According to Wired, Signal is adding support for the cryptocurrency MobileCoin, “a form of digital cash designed to work efficiently on mobile devices while protecting users’ privacy and even their anonymity.”
Moxie Marlinspike, the creator of Signal and CEO of the nonprofit that runs it, describes the new payments feature as an attempt to extend Signal’s privacy protections to payments with the same seamless experience that Signal has offered for encrypted conversations. “There’s a palpable difference in the feeling of what it’s like to communicate over Signal, knowing you’re not being watched or listened to, versus other communication platforms,” Marlinspike told WIRED in an interview. “I would like to get to a world where not only can you feel that when you talk to your therapist over Signal, but also when you pay your therapist for the session over Signal.”
I think this is an incredibly bad idea. It’s not just the bloating of what was a clean secure communications app. It’s not just that blockchain is just plain stupid. It’s not even that Signal is choosing to tie itself to a specific blockchain currency. It’s that adding a cryptocurrency to an end-to-end encrypted app muddies the morality of the product, and invites all sorts of government investigative and regulatory meddling: by the IRS, the SEC, FinCEN, and probably the FBI.
And I see no good reason to do this. Secure communications and secure transactions can be separate apps, even separate apps from the same organization. End-to-end encryption is already at risk. Signal is the best app we have out there. Combining it with a cryptocurrency means that the whole system dies if any part dies.
This is stupid and it will die quickly. There's far too much friction on so many levels. Again, a mature software starts adding things nobody is asking for. Hopefully whomever green lit this will feel bad and any more stupid ideas will be slow in coming.
"adding a cryptocurrency to an end-to-end encrypted app muddies the morality of the product, and invites all sorts of government investigative and regulatory meddling: by the IRS, the SEC, FinCEN, and probably the FBI."
"Signal is the best app we have out there. Combining it with a cryptocurrency means that the whole system dies if any part dies"
When you reach the end of Mundome, you may think you’ve misunderstood it completely and need to go back and read it again. That’s not only the sign of a great book about insanity but exactly what A. G. Mojtabai had in mind.
Mundome is about Richard, a sane, sober, faithful brother, and Meg, his sister trapped in some form of madness that leaves her in a near-catatonic state. Released after twelve years in an institution, Meg is now living with Richard. Each day, he struggles to pull Meg out of her fugue. He sits her at their dinner table despite the fact that her hands are bunched into fists so tightly that she cannot even hold a fork, let alone bring it to her mouth. He tries to engage her in conversation about the events of his day even though she stares ahead blankly. He sits Meg in their living room as if the two of them were an ordinary couple reading quietly after dinner, though they’re clearly not:
That evening Meg sat in the green armchair, the lamplight flaking round her shoulders. On her lap I placed the latest copy of Life magazine, open. On the page facing the story of interest was a luscious lobster dinner, a mayonnaise advertisement, complete with potato salad and pickle. Meg stared at the ad with some fixity, pursing her lips and raising the page closer to her eyes. Then she began to help herself, diving into the salad, tearing it to bits and stuffing her mouth with it. Clacking, chewing, coughing and spitting followed. I forced my hand into her mouth and cleared it, then ripped the magazine from her hands.
To distract himself from Meg’s stony isolation, Richard takes up writing, but he never gets past the beginning of stories that seem really to be about himself: “I am living at the bottom of a well. It is really very comfortable here and I see no point in moving.”
His job is another daily battle with insanity. Richard is an archivist at a city library. The library itself is stuck in limbo:
The acquisitions department continues to select books, to fill in the myriad order blanks, white, pink, green and yellow, to make out the invoices; they are as busy as spiders spinning, but the orders are never sent, the invoices are only filed away.
“This place is a warehouse, cold storage,” one of Richard’s colleagues tells him. “No action, nothing moves. It’s dead. Unreal.” Patrons die as they sit looking emptily at books and are only discovered at closing time. Answering reference desk requests, Richard finds himself going down endless threads of cross-references:
… see Marianna, an Idyll. Formed by an English Hand.
Marianna: see An English Hand.
An English Hand: see An Hue and Cry after the Funda mental Rights and Duties of Englishmen.
An Hue and Cry: see Hymn to Wealth, a Satyr.
Hymn to Wealth: see….
He chronicles the histories of the librarians before him who sat at the desk he now occupies: “Ada Nog. December 1958-May 1959…. After an uneventful day at work, Miss Nog put on her wrap, said goodnight, went home and put her head in the oven. No explanation offered or sought.”
Yet despite this atmosphere of ennui, the library staff is taut with anxiety at the rumor of a visit from an efficiency expert, a ruthless streamliner who will cut through their ranks like a man with a scythe.
All this is driving Richard to his own form of breakdown. One night, as he looks at himself in the mirror, he makes hopeless attempts to restore his connection with his emotions: “I spent the better part of an hour making faces at myself, practicing love, hatred, anger, fear, envy, lust, grief, feeling none of them but giving a careful rendition just the same.” Meg’s psychiatrist becomes concerned with Richard’s mental state, hints at the possible need for hospitalization.
All along, your heart goes out to Richard. He’s a decent, serious individual fighting to overcome powerful forces of madness and chaos.
Or is he?
As one account of Mundome puts it, “The novel has two settings — inner and outer — which fuse at the end, and only one main character, or perhaps two main characters who fuse at the end.” Are Richard and Meg, in fact, two sides of the same person? Mojtabai later said that she meant all along to leave the reader in doubt, yet until the last few pages, we accept the explanation that most fits with our sense of what’s normal. Her design becomes more obvious when we know how Mojtabai approached writing her novels: “I work backwards from the ending,” she told an interviewer. “I usually begin with a haunting final image — a recognition scene — and proceed by unpacking the implications of that image as I go.”
Mojtabai came up with her title by fusing together two words from a Latin saying: In hoc mundo me extra me nihil agere posse, which she translated as “In this world I can affect nothing outside myself.” As she notes in an introductory comment, “Mundome is a deliberately ungrammatical construction, a forced juxtaposition of words that cannot fuse without some connective of action or relation.” Which is not unlike what she does with Richard and Meg, two characters who appear polar opposites until Mojtabai forces us to see the possibility that they might actually be the same person.
The Washington Post’s reviewer Jonathan Yardley, who called Mundome one of the best novels of 1974, described the book as “an intelligent whodunit,” but admitted that was a misleading label: “One is left in the end not with the answer to whodunit, but with a complex of questions that linger in the mind.” Even if some reviewers were irritated at the book’s lingering ambiguity, most saw Mundome as an exceptionally well-constructed and written first novel. Margaret Atwood called it “an extraordinarily pure novel, pure as the contained landscapes inside glass paperweights in which the snow falls endlessly on minute figures, preserved from dust and decay by the absence of air.” Time’s reviewer said the book “erupts with dramatic clues that flare backward and forward through the narrative like thin, ignited trains of gunpowder,” and the Antioch Review called it “The most remarkable first novel published in America during the past several years.” (Mojtabai was, for the record, an Antioch alumna.)
Mojtabai drew inspiration for the novel from two sources. While an undergraduate at Antioch, she worked one summer as an intern at the Chestnut Lodge Sanatarium in Rockville, Maryland. There, she dealt with a woman diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia who’d been a patient at the clinic for over twelve years. Mojtabai found her sense of the woman transformed over the weeks of dealing with her. Shocked by her condition, she then began to think her more sane than the clinic’s staff, capable of moments of striking clarity. But later, Mojtabai came to distrust her own impressions. “Again and again,” she later wrote, “I had to confront the fact that my attempt to understand her condition was a devious way of probing my own condition. When I left the job, I was in a very shaky state and my patient was no better.”
Mojtabai was also a veteran of the strange world of a large metropolitan library. After her divorce from an Iranian man she met at Antioch, she returned with her daughter to New York City, where she taught at Hunter College before taking a job as a librarian at Columbia, where she earned her MLS in library science in 1970. She was working at the library of the City College of New York when she wrote Mundome, her first novel. As she told UC Irvine professor Dr. Carol Booth Olson, Mojtabai based her descriptions of Richard’s library and its patrons on her observation of the daily activities of the main branch of the New York Public Library.
A. G. (for Ann Grace) Mojtabai went on to write eight more novels after Mundome. Her most recent, Thirst was published by Slant Books in February 2021. It draws upon material from both her 1994 novel Called Out, about a Catholic priest dealing with the aftermath of an airliner crash outside a small West Texas town, and Soon, a collection of sketches based on Mojtabai’s own work in a hospice.
Mundome is available on the Internet Archive: Link.
Mundome, by A. G. Mojtabai
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974
We are living through a plague and things are very serious and we all need to sacrifice and endure in order to survive. We owe it to ourselves and to others to follow all of the protocols, wearing a mask, social distancing, and abiding by lockdowns and other rules from government and the medical establishment designed to prevent transmission of Covid-19. I am obeying them all and I hope that you all do too.
There has been, in these plague years, the emergence of a particular kind of creature. Though I had never encountered them before they appear to be an opportunistic parasite, one that was waiting in stasis for years to emerge into a period with the proper combination of desperation and moralism. This creature feeds on the unprecedented opportunity to lecture. It looks out and all it sees are people who are not as serious as it is, not as careful as it is, not as dedicated to protecting every life as it is. We have all failed in its eyes. I will call it, I guess, the Covid realist, for that is surely how they see themselves.
For the Covid realist, no amount of pessimism about the virus is deep enough. No amount of adherence to the rules is strict enough. No surrender to the inevitability of more and more restrictions is complete enough. With the Covid realist you learn quickly that the only correct response is to nod along more deeply with every new, more pessimistic thing they say. Every utterance becomes a referendum not only on your apprehension of where we stand relative to the virus but on whether you are willing to accept the harsh, brutal truths of the Covid realist.
The Covid realist religiously follows the Atlantic‘s pompous, self-impressed, imperious coverage. The Covid realist says, “you think you’ll be able to see your friends after the vaccine? Fat chance!” The Covid realist tells you that, when you’re feeling upbeat about the medical advances, the virus could always mutate. The Covid realist wants you to know that you’ll never see the lower half of a stranger’s face again. When you say that you’re looking forward to going to a basketball game next fall the Covid realist says, “Ha, good luck.” The Covid realist thinks that imagining holding a birthday party a year from now is not only deluded, but irresponsible. The Covid realist does not just want to regulate your behavior. The Covid realist wants to purify your thoughts.
The existence of idiots who resist masks and dismiss the virus as a hoax is lamentable. But while making up your mind to be the opposite is better than that alternative, it is also a way to make yourself into a cruel person, cruel and self-satisfied and righteous. It is a way to trade on other people’s misery to attain some sort of momentary social standing in an exchange which should never have been a contest in the first place. The restrictions we are enduring as a response to Covid are devastating. The human costs of lockdowns are immense. People die due to lockdowns. People miss their last opportunities to see their loved ones during lockdown. Children and teachers struggle through compromised schooling. Battered wives and neglected children are forced by the circumstances of lockdown to stay in dangerous environments. And the things we are locked out of, the restaurants and bars and museums and ballgames and concerts – these things are the stuff of life, the stuff of human social life, the kind of things that we endure the grind for.
Let people feel things. Follow all of the protocols strictly. Advocate for others to do so, even stridently. Be pessimistic in your assessments when you feel it’s appropriate. But let people feel things. Including optimism. Including investing great hopes in the vaccine. Including planning ahead for better futures, like ones where they don’t have to visit their parents through a window or where they can walk around in a park without a mask. This fucking sucks. It hurts so bad. I am surviving but that’s what it is, surviving. To be a Covid realist is to say to most everyone, “you are failing, even at this, at surviving.” Don’t be one.
A thing I liked about The Social Dilemma was the evocative image of oneself being in an epic contest for one’s attention with a massive and sophisticated data-nourished machine, tended by teams of manipulation experts. The hopelessness of the usual strategies—like spur-of-the-moment deciding to ‘try to use social media less’—in the face of such power seems clear.
But another question I have is whether this basic story of our situation—that powerful forces are fluently manipulating our behavior—is true.
Some contrary observations from my own life:
The phenomenon of spending way too long doing apparently pointless things on my phone seems to be at least as often caused by things that are not massively honed to manipulate me. For instance, I recently play a lot of nonograms, a kind of visual logic puzzle that was invented by two people independently in the 80s and which I play in one of many somewhat awkward-to-use phone apps, I assume made by small teams mostly focused on making the app work smoothly. My sense is that if I didn’t have nonograms style games or social media or news to scroll through, then I would still often idly pick up my phone and draw, or read books, or learn Spanish, or memorize geographic facts, or scroll through just anything on offer to scroll through (I also do these kinds of things already). So my guess is that it is my phone’s responsiveness and portability and tendency to do complicated things if you press buttons on it, that makes it a risk for time consumption. Facebook’s efforts to grab my attention probably don’t hurt, but I don’t feel like they are most of the explanation for phone-overuse in my own life.
Notifications seem clumsy and costly. They do grab my attention pretty straightforwardly, but this strategy appears to have about the sophistication of going up to someone and tapping them on the shoulder continually, when you have a sufficiently valuable relationship that they can’t just break it off you annoy them too much. In that case it isn’t some genius manipulation technique, it’s just burning through the goodwill the services have gathered by being valuable in other ways. If I get unnecessary notifications, I am often annoyed and try to stop them or destroy the thing causing them.
I do often scroll through feeds for longer than I might have planned to, but the same goes for non-manipulatively-honed feeds. For instance when I do a Google Image search for skin infections, or open some random report and forget why I’m looking at it. So I think scrolling down things might be a pretty natural behavior for things that haven’t finished yet, and are interesting at all (but maybe not so interesting that one is, you know, awake..)
A thing that feels attractive about Facebook is that one wants to look at things that other people are looking at. (Thus for instance reading books and blog posts that just came out over older, better ones.) Social media have this, but presumably not much more than newspapers did before, since a greater fraction of the world was looking at the same newspaper before.
In sum, I offer the alternate theory that various technology companies have combined:
about things they are at least somewhat interested in
that everyone is looking at
situated in an indefinite scroll
on a responsive, detailed pocket button-box
…and that most of the attention-suck and influence that we see is about those things, not about the hidden algorithmic optimizing forces that Facebook might have.
Yet another vaguely menacing warning from a reader who knows better than I what I should be reading: “You seem intelligent. Why waste your time reading this racist shit? Read Frantz Fanon if you want to learn something.” This was in response to something I had recently written about H.L. Mencken. I remember when Fanon was fashionable, when people who carried around the Grove Press edition of The Wretched of the Earth also conspicuously displayed a copy of Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. Though they wished to give the impression that they were readers, these were not the sort of people who enjoyed or had a gift for the art of conversation, so I tended to avoid them.
In his introduction, titled “A Little Book,” to Max Beerbohm: A Kind of Life (Yale University Press, 2002), N. John Hall brings up another reader who seldom had compunctions about telling others what they should and should not read:
“In reading Max we might also take a cue from Harold Bloom on reading, even while we acknowledge that Bloom holds no special brief for comedy, is himself not a Maximilian, and has become something of a crank. Yet his aesthetically driven words on reading seem pertinent.”
Hall quotes Bloom quoting Dr. Johnson: “Clear your mind of cant, i.e. of sectarian thinking,” and then quotes Bloom himself (from How to Read and Why – a title that has always offended me): “[H]e urges, Do not attempt to improve your neighbor or your neighborhood by your reading.”
For once, Bloom is right on the money. I would add to his proviso: “and by your writing.” Leave people alone. Most are not stupid. Let them make up their own minds. We don’t want to be sermonized. We're not children. Such presumption is an ugly vice. In a review published in First Things, John Wilson correctly notes that “didacticism in fiction is all the rage.” Didacticism, in fact, is the enemy of not just fiction but most of literature. So is humor, as here exemplified by two of its masters, Mencken and Beerbohm. Hall writes in his introduction:
“A caveat, if you will, about reading Max or looking at his caricatures: you and I must try not to be lulled into acceptance of the received idea that because a thing is amusing, or light, or comic, it is not serious or important.”