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May 31, 2005
Well, that was vexing
Posted by Patrick at 06:53 AM * 11 comments

We were down from mid-afternoon yesterday until sometime last night. The server on which nielsenhayden.com is hosted suffered some kind of drastic hardware failure. Our provider has now migrated us to a new machine and everything should work as well (or poorly) as before.

May 27, 2005
Getting serious about “getting serious”
Posted by Patrick at 11:53 AM *

Atrios discusses self-identified “liberal hawks”:

The primary conceit of the “liberal hawks” has been and is that only they are “serious” about the security of the nation. Support for the Iraq war demonstrated that seriousness, no matter how misguided it was. The truth is concern for our national security was a very real reason to oppose the Iraq war, and the primary reason for lots of its opponents.
He’s right. The reason so many in the Democratic “base” are infuriated over being lectured by the likes of Peter Beinart and Joe Biden about the need to “get serious about national security” is that the people delivering the lectures are precisely those who were wrong about one of the most important national security questions of our time. As a result we’ve spent $172 billion and 1600 American lives, damaged our military immeasurably, trashed America’s global reputation for justice and fair play, and given the bin Ladens of the world a gift that will keep on giving for generations to come. The entire enterprise has made us profoundly less secure. Meanwhile, I live three blocks from New York Harbor, and port security is still, by all reports, a complete joke.

The fact of the matter is that the supposed distance between self-identified “national security Democrats” and the allegedly dovish party “base” is based on a self-serving slur promulgated by people with something to hide. The NSDs want to impute that run-of-the-mill Democrats and liberals have a deficit of temperament, a persistent inability to understand that sometimes America has got to go out and kill people. In the wake of being spectacularly wrong about Iraq, the NSDs are even more eager to promote this.

It is, of course, a bum rap. Liberal Democrats like Atrios, or me, aren’t remotely opposed to “national security.” We’re strongly in favor of it. Getting killed because I’m an American, at home or overseas: bad. Spending money and resources to protect me from getting killed: good. Maintaining a strong military, at least until planetary utopia breaks out and there are free Jill Johnston posters for everyone: really good. Making all of that far harder, and increasing my likelihood of getting killed, because some politicians and pundits needed to “look tough”: really, really bad. Likelihood that I’m going to take my cues on “national security” from those politicians and pundits: low.

At times it all seems like some sort of Bizarro World faith-versus-works argument. Liberals wind up being the ones pointing out, endlessly, that national security is provided by actual practices, not just by holding your face right. Meanwhile popinjays like Joe Biden desperately file their chins to razor-sharpness in the probably vain hope that the electorate, having sometimes demonstrated a preference for strutting phonies, will mistake them for one. And of course the fact remains, as the Poor Man never ceases to remind us: Michael Moore is fat.

Gasoline and fluorescent tubes
Posted by Teresa at 10:50 AM *

It would almost be funny if they hadn’t been seriously injured, but they were, so it’s just painful:

Two hurt in mock light sabre duel

A man, aged 20, and a girl of 17 are believed to have been filming a mock duel when they poured fuel into two glass tubes and lit it.

The pair were rushed to hospital after one of the devices exploded in woodland at Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. A videotape was found nearby by police called to the scene on Sunday.

A police spokeswoman said the pair were taken to West Herts Hospital before being transferred to the specialist burns unit at Broomfield Hospital, Chelmsford, in Essex. They are both said to be in a critical condition.
I’m struck by how unavoidable this was. We’re a technologically empowered society that doesn’t require its members to understand physics, chemistry, ballistics, or the virtue of testing something (preferably from a distance) before you use it.

Mistakes will be made. The only thing that keeps them from happening oftener than they do is that non-techies don’t usually act on their ideas.

You want proof that magic doesn’t actually work? If it did, there’s no way that ignorant practitioners wouldn’t be committing equivalent screwups, and sooner or later there’d be an incident that was too obvious to explain away.

Addendum: Posted to the comment thread by John M. Ford:
The following information is provided as a service to our customers.

Welcome, Padawan! Your acquisition of an Incom-Flickertek “Divisa-S” Lightsaber is the beginning of an exciting future of Galactic wisdom and influence. Regardless of your choice of Force paths, the Divisa series offers a lifetime of subtle and precise striking down.

However, as with all ancient weapons, the lightsaber requires care in use and handling. We hope you will find the following tips useful:

—Remember the sequence: Flourish-Force-Flash. First, draw the saber, using your favored technique, or one you learned in some obscure font of Jedi stuntwork. Then, use the Force! Objects that might be in the beam path will cause disturbances that, with a little practice, you will recognize very quickly. (Of course, you will recognize them quickly no matter what.) Once clear, ignite the blade. After all, it’s tough to face down the foe with one knee, even if it was already cybernetic.

—The lens assembly goes through a self-cleaning cycle on each ignition. However, if the saber has not been ignited for some time, or the lens has acquired a heavy coat of debris (smoke, droid lube, bodily fluids, etc.) peripheral effects may occur on ignition. Some Jedi find entering through a cloud of smoke dramatic and even useful. If, however, the saber fails to ignite, or shows a highly specular beam, accompanied by unusual sounds and a smell like frying womp-rat, turn the saber off and use a non-abrasive cleaner on the lens at the first opportunity. Allow solvents to evaporate fully before re-installing the assembly. Note: use of chewing tobacco, while still popular in some corners of the galaxy, is NOT recommended for lightsaber operators.

—Throwing the lightsaber at a distant enemy, and then recovering it with adroit Force use, is a dramatic way to enter any room, but it requires practice. The SwashLITE™ Practice Saber, available to match the weight and balance of all our lightsaber models, is highly recommended for those intending to “fling the Force.” It has a holographic simulated blade that generates an audible tone when it passes through a target. As a saber owner, you’re entitled to a considerable discount on the SwashLITE; contact your Incom sales rep.

—Other Padawans may tell you that turning the Proni collimator 90 degrees within the casing will cause “cool things” to happen on ignition. THEY ARE WRONG.

—Most Jedi personalize their sabers with a custom-fitted grip, a distinctive color crystal, decorative though nonfunctional pieces of shiny metal, and so on. Be advised that the external casing, while as durable as our technology can make it, is not indestructible, and cutting or engraving the case, particularly with another lightsaber, is not recommended and will void your warranty.

—Sooner or later you’re going to sever a hand—either your own, or someone else’s. We all know it happens. But do you know the best method for dealing with this emergency? Here’s our handy reference:
1. Finish the fight as quickly as possible. If the lopped limb was yours, you may need to improvise something beyond the scope of this guide.

2. Extinguish the saber and clean the lens assembly as described above.

3. While the case is open, check the power cell connector for sticky bits. It’s a good idea to wipe down the casing with a soft cloth, as circulatory fluids vary widely in chemical composition.

4. Locate the missing limb and use appropriate measures (cold storage, liquid bath, jumping up and down on it until it gives up).

5. If the former owner of the limb is not of a self-regenerating species, some medical assistance may be necessary, though the remarkable cauterizing powers of a lightsaber blade should make this a minor matter. (If the wounded individual was a Nitronyx, of course, now is the time to gather the bits for the Echo Ceremony).
The above guide is available as a wipe-clean laminated card free from your Incom tech rep. —We shouldn’t say it, but we’re going to: an upright lightsaber makes a great accent light for romantic situations, and in our considerable experience as lonely tech geeks is a swell chick magnet. That’s why we make the LavaLase™ upright table bracket, that keeps the saber upright no matter how energetically you “turn to the Dark Side.”

Art vs. the tick-box
Posted by Patrick at 09:55 AM * 63 comments

SF writer Ian McDonald realizes with a start that his latest novel, River of Gods, meets all the demands of the “Mundane SF” manifesto. But, he observes, he wrote it—

without knowing of the Mundane Manifesto, let alone that such a movement existed, and certainly without having read a single word of the dogme. If I had, it would have been much worse a book for it. For at one level you can call such a dogme creative constraint. At another it’s box ticking. Ignorance, in my case, was bliss. And I wish I was ignorant again, because I don’t want those boxes there, to either have to tick or ignore. The real creative freedom is the constraint of writing the book you want to write, nothing more. And that can be very very hard in as small and communicative a world as SF.

Will I then be co-opted against my will, like being converted to Mormonism after your death? (How unfair is that? Now you really canít win.)

It’s not just the Mundane Manifesto is totally unnecessary to produce the type of science-fiction it celebrates (one very very much worth celebrating, and that is due its time in the sun), it’s that the genre has a much richer palate of colours. It’s a poor manifesto that would venerate Verne (tech-speculation) but consigns much of H.G. Wells’ core texts to the ‘bonfire of stupidities’ (interplanetary war, aliens, time-travel). To me, one of the strengths of SF is that it is an allegorical literature: parables and myths of our age. That TV has appropriated and devalued many of them is tribute to their strength, not their weakness. To me, any literature that writes about the future (not all SF does by any means) cannot be realist…, to quote likelihood of a possible future is just hand waving.

I tend not to write about big space-ships, interstellar travel (in my work, it tends to be uncomfortable and very very slow) or aliens. In this way, my work may seem to fit the Mundane Manifesto. But when I need to, I will use those colours to make the allegorical point I want. In Sacrifice of Fools I used the alien Shian in a pastiche of the movie Alien Nation (great premise, shit movie—just another stupid drugs film, eventually) because they were the most effective tool to satirise my own country of Northern Ireland. Had I applied the dogme of MSF, I fear it would have become a dull, tendentious, grim and worthy chunk of urban grime. (Of course, you may very well think this about SoF anyway.)

Right. SF isn’t futurology, although futurology is one of its several methods.

On the larger matter, I’m once again drawn back to Chip Delany’s point, in a New York Review of Science Fiction essay from two or three years ago, that we need to stop trying to define SF, and work on describing it instead. As Chip observed, definitional arguments, by their nature, invariably wind up quibbling over edge cases at the expense of examining the broad middle. In a way I can’t quite lay my finger on, it seems to me that the turn of mind that’s attracted to definitional argument—a turn of mind well-represented in our subcultures—is also the turn of mind that makes check-box manifestos. And that while this kind of quibbling and box ticking definitely scratches an itch, it’s not the same itch as the one that leads to art.

May 26, 2005
Loss of suspension
Posted by Teresa at 09:53 AM * 240 comments

Jackmormon, over at Not Yet Enlightened, writes about reading the novels of Perez-Reverte, and a catastrophic realization that hit him while reading The Fencing-Master:

So what kind of a book is this? It’s not noir, which admits the imperfections of its protagonists, exposes systematic social corruption, and maintains some narrative suspense. It’s not historical fiction, which usually explains a few things about how recent events shape the lives of the characters. No, this book is a Gary Stu fantasy.
I’ve never seen a better evocation of that terrible moment when you see too far into the emotional strategies of a work of fiction, and it falls dead for you. There’s no retrieving it. That moment of insight recolors all your previous readings, so that what was once fascinating is now just painful.

I’ve only ever seen one instance where it was salvaged. When I was a kid, I happily read Poul Anderson’s Dominic Flandry stories. When I got older they turned to ashes in my mouth, around the time I noticed what a shallow manipulative SOB Flandry is, and how often his exploits are paid for by the women in his vicinity. Then, much later, Poul Anderson paid off the series’ debts in full with the stark and (in my opinion) underrated A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows.

I was long past being a kid by then, certainly past believing that writers have any obligation to deserve the trust we give them; so the sense of relief and reassurance I felt came as a complete surprise. It surprises me still.

May 25, 2005
The object of the game
Posted by Patrick at 02:04 PM *

One advantage of joining the staff of Making Light is that I can now pull particularly good bits of Teresaness out of the depths of the comment section and repost them to the front page. Like this, discussing the actual agenda of the “Dominionist” right wing:

These guys are going after mechanisms of social control. For instance, if they genuinely wanted to reduce the incidence of abortion and unwanted teen pregnancy, they’d support birth control education, which they don’t. If on the other hand you want to make women less uppity, fear of unplanned pregnancy is a great way to do it.

I firmly believe there’s a correlation between the advent of reliable and widely available contraception, and even more of one with access to abortion, and the loss of turf suffered by those light-in-the-upper-window gothic romances best characterized as “boy gets girl, girl gets really big house.” Right around the time Roe vs. Wade was decided, those novels began to be supplanted on the paperback racks by bodice-rippers starring sexually active heroines who got out there and seized control of their own destinies.

In the older gothic romances, even a heroine with a nominally successful career will generally toss it aside in favor of wuv, twoo wuv, in the form of marriage to a wealthy man. It made sense at the time. A career is a much less attractive gamble if at any point over a twenty-year period you can get shot down by an unplanned pregnancy. Access to abortion changes that. Doesn’t mean you like the idea. But you conduct your life more boldly if you know it’s an option, because you’re not risking catastrophe if you don’t have your fallback position already in place.

Why did the sedate Fifties explode into the freewheeling Sixties? An overall rise in income had a lot to do with it. Turns out that as soon as people have resources to spare, they start getting up to all kinds of weird stuff.

I’m convinced that social control is a lot of the motivation behind the attack on Social Security. It’s a lot easier to be brave and independent and entrepreneurial if there isn’t a little voice in your head telling you that if you screw up, you’ll die in a poorhouse. That goes double if you’re female, or a person of color, or a member of some other deprecated category. Reinstating the fear of an impoverished old age would do wonders to clear the field for well-funded white guys with good connections, and thin out those pesky innovators who do so much to make life less predictable for large corporations.

Comments closed on this post; go instead to the originating conversation, still in progress.

May 24, 2005
Making Lighter
Posted by Teresa at 08:24 PM * 51 comments

If you’re reading the web via handheld, an older browser, a low-res display of some sort, text-to-speech software, or lynx/links, you may find it easier to read the stripped-down version of Making Light.

Mind, if it’s all the same to you which version of Making Light you read, I’d just as soon you read the regular one, because that way you get counted for purposes of setting advertising rates; but the important thing is that you can read it.

The deal
Posted by Patrick at 05:18 PM * 179 comments

Victory for the Democrats, or giant steaming pile of monkey crap? You may want to sit down for this shocking news, but…left-leaning bloggers disagree.

Personally, I’m still thinking it over. Meanwhile, for some cogent blogospheric comments that haven’t already been quoted to death, click through to the extended entry.

That sees beyond the years
Posted by Patrick at 04:24 PM * 79 comments

The BBC reports:

A court and execution chamber could be built at the US detention camp in Cuba under plans being drawn up by military officials.
King of Zembla asks the pertinent question:
Would that be one room, or two?
Jeanne D’Arc reads the news stories most of us can’t bear to finish, or even begin:
Dilawar was a shy, frail, uneducated cab driver who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time — driving past a base that had been the target of a rocket attack earlier in the day. He was arrested by Afghan militiamen who turned him over to the Americans. This past February, the commander of that militia was himself arrested. He is suspected of attacking the base and turning over innocent men like Dilawar to the Americans in order to curry favor with our military. Before Dilawar’s final interrogation, the one that finally killed him, most of the interrogators had already realized that he was innocent.

We snatched an innocent young man out of his quiet life and beat him to death, even after we knew he was innocent.

Ken MacLeod knows how this sort of thing ends.

May 23, 2005
Lo heere
Posted by Teresa at 08:56 PM * 117 comments

Welcome to Making Light, incorporating Electrolite.

Open thread 41
Posted by Patrick at 04:35 PM *

“Always remember this: that magic belongs as much to the heart as to the head and everything which is done, should be done from love or joy or righteous anger.”

May 22, 2005
Articles of confederation
Posted by Teresa at 07:33 PM *

Er. Um. For some time now, Patrick and I have been kicking around the idea of merging Electrolite and Making Light, with the combined weblog to be called Making Light. Mind, Electrolite’s not being shut down; rather, it’s being folded in. Links to Electrolite’s URL will automatically be re-routed here.

I mention this because it’s taken me a while to get used to the idea, and I thought the changeover might be easier if you have some time to get used to it too.

May 20, 2005
Further technical note
Posted by Patrick at 05:11 PM *

We’re giving up on TrackBack. Too much spam, not enough benefit. When I have a moment I’ll home-brew some way to link from each post to a Technorati or Feedster search for inbound links from other sites; meanwhile, while nielsenhayden.com will still send TrackBack pings to sites to whom we link, we’re no longer publishing incoming pings.

If the above paragraph barely reads as English, quickly make yourself one of these, sit down, put your feet up, and have yourself fanned by burly minions until the confusion passes. Repeat as necessary.

May 19, 2005
Like expertise, only different
Posted by Teresa at 10:50 AM * 163 comments

We are this day in receipt of two trade paperback collections of essays, by asst’d authors, on how to write a particular subcategory of Our Beloved Genre.

Of the authors of the essays collected in the first volume, the one with the most substantial English-language commercial fiction credentials once sold a story to a Marty Greenberg/Mike Resnick anthology. The second volume is only slightly better in terms of its authors’ credentials.

The typography and interior design are dreadful. If you’re going to use seriously oversized type for your main text, and justify your columns, there must be hyphenated wordbreaks.

Only some of the advice is dubious or erroneous, but almost all of it is elementary: yup, the constant use of invincible power makes for dull storytelling. At best, it rises to heights like “When you’re worldbuilding, remember that governments always have factions,” or “In a society that has a commonly available technology that can knock down walls, military defense is not going to rely on castles.”

For reasons of tact, I’m not going to quote my favorite piece of bad advice found thus far.

Here are my own pieces of advice:

1. When you’re writing material like this, and you need to show how something should be done, take your examples from the works of well-regarded authors who aren’t you. This will make you look knowledgeable, and avoids potential embarrassment.

2. Consider Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Ask yourself whether you’re saying anything she didn’t already cover.

3. Hasn’t that cat been vacuumed enough?

May 17, 2005
Small technical note
Posted by Patrick at 08:06 AM * 17 comments

[Patrick here:] Anyone who’s had problems lately with innocuous comments being inexplicably rejected for “unacceptable content” should try again; I think I’ve weeded out the string that was causing it. Our apologies.

May 14, 2005
Which sf writer?
Posted by Teresa at 03:42 PM *

I got to fiddling with the Which Science Fiction Writer Are You? test. I already knew two reasons not to take it seriously: (1.) Greg Benford is one of its easiest-to-get results, but when Greg Benford took it, it told him he was Arthur C. Clarke; and (2.) the test is unshakably convinced that I’m Kurt Vonnegut.

But validity isn’t the point here. I was fiddling with it to see if I could predict which stereotypes would result in which author. My first attempt was successful: I answered as though I were Jerry Pournelle, and got Jerry Pournelle.

Cool. I next tried answering as though I were David Brin. It told me I was Greg Benford. That didn’t seem too far off. Neither was getting Olaf Stapledon when I was trying for Cordwainer Smith, or Hal Clement when I was trying for Poul Anderson, or Alice Sheldon when I was trying for Ursula K. LeGuin. (When I tried for Alice Sheldon, it gave me Olaf Stapledon.)

So, not too bad. I was a little brought down when I tried for J. G. Ballard and got Octavia Butler instead, but then I scored again: answered as Samuel R. Delany, got Samuel R. Delany. Go, me!

Then I hit the wall. How is it that I can’t get this test to tell me I’m Bill Gibson, Fred Pohl, Harlan Ellison, or Robert A. Heinlein? No set of answers that falls within the parameters of what I know about Heinlein has worked so far. Two out of three times it tells me I’m Hal Clement, and the rest of the time it says I’m Arthur C. Clarke.

Any range of answers that’s plausible for Harlan Ellison will get you Philip K. Dick.

Fred Pohl was a long shot, but it was interesting to see the results. As I varied my responses, it told me I was John Brunner, Frank Herbert, and Stanislaw Lem.

Getting Bill Gibson was a lot tougher than I’d anticipated. First time I tried, it returned Greg Benford, which is just wrong. I varied the anwers. Greg Benford again. I varied them some more. Still Greg Benford. I stretched them as far as I could, and it came back with Samuel R. Delany.

Later, I accidentally discovered that you can get Bill Gibson by saying the grand theme of life you focus on most often is “rape and mind control”—which I would never have identified as one of his primary themes—and that cybernetics is your favorite technology. To my mind, that combination ought to yield Alice Sheldon.

Three more oddments. If you answer as “stereotypical loud right-winger,” you get Doc Smith. The range of answers I would have predicted would yield one of the post-New Wave feminists—Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Suzy Charnas, Lizzy Lynn, Vonda McIntyre, etc.—instead turns up John Brunner, whom the test identifies as a dystopian. And if you say your main theme is “futility and confusion,” then configure the rest of your answers to make it impossible for the test to identify you as Kurt Vonnegut, it’ll tell you you’re Mickey Spillane.

May 02, 2005
Open thread 40
Posted by Teresa at 10:10 AM *

Bot thenne the weder of the worlde wyth wynter hit threpes, Colde clenges adoun, cloudes uplyften,
Schyre schedes the rayn in schowres ful warme,
Falles upon fayre flat, flowres there schewen.
Bothe groundes and the greves grene ar her wedes,
Bryddes busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of the softe somer that sues therafter… (via)

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