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.
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.
(CNN)Louise Linton may be the most honest person in Washington. Ask her if she’s ready to leave town after a rocky start and she’ll say no — she’s just finished decorating her house.
The wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is actually just like the rest of us, if we’re to believe the secretary.
“She loves gadgets and has a bird feeder in the backyard,” says Mnuchin in ELLE magazine, which profiles Linton for its March issue.
Mnuchin also says Linton has “humility,” which is an essential point, since Linton first burst onto the public radar with an Instagram gaffe for the history books. Not only did she emerge from a government jet in designer clothes (whose labels she initially tagged in her photo) she got into a spat with a commenter who questioned whether such a display of wealth was appropriate. Linton was dragged through the social media mud. She’s since apologized, but she still regrets how she handled it.
“I was so stupid. I wish I could take it back,” Linton tells ELLE. “I wasn’t thinking about who I am. I wasn’t thinking, I am the wife of this person and thus I should act like the wife of this person.”
How exactly Linton has curbed her lifestyle to adjust to being the spouse of a Cabinet member is difficult to determine from this glossy feature, for which Linton, a Scottish native who lived for several years in Hollywood, poses in a white turtleneck sweater and little else, save a pair of $700 blue suede Christian Louboutin pumps.
She calls SoulCycle, the spinning studio which peddles cardio and feel-goodness, along with $100 leggings and $50 beanies (which Linton is wearing during her interview) her “temple,” and she likes to listen to jazz music in her $12.6 million D.C. mansion, when she’s not at the couple’s Upper East Side Manhattan apartment or the couple’s Los Angeles abode.
But that Linton’s life now falls under the particularly harsh microscope of Washington just because of who she married, perhaps shouldn’t disqualify her as being able to live the posh life she has become adapted to. That she fell in love with Mnuchin (“he’s ice, I’m fire,” she tells ELLE), brings her through a fourth dimension of sorts, a place of newness previously unfamiliar to Linton, an actress and film producer.
“When you get off the plane in Washington, nobody says, ‘Here’s a handbook of dos and don’ts now that you’re in this position. I wish they did,” she tells ELLE. “There’s a whole different set of rules.” Linton admits she’s not into politics, but her exposure to the Trump administration has been positive — she even gives a shout-out to Ivanka Trump’s shoe line: “They’re incredible.”
“I’m just a regular girl, and I’m not perfect, but I’m trying my best,” she says in the magazine. “Maybe I should wear that on a T-shirt and Instagram that. And then on the back it should say …’I’m so sorry.'”
But, should she be? Linton has become one of the most controversial women in Washington, a so-good-you-love-to-hate-her character created by the over-the-top brand of gauche she wears with an almost refreshing cluelessness. One thing you couldn’t fault Linton for is her unabashed honesty.
Asked if she would want to leave Washington, should the Trump administration become too troubled or volatile for her husband, Linton doesn’t respond with a statement of party conviction for a difficult job being done on behalf of the American people.
Rather, she wouldn’t want to go, because “I just finished decorating my house.”
Mnuchin responded in November to viral money photos
She didn’t take off those opera-length $650 black gloves while posing holding a sheet of money at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in November not because they might seem a bit much for a day trip to a government building, but because “it was kind of cold in the bureau.” (That outfit, by the way, remains hanging in her closet, but Linton hopes eventually enough time will pass and she can wear it again, adding, “I really liked it.”)
Linton admits her bevy of faux pas, intentional or not, ultimately led her to consult a Washington protocol expert.
“It’s actually really a fascinating world. The world of political etiquette. For example, gift giving. You’re not allowed to give gifts, and people aren’t allowed to give us gifts. Undue influence. Obviously we both are ethical and good people and we don’t want to mess up,” she tells ELLE, ironically unaware that she in some ways already has. “I’m trying and I’m learning,” Linton adds.
Mnuchin, for one, tells ELLE that he loves his wife unconditionally, pricey shopping habits included. “I think social media has made her misunderstood and she is not at all the person that has been portrayed. She has a huge heart, is sensitive, deeply compassionate, and kind. … She’s an incredibly warm and loving person.”
So while the rest of the country might still be coming to terms with Linton’s unique display of excess, to Mnuchin she’s very much one half of a regular Cabinet couple in the era of Trump. “[Mnuchin will] say, ‘Okay, honey, maybe we don’t do this,'”Linton says, “but he’s never harsh or critical, and he sees the humanity in me.”
It’s been an eventful week for Dropbox coming off its announcement last Friday that it was finally going public, but that doesn’t mean the business stops. The company announced plans to partner with Google today to bring native G Suite integration to Dropbox storage.
The fact is that more than 50 percent of Dropbox users have a G Suite account — which includes GMail along with Google Drive, Docs, Sheets and Slides. To this point, there hasn’t been a way to store these files in Dropbox. That has required a Google Drive account, but customer requirements can sometimes make for strange bedfellows and Dropbox and Google have been working together to bring this integration to fruition because it’s something both companies’ customers have been asking for, Quentin Clark, SVP of Engineering, Product and Design at Dropbox explained.
“Dropbox is increasingly building out its content collaboration functionality with the freedom to use whatever tools [customers] want to use on whatever platform that they want to use. This partnership is another step on that journey,” Clark told TechCrunch.
Clark points out that Dropbox has been in the process of building out these partnership deals for the last couple of years with partnerships with Microsoft, Autodesk and Adobe already on the books. This fills in a major content type that had been previously (conspicuously) missing.
He said that the two companies are in the process of working out the details of how the integration is going to work, but he expects the integration to be completed by the end of the year. When it’s done users should be able store, open and start G Suite documents in Dropbox. “The way that integration looks and feels, that’s the stuff we are finding our way together,” he said.
Clark, who has had past stints at Microsoft and SAP, says that he has learned over time that it’s incumbent upon vendors like Dropbox to focus on the needs of the users over the needs of the company. That’s why two companies that sell online storage services are willing to work together. “It is enabling best of breed and recognizing that you are going to hire your product to do a certain job and may be hiring other products to do other jobs, and you have to be at peace with that,” he said.
While the timing may seem to be close enough to the IPO announcement that it is related, the fact is the partnership has been in the works for some time. Perhaps the company wanted to put it out there to enhance their enterprise street cred prior to the IPO, but if that were the case, they weren’t saying during the legally required quiet period prior to going public.
It is worth noting that this is not the first time that Google has teamed up with another company to provide third-party storage. In fact, Diane Greene, who is head of Google Cloud, announced a partnership to make Box a third-party storage partner for Google content at the 2016 Boxworks customer conference.
1. Start doing more things alone, even if you don’t want to. Most people go a majority of their life without even knowing who they are or what they want. Spending time with yourself and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone will immensely help your growth. It will help you figure out your likes and dislikes.
2. Start admitting when you’re wrong. It’s not easy, but it’s important. You don’t want to turn into one of those people everyone complains about for never being able to apologize because you can’t swallow your pride. Admit when you’re wrong. We all make mistakes, there’s no shame in that. Owning up to it instead of trying to cover it up is a much better look.
3. Ask hard questions. Even questions you don’t necessarily want to know the answer too. Asking hard questions is tough but the answers can teach you a lot and be vital to your growth.
4. Stop wasting your time over petty things. Life is already stressful enough, the last thing you need to do is let yourself get worked up over petty little things that bring nothing but unnecessary drama to your life. It’s time to let that stuff go and focus on more important things in life.
5. Accept that road rage isn’t going to help you get anywhere any faster. Again, all it’s doing is stressing you out for no reason. You can allow that to ruin your whole morning or day if you don’t take control of your emotions now. Channel that emotion and energy into something positive and work on changing your overall mindset every time you find yourself starting to get worked up.
6. Start taking big risks. Your 20s are the time in your life to take risks and try all the things you might fail at. Start a business, travel, try different jobs fields, move across the country. You are young enough now that you will bounce back from whatever failure or setback you might encounter. Do as much as you can while you still have minimal responsibilities compared to your future self.
7. Start saving your money. Put part of every paycheck away into your Roth or at least put it in a savings account you won’t touch unless you are in dire need of it. Spending money on eating out, clothing, travel, etc., are all fun but if something goes wrong or a big expense you weren’t expecting comes up you’ll be pissed you spent $50 on shopping when you could have stashed that away into a savings account.
8. Start reading more. Reading is so vital to your growth. It expands your mind and helps you think about things from a new perspective, even fiction books. Challenge yourself to read one book a month, even one book every two months but read. Not to mention reading is a workout for your brain and is great exercise for your memory.
9. Master the art of listening. Everyone is so caught up in their own lives and what they’re doing that we tend to make all our conversations about ourselves. Stop talking about what you did and start listening to someone else. Listen, like put your phone down and really listen, to someone when they’re talking to you. It feels great when you have someone listen to you and you know they’re paying attention so practice doing that for other people. No one likes the person who constantly puts their input or opinion in and is always butting in the conversation when it’s not their turn to talk.
10. Gain more experiences. Worry less about collecting “things” in your 20s and worry more about gaining experiences. Spend more money on experiences and less money on material items. Memories and sharing moments with people will fill you a lot more than having a souvenir of a place you went.
11. Create a schedule or routine. Nothing throws your life and productivity out of whack like not being in a routine. Prioritizing your time and your to-do list becomes immensely harder when you don’t. Get a planner or bullet journal or whatever you may need to organize your life better, but utilize that to the fullest extent.
12. Realize being hungover is not a good way to spend every weekend. I don’t know about you but when I’m hungover I’m a useless piece of shit and accomplish next to nothing. Drinking is fun, but wasting an entire day being hungover is not. Like my mom says to me, you don’t have to black out every time you go out. You can still have fun without drinking so much you want to die the next day.
13. Start setting long and short-term goals with deadlines. Setting goals you can accomplish with a time frame is super important. Use Asana or your choice of organizational calendar but write down goals you can measure that you’ll actually be able to accomplish. Maybe it’s ‘write X number of articles by the end of the month’ or ‘go to the gym 3 times this week’. It’s important to write them down so you can hold yourself accountable.
14. Wake up early and start your morning off by being productive. Waking up early isn’t for everyone, I get that. Some people are night owls by nature but getting into a morning routine where you’re not always rushing out the door is so important for starting your day off on the right foot. I have a morning routine every day which helps me know what I’m doing so I’m not frantically running around before work. Know what you’re eating for breakfast, know when you’re going to shower, know what time you have to walk out the door so you’re not late. Make your morning routine a habit so it becomes easier as you go.
15. Tell the truth even when it’s hard. Honesty is incredibly important in life and will get you so much further than lying, even when it’s hard. Growing up you’re taught that consequences are always worse when you lie at first and it’s true. Making mistakes and messing up is inevitable and lying to cover it up will cause more of a negative repercussion than if you were just up front at the start.
16. Remove the toxic people from your life. This can be one of the most challenging things you do in your 20s but it’s important to realize that not everyone has your best interest at heart and some people, even if they seem close to you, would rather see you fail than succeed because they’re petty. It’s important to notice who lets you down, who holds you back, who is only around when they need something and who is truly there for you. Letting go of people you love or want to keep in your life can be extremely hard but removing yourself from those relationships can be incredibly impactful to your life.
17. Learn how to accept other people’s views that are different than your own. There are some opinions that make absolutely no sense to me but I am also aware that some people will disagree with me on my views. There are also some people who will disagree just for the sake of disagreeing. It is impossible to change everyone’s opinions. It doesn’t work. It’s important to accept that sometimes the best thing you can do is smile and nod, then walk away knowing no matter what way you tried to explain your views it wouldn’t make a difference to that person.
18. Learn how to empathize. Empathy is vital to all relationships. It’s important to understand that not everyone is in a similar situation than you. Some people have it easier and some have it much harder. It’s important to look outside the world you live in every day and look at things from a different viewpoint to react appropriately to the situations at hand.
19. Take the uncomfortable measures to learn who you are. Your 20s are when you finally start to figure out who you are and what you like. It’s so important that you stop worrying about what others may think of your decisions and do what you feel is right and necessary. You’re the only one who gets to live your life and at the end of the day, you have to do what’s best for you. I started life coaching and it made a tremendous impact in my life. It allowed me to figure out who I am and what I want.
20. Stand up for what you believe in. Stand up for what you believe in even if it isn’t what the majority believes in. You have a voice and you should use it. My only request is that you’re not an asshole about it.
21. Learn how to say no. When you don’t want to do something make sure you make that clear. Majority of people tiptoe around other people and their feelings, in turn putting themselves in situations they don’t necessarily want to be in. No is a complete sentence and you should feel comfortable using it.
22. Travel! Travel is the best way to emerge yourself in different cultures and ways of life. Travel will open your eyes to the diversity of the world and help you grasp a better understanding of others. If you can do anything in your 20s, I urge you to travel to a foreign country. It’s the most incredible, eye-opening experience and will help you put a lot in perspective and maybe even challenge your thoughts.
23. Understand and accept that not everyone has the same heart as you. This is a really hard pill to swallow, especially when you put your best intentions first and you trust others to do the same. Sometimes you will get burned, don’t let it make you hard and change your heart though. Keep being the best version of yourself you can be.
24. Understand sometimes things just aren’t mean to work out. You can love a person but it doesn’t mean it will work out or they won’t hurt you. You can love a job and still lose it. You can love a lot of different things in life but some things aren’t meant to work out no matter how much you want them too. It hurts and it sucks, but that’s life and it’s not fair. Recognizing that now will help you be prepared in the future for when things don’t go as you hope. It won’t make the pain any less but it’s important to understand.
25. Continue to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Don’t let yourself get stagnant. There is only so much happiness you can feel when things are easy and simple. It’s when you start to be challenged and things are scary that you start to feel real happiness and success. When things are easy there is no way to gain anything from it. You need new experiences, challenges, and lessons to come your way to improve and grow. Conquering challenges outside of your comfort zone, no matter how big or small, will make you highs feel so much higher, and it will feel worth it.
I shifted in my seat at the women’s ministry event; the speaker said it again.
“You are a beautiful, chosen, special woman of God. There is no one in the world like you!”
I’d heard this message dozens of times—on the radio, in books, at conferences—even emblazoned on coffee mugs and shirts at every LifeWay Store in America. It’s the same message directed at Christian women in every corner of western culture. And it’s a message that—while well-intentioned—remains deficient no matter how many times it’s preached.
You see, I’m not actually that special—and neither are you. An honest look at our humanness reveals this truth. Any woman who’s done a degree of self-reflection knows that her struggles, insecurities, and sins aren’t unique to her. They’re part of being human in a fallen world. Further, any woman who knows the depth of her own inadequacy will find these Christianized platitudes of beauty and “chosen-ness” entirely insufficient for daily victory.
I’m not saying these encouragements are false. We are God’s handiwork (Eph. 2:10). We are chosen (1 Pet. 2:9). We are unique (Matt. 10:29-31). The question is not whether or not these things are true, but whether or not this is the most important message women need to hear.
If I judged Christianity by its women’s conferences, I’d be led to believe that the Bible is no more than a series of compliments from God to man. Instead, the real story is far less complimentary and far more humiliating. Jesus didn’t come to earth because we were beautiful, special, or great. He came because we were too grossly sinful to bridge the gap between ourselves and God.
That’s not a message we want to hear from the stage of Extraordinary Women, is it? But it’s the one we need because women who think they’re pretty awesome don’t need a Savior.
Women wonder if we’re enough. Looking at the titles of the books we read, I deduce we’re entangled with insecurity, fear, and identity crises. We’re in this constant state of “struggle” with very little victory, never really living as “conquerors in Christ” (Rom. 8:37). These are real spiritual issues, but you know what? I’ve yet to see one woman set free from insecurity by being told—however repetitively—that she is beautiful. It doesn’t work, and it’s not the answer.
The truth is that, apart from the transforming power of Christ, I’m not beautiful, special, or all that unique. I’m born into sin and bent to rebellion. My insecurities and fears pulse through Adam’s blood in my veins. These can’t be rooted out with shallow “encouragements”. What I need—what every woman needs—is a soul-deep solution to the problem of sin. Insecurity is not the problem. Fear, poor self-image, marriage problems—these are just symptoms of the real disease. The disease is sin, and we all have it.
We need freedom, not compliments.
Again, it’s not a bad message. But it’s theologically deficient, and if the goal of a women’s ministry is to encourage and equip female Christians, the message has to change. The gospel is good news only to those who recognize their need for Jesus. When you create a culture that uses Jesus for little more than a spiritual feel-good, it’s no wonder the women it produces can’t get victory over anxiety, anger, insecurity, or fear. They leave our churches knowing all about themselves and knowing little about Christ.
The solution is simple. Stop preaching the easy message, and start preaching the right one. Stop exalting us as women and start exalting Christ. And here’s the amazing thing about a gospel-centric women’s ministry: when all women do is worship Jesus, the insecurities, fears, and anxieties pale in comparison to His everlasting glory.
When our eyes turn to His beauty instead of pandering to ours, insecurities die.
When our ears listen for His voice instead of listening for more about us, fear has no place.
When our minds think about who He is instead of who we are, we find an identity wrapped in eternal purpose.
That’s the crazy thing about the gospel: our pre-Jesus ugliness magnifies the beauty of God’s love. Only by understanding who we are apart from Christ can we live in daily recognition of our beauty within Him. We need to be reminded of who He is to better understand who we are.