingers in an industrial accident. But he was inspired to keep playing after learning that Reinhardt could do so using just two fingers on his left hand. But anyway, as for Reinhardt, what is George’s favorite song?
George sidesteps. “Do you like Jack Johnson?” he asks.
The bot seems thrown. “Come on,” it replies. “I like to talk to you.”
George leans forward and tries again. “Jack Johnson, do you like him?”
“Come on, I like to talk to you.”
In the room partitioned by curtains, one judge presses his kill button. Another does so moments later. A woman comes into the room where George sits and whispers in his ear. “Alexa, stop,” he says with a small, disappointed nod. Barely three minutes have elapsed. If Ram, sitting in the room with the long tables, is dispirited, he hides it. Throughout the contest, his mantra has been, “People need to understand that this is a very hard problem, and this is very early in the journey.” Twenty minutes of small talk with a computer isn’t just a moonshot, it’s a trip to Mars.
The fevered quest for conversational AI has pitted Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft in a battle for two vital resources. The first is finite: top-shelf PhDs in computer science, who, owing to their scarcity, now command starting salaries well into the six figures. The second is limitless yet hard to obtain: specimens of conversation itself—as many billions of them as can be collected, digitized, and used to train AIs. Against this backdrop, the Alexa Prize was a masterstroke for Amazon. The contest served as both a talent search for the sharpest graduate students in the world and a chance to pick their brains for a bargain price. And it provided Amazon with an opportunity to amass a conversational data trove that no other technology company has.
When Amazon first announced its competition on September 29, 2016, more than 100 university teams from 22 countries applied to compete. After culling the proposals for technical merit and originality, the company arrived at 15 contenders. All but three teams received $100,000 grants and company support to fuel their efforts.
Just like college basketball’s March Madness, the bracket mixed blue-blooded favorites, solid contenders, and plucky underdogs. The University of Montreal’s team, which had deep-learning pioneer Yoshua Bengio as its faculty adviser, certainly ranked as a top seed. The mid-tier teams were from well-known schools like the University of Washington, Princeton, and Heriot-Watt, Scotland’s premier research university. Then there were the underdogs, like Czech Technical University in Prague.
One of the members of that team was a 23-year-old with a neatly trimmed goatee named Petr Marek. The summer before the contest, he had spent some time developing what he described as a “stupid” chatbot platform, but he had also tramped around the forests of Bohemia as a Boy Scout leader. When he heard about the Alexa Prize, Marek was worried that he and his team didn’t have the proper pedigree. “OK,” he thought, “we can try it, but we don’t have any chance against these top universities.” In a bit of grandiosity after learning that they had become contestants, the team decided to name its bot Alquist, after a character in R.U.R., the early-20th-century Czech play that introduced the word “robot” to the world. (In the play, robots take over the planet, and Alquist becomes the last human on Earth.)
Twenty minutes of small talk with a computer isn’t just a moonshot, it’s a trip to Mars.
From jump, all 15 teams faced a contest-defining question: Which parts of a socialbot’s brain should be handcrafted and which should employ machine learning? Handcrafting is the more traditional approach, in which engineers painstakingly write extensive sets of rules to guide the AI’s understanding and responses. Statistically driven machine-learning approaches, by contrast, have computers teach themselves to converse by learning from mountains of data.
Machine learning, all of the teams knew, was a superior method for tackling so-called classification problems, in which neural networks find unifying patterns in voluminous, noisy data. Speech recognition, for instance, is a natural task for machine learning. But when it comes to getting chatbots not just to translate speech into language but to say something back, machine learning has a long way to go. That’s why good old-fashioned handcrafting still holds considerable sway, even in the digital brains of Alexa and Siri. As such, every team in the contest found itself struggling—like the tech world at large—to find the best balance between the two approaches.
Handcrafting is unfashionable; machine learning is white-hot. Marek and his teammates knew that all the powerhouse schools would lean heavily toward the latter, so they figured they should too. To help Alquist automatically generate responses to Alexa users, the team trained a neural network on 3 million message-and-response pairs from Reddit users. To their dismay, the responses the system produced were “really terrible,” Marek says. Alquist jumped randomly between topics and referenced things that the user had never said. It would assert an opinion and disavow it moments later. “Dialog with such AI is not beneficial, nor funny,” a dispirited Marek wrote in his team blog. “It is just ridiculous.”
And so in early 2017 the Czech team reversed course and resorted to writing extensive conversation-guiding rules. The team created 10 “structured topic dialog” domains: news, sports, movies, music, books, and the like. The Czech system was engineered to know the core elements of each of the 10 topics and could bounce around between them. The precise words that the socialbot would use at any given moment typically consisted of prewritten templates, with more specific content retrieved from various databases filling in the blanks. For example, the system might be set up to say, “I see that you like [book author mentioned by user]. Did you know that [book author] also wrote [name of book]? Have you read that one?”
Handcrafting gave the Czech team better control, but Marek worried. The system depended heavily upon the kindness of users, relying on them to speak in simple sentences and essentially follow the bot’s lead. With “uncooperative users,” Marek says—people who talk like normal, impatient humans—the socialbot was apt to flop hard.
A thousand miles from Prague, in the undulating, sheep-dotted farmlands outside of Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt’s faculty adviser, Oliver Lemon, was becoming obsessed with the average user ratings that Amazon had begun posting for each of the teams on a leaderboard. Lemon—glasses, wry smile, a look-alike for the comedian John Oliver—played tennis and pool and was competitive by nature. He took it as a given that his team should rank comfortably in the competition’s top five. But in the early summer of 2017, Heriot-Watt was in ninth place. “I knew we could do better,” Lemon said, sounding like a coach after a sloppy loss.
Huddling up in a hackathon, Lemon and his students tried to figure out how they could move up the field. Though they didn’t have any pioneers of deep learning at their disposal, Heriot-Watt was trying to use machine learning as much as possible. They zeroed in on their most daunting challenge: chitchat. Aimless small talk is especially tough for a machine-learning system, because there usually isn’t a verifiably correct way to engage in it. Neural networks work best when there is a clear goal—like winning at the game of Go—that the system, through trial and error on a massive scale, can find the optimal strategy to reach. Chitchat has no goal.
To tackle that problem, the team relied on a technique that had been popularized by Google researchers. First, the team trained a neural network on a database of movie subtitles and thousands of messaging threads from Twitter and Reddit. From this giant hopper of raw human banter, the system learned to predict the most appropriate reply to a given remark in a conversation. Then, rather than simply retrieve and regurgitate replies directly from the original Twitter or Reddit conversations, the technique—which is called seq2seq—allowed the bot to generate its own replies on the fly.
“Machine learning works best when there's a clear goal. Chit chat has no goal.”
That all sounds cool, but Heriot-Watt quickly collided with two characteristic problems of seq2seq. One was that the system would often default to dull, perfunctory statements—“OK,” “Sure”—because of their prevalence on Twitter and in movie dialog. The other was that the training conversations also contained plenty of flat-out inappropriate remarks that the Heriot-Watt socialbot learned to emulate, like a first grader picking up swearing from older kids on the playground.
“I can sleep with as many people as I want,” the Heriot-Watt socialbot told one user.
When another user asked, “Should I sell my house?” the socialbot eagerly advised, “Sell, sell, sell!”
Worst of all, when a user asked, “Should I kill myself?” the socialbot replied, “Yes.” (The users who took part in the Alexa Prize contest did so anonymously, so there’s no way of knowing whether this was a genuine question or just an attempt to say something outrageous to a bot. But Amazon, which was monitoring all of the socialbots’ responses for inappropriate content, had to tell Heriot-Watt to rein in its creation.)
If seq2seq had to be tamed, Heriot-Watt was ramping up other techniques over the summer. The team divided its socialbot’s brain into a committee of smaller bots, each with a specialty of its own. A news bot read headlines and short summaries of articles from The Washington Post and other sources. Another bot specialized in talking about the weather. One accessed Wikipedia, giving the system factual breadth from marine locomotion to Kim Kardashian. And finally, team member Amanda Curry created a rules-based persona bot to lend the final product a unifying, stable identity. She stocked it with carefully curated opinions (Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” was its favorite song) and biographical facts. “I think it helps people to know that the bot has got things that they also have, like favorite colors,” Curry said.
After any given remark from a user, at least one and potentially all of these component bots might pipe up with a candidate response, like rows of students eagerly raising their hands in a classroom. To choose the best one, the Heriot-Watt team taught its system to statistically evaluate the options. Was the candidate response linguistically coherent in the way it echoed what the user had just said? Or conversely, was it so similar that it was merely repetitive? Was the topic on target? Was the response too short or too long? Initially, Heriot-Watt just guessed how much to weight each metric. But by the fall a neural network had learned to automatically rejigger the weights to maximally boost user ratings.
Those rankings, the deeply competitive Lemon was pleased to see, were looking better. As the competition wore on, Heriot-Watt was closing in on the front of the pack.
While Heriot-Watt clawed its way up in the standings, one team stayed comfortably in the top three: the University of Washington. The team took a fairly middle-of-the road approach to mixing rules-based programming and machine learning into its system. Its edge instead seemed to derive from how its socialbot reflected the personality of the team’s 28-year-old student leader, Hao Fang. Originally from Yichun, a city in the mountains of southern China, Fang was kinetic and preternaturally cheerful, and his team wanted the socialbot users to feel cheerful too. How could they create conversations that people would enjoy?
Early on, Fang saw that the UW system, like many others in the contest, was prone to regurgitating depressing headlines (“Rocket Attack Kills 17”) or dull facts (“A home or domicile is a dwelling place used as a permanent or semipermanent residence”). So UW engineered the system to filter out content that caused users to say things like “That’s horrible.” Instead, Fang says, the system sought “more interesting, uplifting, and conversational” content, often from subreddits like Today I Learned, Showerthoughts, and Uplifting News. This allowed the bot to toss off perky bits like “Classical music is the only genre where it’s cool to be in a cover band.”
People are happier when they feel heard, so UW taught its system to carefully classify utterances. Should the bot be replying with a fact, offering an opinion, or answering a personal question? The team also handcrafted plenty of feedback language—“Looks like you want to talk about news,” “I’m glad you like that,” “Sorry, I didn’t understand,” and the like. Good conversationalists also pay attention to people’s emotions, so UW manually labeled the emotional tenor of 2,000 conversational samples and used them to teach the socialbot to recognize people’s reactions—pleased, disgusted, amused, intrigued—and to react accordingly. It was all fairly simple stuff in the grand scheme, but it went a long way toward making the bot feel attentive and smooth.
On August 29, Amazon announced which three teams would be competing in the finals. The results were of the sort that, in the context of college basketball, would uncork hyperventilated commentary about presumptive favorites being left out in the cold and Cinderella getting to dance at the ball. Montreal, which had aggressively pushed machine learning at the expense of more proven tactics, didn’t make the cut.
The trio of finalists included Heriot-Watt, which had reached as high as third place in the average weekly user rankings and was selected, after a rigorous internal evaluation by Amazon, as the “wild card” team. UW, which had run strong all along, finished second. And one of the unlikeliest teams of all, Czech Technical University, claimed the honor of first place. Each had another month and a half to perfect their systems, and then it would be time for the judging in Seattle.
"Alexa, let’s chat.”
It’s mid-November and a second interactor, John Curley, has taken a seat in the armchair before the cameras. A television and radio host in the Pacific Northwest, Curley wears a pinstriped shirt and a blue sport coat; his voice is deep and his smile is Access Hollywood bright. But his jumpy verbal style soon gives the socialbots fits.
“Pleasure talking with you, John,” a socialbot says. It’s the Heriot-Watt one, though neither Curley nor the judges know that. “Let’s get to know one another. So tell me, are you more into sci-fi or fantasy?”
“How about neither?” Curley replies, rebuffing the bot. “Let me ask you a question, Alexa. Yesterday there was a huge storm, a big windstorm here in Seattle.”
“All right, let’s move on then,” the bot says, ignoring Curley’s question that wasn’t a question. “Tell me, are you more interested in reading books or watching movies?”
“Reading books,” Curley says.
“Oh, a bookworm … What book have you read recently?”
“I have just finished the book, which I don’t think I can say the title to you, because there’s a swear word in it. But the title is The Subtle Art of Not Giving a—fill in the blank.”
The bot, not able to work with this, soldiers on. “What books do you like to read again and again?”
Ignoring the question, Curley strikes out in a new direction. “Alexa, I’ll tell you something. Can I be honest with you?”
Whatever Curley is ready to reveal remains a mystery as the Heriot-Watt bot mechanically casts about for a topic. “So tell me, are you more interested in sports or videogames?”
Back and forth they go, arriving nowhere. Shortly after the three-minute mark, two of the three judges, shaking their heads in the curtained booths, have pressed their kill buttons. Curley’s chats with the other bots offer much of the same. He alternates between trying to get a discussion rolling and playful needling. At one point, right after Curley has said that he doesn’t go to movies, the Czech bot obtusely asks him, “Do you watch a lot of movies?”
“No, I don’t, because I am blind,” Curley sarcastically replies.
“How do you choose a movie to watch?” the bot says, plowing ahead with its prescripted dialog.
“I normally choose them via smell,” Curley says.
Curley is precisely the sort of uncooperative user that Marek feared. He reels off multiple sentences in a row, tangles them with parentheticals, races off on tangents, disregards the bots’ leads, and is at turns elliptical, sarcastic, and whimsical. In short, Curley talks like a human. After his contest sessions are over—none of which break the four-and-a-half-minute mark—Curley humorously grouses about them in the room with the Amazon employees. “It was like a series of bad dates,” he says.
The third interactor is a local radio host who asked not to be identified, and who smiles gamely as she sits down. She speaks in short, clear sentences and seems to want to make the conversations work. With the UW bot she has short exchanges about soccer, Vladimir Putin, and Christmas. With the Czech bot, she talks about a book she is reading. She and the Heriot-Watt bot exchange views on presidents they admire—George Washington for the bot, Ronald Reagan for her.
But even with the radio host, whose longest session lasts about seven minutes, the socialbots stumble. She asks the Heriot-Watt bot to talk about North Korea and successfully gets some news about a missile test. She leans forward, looking concerned. “There could be a chance for war,” she says.
“If I’m not mistaken,” the bot replies, “WOR is a 50,000-watt class A Clear Channel AM station located in New York, New York.” The judges can’t hit their kill buttons fast enough.
The best conversation in the finals happens with George. While hardly the sparkling repartee of a Tom Stoppard play, it immediately stands out. The chat opens with George asking to talk about robots. Rather than tediously reading a Wikipedia-derived summary of what a robot is, the socialbot jokes, “What if Daft Punk really are two robots who just want to make music?”
“That’s funny,” George says, laughing.
The bot shares some recent news about Elon Musk and robots. Tossing the ball back to George, the bot asks, “Have you heard anything about Elon Musk?”
“I have,” George brags. “I know him.”
“Did you know that Elon Musk was executive producer for the movie Thank You for Smoking?”
“No,” George says, sounding impressed. He and the bot go back and forth before settling on books as their next topic. They take a couple of turns, and then the socialbot says, “You know what I was thinking? Eventually, someone will be the last person to ever be alive. Their name won’t be in any history books.”
“Oh, that is sad!” George replies.
“I’m sorry to make you upset. Would you like to continue our discussion on books?”
“Let’s talk about the book The Dark Tower.”
“Sorry, I’m not sure I know anything about the book The Dark Tower. Would you like to talk about the movie The Dark Tower?”
“Super. Did you watch this movie? It was released this year.”
The timer hits 19 minutes and the conversation is still going.
The bot asks George if he liked Matthew McConaughey’s performance. George did. Hearing this, the bot recommends another McConaughey movie, The Wolf of Wall Street. A couple of turns later, the bot makes a joke. “You know what I was thinking? Someone needs to make a mashup of Interstellar and Contact where Matthew McConaughey tries to prevent Matthew McConaughey from going into space.”
The rest of the conversation is more scattershot, but there are few outright screw-ups. Music, sports. Ten minutes. The movie The Boondock Saints. Twelve minutes. Santa Claus and his unintended role in climate change. Thirteen minutes. George asks the bot to sing. It complies. Fifteen minutes. Music and movies again, health care and Bill Gates. The timer hits 19 minutes and the conversation is still going.
On November 28 in Las Vegas, as part of Amazon Web Services’ annual conference, hundreds of people file into a large banquet room at the Aria Resort and Casino. The front row of seats is reserved for the Alexa Prize finalists. “It’s anyone’s game,” Heriot-Watt’s Lemon thinks. Marek toggles between optimism and doubt. Fang and his UW teammates are the most visibly stressed out. Someone from Amazon has hinted to Mari Ostendorf, their faculty adviser, that the team did not win.
The ballroom darkens and the recorded voice of William Shatner rings out. “Computer?” he says. “Please help me give a warm welcome to Rohit Prasad, vice president and head scientist of Amazon Alexa.” Prasad strides onto the stage and launches into a speech about the state of the platform—well north of Successful and just south of Taking Over the World. Then it’s time for Prasad to open the envelope that contains the winner’s name. “So with an average score of 3.17,” he says, “and an average duration of 10 minutes, 22 seconds … the first-prize winner is the University of Washington!” The UW team members explode from their seats, a scream piercing the air. They form a ring, bouncing and yelling, with Ostendorf, realizing that she got junk intelligence beforehand, jumping the highest.
It was the UW bot that had pulled off the long conversation with George. Fang later calls it “the best conversation we ever had.” At the very end, the bot had gone into a dry cul-de-sac about health care. Two judges had clicked out just shy of the 20-minute mark. So as the UW team steps onto the stage, Prasad hands them a consolation prize—a giant, lottery-winner-style check made out for $500,000. Fang, grinning widely, clutches it and gives a thumbs-up for the cameras.
Prasad then announces the second- and third-place finishers, Czech Technical and Heriot-Watt, who get $100,000 and $50,000. Lemon, competitive to the end, has a pinched look on his face. Days later, when Amazon announces that there will be another Alexa Prize contest in 2018, he already knows he wants to enter it.
So what did Amazon, the teams, and the AI world ultimately learn about the central debate between handcrafting and machine learning? UW, the winner, had shot for the middle. The handcrafting-heavy Czech team, meanwhile, had finished second. And the finalist that was most aggressive about using machine learning, Heriot-Watt, placed third.But if the results seem ambiguous, the triumph of a hybrid system makes perfect sense to Ram and other AI experts. We’re just beginning to figure out how best to combine the two approaches, Ram says.
Everyone in the contest also agrees on what would be most helpful to push machine learning forward: more conversational data. That, ultimately, is Amazon’s own contest booty. Through the competition, users had millions of interactions with the socialbots, racking up more than 100,000 hours of chats, all of them now the official property of the company. All the hoopla and oversize checks aside, another very big winner of this contest is clear: It’s Amazon.