April 23, 2014
Dysfunctional Families, the Role-Playing Game
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:08 PM * 18 comments

They do say that the family that plays together, stays together. So here’s a game for the whole family. Do it thoroughly enough, and your kids will never really stop playing!

The object of the game is to control the stories the family tells about itself. Gameplay is broken up into Narratives. Each Narrative has a Viewpoint Character (VC), whose opinions are to be treated as fact for the entire Narrative. Note that two VCs can share a Narrative if they agree on all significant points.

The same real-world event (e.g. a holiday dinner) can be the subject of different Narratives from different VCs. Advanced players (like families with grown children) can play with different VCs at the same time for extra realtime conflict, but beginners should probably start with one Narrative per event. That’s all most VCs will allow, anyway.

Before the game starts, the VC will assign everyone (including themselves) a Role. These Roles will define their personalities and constrain their actions in the Narrative. Note that neither the Roles nor the events of the Narrative have to map to objective reality. Very experienced VCs can create a seamless Narrative that not only bears no resemblance to actual events, but supplants them in everyone’s memory.

April 21, 2014
Open thread 196
Posted by Patrick at 09:40 AM * 125 comments

From rec.arts.sf.written, 1994: “Help Me Make an SF Course”. The messages are a little out of order in the Google Groups archive, but you’ll get the gist.

Evidently I wasn’t kidding when I said, in this thread, “Now that many of us have slapped [REDACTED] down for having the temerity to say what I imagine rather a few others were thinking, let me say that I read his ill-considered, unfair, over-the-top, profane, and personally abusive flame, and enjoyed just about every word of it.” Because it appears that I not only declared my enjoyment of it, but I also saved a copy to my hard drive, where—twenty years and uncounted hard drives later—it turned up this morning while I was looking for something else. Causing me to fall out of my chair when I realized who [REDACTED] was.

[REDACTED] is much more famous now, and not known for flaming; quite the opposite, his public persona is thoughtful and measured. I do hope he doesn’t mind this brief glimpse into Usenet-That-Was. We’ve all been a lot of different people over time. Some of us did it in online text. Before that, some of us even did it in mimeo ink…

Footnote: I also said “Incidentally, in substance, [REDACTED]’s flame was hardly different from Chip Delany’s “Letter to a Critic,” the first piece in his The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (1977). Delany’s anger is ground down to a finer grain, but it’s the same anger.” I still think that’s true.

Continued from Open thread 195.

April 20, 2014
On the science-fiction world’s topic du jour
Posted by Patrick at 01:00 PM * 233 comments

I pretty much agree with this.

On suggestions that the Hugo Awards process is hopeless, terrible, should be replaced by a panel of experts / my friends / cosmic overminds from Aldebaran: Yes, well. The Hugos are what they are—a popular award for certain kinds of SF and fantasy-related activities, open to anyone who wants to participate and who’s willing to buy a Worldcon membership. And administered by volunteers who are responsible for keeping procedures in compliance with a set of rules maintained and amended over several decades in a democratic, transparent process open to all Worldcon members. Of course that means the Hugos have flaws. So do juried awards, your friends, and, probably, cosmic overminds from Aldebaran. Best advice: Enjoy awards; don’t let them bend you too far out of shape.

On not being a finalist this year for Best Professional Editor (Long Form): Look! There isn’t a single person who’s been nominated in this category every year since it began in 2007. This is a mark of a successful category. Meanwhile, all of the five people who are finalists are entirely deserving—and whichever one wins, they’ll be a first-time winner.

On stories from Tor.com making up over one-third of the short-fiction finalists: LOUD CRIES OF WOO HOO. And congratulations to Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages (“Wakulla Springs,” best novella), Charles Stross (“Equoid,” best novella), Mary Robinette Kowal (“The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” best novelette), Thomas Olde Heuvelt (“The Ink Readers of Doi Saket,” best short story), and Viable Paradise alumnus John Chu (“The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere,” best short story).

Oh, and for those of you going “huh?”, here’s the full list of this year’s Hugo Award finalists. Let the commenting begin!

April 12, 2014
De-localization of sex in art: a theory
Posted by Teresa at 05:41 PM * 88 comments

Assuming a popularly-supported art form, i.e. one that has a broad audience, and survives on payments from individual members of that audience, or from advertisers who target that audience:

Banning sex in art doesn’t get rid of sex. It only de-localizes and diffuses it, so that it becomes ubiquitous, unacknowledged, dumbed-down, and largely normative.

I remember the liberalization of censorship of both text and images in the 1960s. The overall effect, it seemed to me, was that sex got less creepy. You could tell where it was and where it wasn’t.

April 10, 2014
Tending the Dikes of the Internet
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:48 PM * 52 comments

…en in alle gewesten
wordt de stem van het water
met zijn eeuwige rampen
gevreesd en gehoord.

…and in all quarters
is the voice of the water
with its eternal disasters
feared and obeyed.
Herinnering aan Holland, by Hendrik Marsman

Russel Shorto, the New York Times’ go-to Batavophile, has an interesting article up right now: How to Think Like the Dutch in a Post-Sandy World. It discusses the work of Henk Ovink, a Dutch water manager and senior advisor to Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Ovink, who appears to have taken on the role because he was bored out of his skull by how controlled water is back home, is helping HUD to create water policies and to plan for future flooding.

Obviously, there are culture clashes.

Dutch battles against water led his country to develop a communal society. To this day, Water Boards, which date to the Middle Ages, are a feature of every region, and they guide long-term infrastructural planning. American individualism, on the other hand, has yielded a system in which each municipality has a great deal of autonomy, making regional cooperation difficult. “The vulnerabilities are regional,” said Judith Rodin, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which is the main funding organization working with Donovan’s team. “Yet we have individual community rule, and very little incentive to get out of that.”

Shorto brings out the deep historical roots of the Dutch communal approach to water management. But he only briefly waves at another important element of the culture’s relationship with the discipline: the memory of past catastrophes, particularly the 1953 Watersnoodramp, the great flood that displaced tens of thousands of people and covered nearly a tenth of the Netherlands’ agricultural land. The disaster occurred when the North Sea, whipped up by storm winds and swollen with spring tide, overtopped the coastal dikes and ate them out from the vulnerable landward side. They hadn’t been built to resist water from the land. It was a critical vulnerability, the sort of thing that happens when there’s more risk than there is money to meet it.

In the aftermath of the disaster came some of the country’s most dramatic water engineering: the Delta Works, which shortened coastlines, moved the fresh/saltwater lines, and culminated with the massive Oosterscheldekering. It was a terrifically difficult and expensive project: people not only had to adapt to some substantial changes to the landscape, but also pay for their neighbors’ safety. If you live below sea level, the security of the dikes is everyone’s business in the end.

But while we’re clicking around, reading about Ovink and musing about 1953, the internet’s shared defenses have themselves been eaten out from the landward side. Four days ago, a critical vulnerability in OpenSSL, the open-source implementation of the web’s basic security protocols, was announced: Heartbleed.

OpenSSL is one element of the enormous body of open source and free software that keeps the internet going. Its failure is a big problem. Encryption and security matter, not only to keep our private business private and our finances under our control, but also to run our infrastructure. Heartbleed jeopardizes all of these things.

When I put the problem like that, it sounds like the solution is to move away from open source software. But the stuff is pervasive because it works; it’s robust, generally secure, and does what people need done. (And closed source software is not notably better.) OSS is as much a part of the internet as dikes are of the Netherlands. Likewise, online insecurity, like water in these times of climate change, is not going away. We’re going to have to learn to live with both.

I’ve been reading Heartbleed articles by techies as well as journalists, and they’ve been writing about it the way that Ovink talks about water engineering. This article by Dan Kaminsky is the one that really got me thinking about the parallels between the two.

There’s a lot of rigamarole around defense in depth, other languages that OpenSSL could be written in, “provable software”, etc. Everyone, myself included, has some toy that would have fixed this. But you know, word from the Wall Street Journal is that there have been all of $841 in donations to the OpenSSL project to address this matter. We are building the most important technologies for the global economy on shockingly underfunded infrastructure…

And so, finally, we end up with what to learn from Heartbleed. First, we need a new model of Critical Infrastructure protection, one that dedicates real financial resources to the safety and stability of the code our global economy depends on—without attempting to regulate that code to death. And second, we need to actually identify that code.

It’s a good read, even if you don’t know the technologies he discusses. And I think Kaminsky’s thesis is sound: this is critical stuff, and we need to treat it like critical stuff without breaking what put it into that position in the first place (the OSS culture). Which brings me round to Ovink again, in another way: resistance to the cultural foundation upon which the tools to protect us are built.

Samuel Carter, an associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation, underscored that the very concept of regional planning is still a work in progress in the U.S. “A lot of people feel that it goes against the American character,” he said. Ovink experiences that pushback on a regular basis. He told me that not long ago he was in New Jersey talking with residents hit by Sandy who were raising their houses on stilts. He laid out for them a future situation in which, rather than have each homeowner undertake such difficult and expensive work, the community would embrace measures to protect an entire region from flooding. The response, he said, was, “That would be a socialistic approach.”

OSS culture doesn’t get called ‘socialistic’, but it’s self-organizing and anti-capitalist in its own way. Creating a bridge between that and the businesses and regulators who are tasked with managing critical infrastructure is going to require an Ovinkian charm offensive. Patrick McKenzie’s article on What Heartbleed Can Teach The OSS Community About Marketing looks like a useful start. And I’m sure there’s much more smart writing that I haven’t stumbled across; I’m just skimming the community.

The final quote in Shorto’s article seems like a good way to end this one, too:

“It’s a long shot,” Eric Klinenberg said. “The only reason to think it will work is that we know if it fails, we’re essentially doomed.”

(As for Heartbleed? Take it seriously. Test your key sites, and change your passwords when they’re patched. Don’t share passwords across sites. Watch your bank statements and your email notifications of purchases and registrations.)

Thanks to Laura Mixon for the Shorto link and Jan Lehnardt for the Kaminsky and McKenzie ones. Eclectic Twitterfeed is definitely the name of my next band.

April 07, 2014
Captain America: the Winter SPOILERS
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 01:24 PM * 131 comments

So that moment when Cap uses his shield to surf down an oliphant’s back during battle, slaying his attackers with the sparkle of his white teeth? And the bit where Black Widow reveals that she has become the Widow of Many Colors? The moment when it turns out that George R.R. Martin secretly wrote the script and everyone’s dead, including an audience hoping for continuity?

Yeah, those. Discuss ‘em here. And if you don’t want to see spoilers, like that thing with the hedgehog and the needlenose pliers, maybe stay out of the thread.

April 03, 2014
That “International Book Award Contest” ad
Posted by Teresa at 01:52 PM * 14 comments

Is that “International Book Award Contest” still visible in our ad column? If so, what you need to know is that PNH and I rejected it,* and were surprised to nevertheless find it running on our site. Making Light has a long history of writing about scams aimed at naive authors. We wouldn’t approve an ad for the “International Book Award Contest” on the coldest day ever recorded in Hell.

We’re not pointing the finger of blame at BlogAds.com. We’ve always had a good working relationship with them. Our expectation is that this is some kind of unintentional screw-up (possibly related to how far Patrick and I are from our normal time zone), and that the ad will presently be removed.

In the meantime, if anyone’s wondering whether Patrick and I approve of the International Book Award Contest: we do not.

(Which is not to imply that Abi, Avram, or Jim do approve; just that they can speak for themselves.)

April 02, 2014
It’s not what you know. It’s not who you know, either. It’s who knows what about you.
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:35 PM * 64 comments

So from the Twitter account of David Graeber (as in Debt, among other things) come the following tweets:

I am sure that there will be people right along to ask how anyone can really know whether he’s being evicted, and if so, whether it is really for the reasons he states. And of course, I don’t know; I’ve never met the guy, and I am not acquainted with his circumstances. I don’t know the functionaries either, nor the officials who ordered them to act. I know that I have seen the tweets, but beyond that, I am out of the world of facts and into one of speculation, inference, and guesswork. So are most of us. Even Graeber himself cannot really know the reasons why anything has happened to him.

But, assuming arguendo that the facts and causes of the matter are exactly as stated, we are back to the matter of knowledge from a different angle: the knowledge of who was involved in Occupy Wall Street from the beginning. And not just abstract knowledge, but usable knowledge on an institutional level, knowledge that can be dispersed and acted upon, both officially and unofficially.

Knowledge is power, and there are people who have more of it than we do. Some work for governments, but some don’t. Call them, if you will, the Powers that Be. We individuals have to filter out our knowledge out of a soup of misdirection, denial, fragments1, and propaganda. TPTB, meanwhile, seem to get their knowledge undiluted at source2.

(Not that they always get good information, nor act on it when they do, mind.)

This imbalance is a palpable problem, not just for Graeber, but for us all. Whether it’s prosecution for the three felonies a day we are all alleged to commit, or mere public humiliation, the risk of abuse by means of knowledge (and the lying pretense of knowlege) is a real engine of fear. I don’t know anyone who has not chosen to do or let be, speak or be silent, with an eye to whom they might piss off and what the consequences could be.

Back when The Wire was new, I was much struck by this speech3. But even then, the choice to overlook the minor crimes of ordinary people passing their evenings in “the poor man’s lounge” seemed more of a dream than a realistic idea. Now it just sounds hopelessly na├»ve, even in such a gritty show. Who is using what is intelligence, to be collected, collated, and kept.

In contrast, there’s a recent novel on the subject of surveilance4 in which the protagonist who knows too much can only escape from the clutches of officialdom by pleading guilty to a minor crime. That rings more true: people in those circumstances are not acquitted in real life. TPTB, even when thwarted, do not let their critics go without a macula, a smudge, to diminish their credibility. The vindictive impulse is universal, but it’s usable knowledge that gives it teeth.

But this desire to know is not limited to the powerful, or I wouldn’t be reading Twitter. And it’s not modern, either. One aspect of Catholic doctrine is the perpetual virginity of Mary: the idea that even after the birth of Jesus, she and Joseph did not have sex. I’ve never been comfortable with that, not because I have an opinion either way, but because it’s an incredibly intrusive thing to have a doctrine about at all.

What’s modern is the amount to which the thirst for knowledge is rewarded, even for hoi polloi. I can read and muse about the troubles of relatively ordinary people I have never met, and about whom I know very little. And that curiosity has led to the kind of indexing and searching technology that allows me to check if their stories have been denied yet, and if so, by which people affiliated with what organizations. I can then research the organizations, and read critiques of the tools I used to do so.

Most of my knowledge may not be actionable, but it sure is interesting.

And at times like this, I think about how the grain for the bread of Rome came from conquered Egypt, and how her circuses were paid for by the tribute of the empire, and how the social structures that permitted the taking and holding of the empire produced the population that needed to be appeased with bread and circuses. The mitigation is the fruit of the problem, as always.


  1. Read to the end of that article. Scary stuff in there.
  2. Another article to read all the way through.
  3. The automated captions on the video are ludicrous. If you prefer to read rather than listen, a transcript of the speech is here.
  4. This is a reverse spoiler. I’m giving away the ending, but not the title. Please follow suit.
March 27, 2014
Art! And gelato!
Posted by Patrick at 02:19 PM * 49 comments

the-essence-of-florence.jpg By popular demand, pictures from P&TNH’s vacation (and 35th-anniversary celebration) trip to Italy, now in progress. Reload frequently!

We started in Florence last Thursday, March 20. We took a day trip from Florence to Siena on Monday, March 24. We moved on to Rome yesterday, Wednesday, March 26. We’ll be returning to NYC early in the week after next.

The Flickr photo set linked above currently goes through Sunday, March 23, but it’s only captioned through the middle of Friday, March 21. Reload for more photos, and more explanatory captions on the photos already there. Also, reload this Making Light post for the URLs of further Flickr photo sets, because we’ll probably start some new sets soon.

We have to thank Jo Walton, whose forthcoming My Real Children is critically full of Florence, and Ada Palmer, whose web site served as pretty much our primary guide to what to do and see. Just to be clear, we’d also like to thank Italy for being completely awesome.

March 17, 2014
Open thread 195
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:58 PM * 998 comments

For many years, I had a drawer in my bindery that was simply “the tool drawer”. It had hammers, saws, knives, sharpeners, awls, scissors, planes, band sticks*, pliers, a brayer, screwdrivers, and assorted similar gadgetry.

When I moved to a new workspace a couple of years ago, I had to split that category of items across two drawers. I did it without much conscious thought. The rough distribution came out as {hammers, band sticks, pliers, brayer, screwdrivers} and {saws, knives, sharpeners, awls, scissors, planes}. It was only about a year later that I understood my own internal logic. One drawer held tools for putting together and building; the other held tools for breaking down and making smaller.

And it was only last week that I realized, with entirely self-conscious irony, the names of these drawers really must be “lumpers” and “splitters”.


* long wooden sticks with specific-sized grooves cut in them, used to form spine leather over raised bands

Continued from Open thread 194. Continued in Open thread 196.

March 15, 2014
Planting beside the water
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 08:25 AM * 106 comments

Behind my house the terrain runs in stripes: a stretch of grass, a narrow road, another stretch of grass, a canal, more grass up a slope, the elevated main road into our village, then the local business park. For some time, we and our neighbors have wanted trees between the narrow road and the canal to deaden the traffic noise and soften the view.

The first intimation that that desire had borne fruit (OK, leaves; they’re willows) was the note through our door. Below the drop-shadow title and the tree-and-tulip clip art, it announced that one of our local councilors would be by for a tree-planting at 9:00 in the morning on Saturday, March 15. “We’re asking for your help on the day. Bring a shovel and a wheelbarrow*. There will be journalists and photographers in attendance.”

The trees were delivered during the week and laid out at intervals on the grass. Pairs of waist-high support stakes appeared. The turf was cut and laid aside. I kept expecting to look over the back fence one day and see all but one symbolic tree in place, in preparation for whatever ceremony or photo-op Saturday would bring. When the tiny digger drove from tree site to tree site on Thursday afternoon, I was sure that was the time, but when it left things looked much the same: each tree on its side, two upright stakes, bare soil, piled sod.

We were out in the back garden on other business this morning when we saw some of the community walking toward the back road, shovels in hand. Reassured that we would not be the dorky foreigners who did the wrong thing, we grabbed our own shovels and joined them. The trees were still unplanted.

Because here’s the thing (and, Dutch readers, please bear with me while I talk this through). We weren’t there for a photo-op, or rather, not for the photo-op I thought we were there for. After some introductory chatting, the Guy Who Knew What He Was Doing took us over to a tree site, where a hole had been dug between the supporting stakes. He explained how best to measure the root balls, how deep the holes should be (and why, with details about how the roots would interact with the water table), how to roll the root ball into place, and why they’d chosen that particular manner of planting.

And then he sent us off, two by two, to go dig our holes and plant our trees.

He went from pair to pair and advised on depth and width, lending a hand to get trees into holes and showing people how to firm the earth around the trunks afterward. The local councilor was there, but he had dirt under his nails when he shook hands. We answered the reporter’s questions while tramping down loose dirt around a newly-planted willow.

When I lived in the Edinburgh, if trees were to be planted on public land near our houses, the council would send a couple of laconic workmen to do the deed. A local councilor might come for a photo-op to dedicate the already-planted willows, but whatever audience there was would not have brought shovels. When I lived in the SF Bay Area, I’d have expected about the same, but we would have brought shovels and stood around the trees for the photographs.† (And I am not denigrating either way of dong things! Different cultures do things in different ways. All three systems produce the two inextricable objectives of the exercise: trees and a picture of the councilor in the local paper just before an election.)

The inevitable jokes about saving money by making the locals do the work were made at the closing speech, when we were all thanked for our efforts. But that’s not what it’s about, of course, not when the soil had been pre-loosened by that digger. The point was much more primal: our trees, our planting. We earned those willows by doing not only the social work of politicking for them, but also the physical work of putting them into the ground. The two are linked, word and deed.

Now, I think of myself as a migrant; I’m in this place but not of it. I expect to be changed by the places I live, but I do not expect to change them. I don’t think I have the right, and I don’t want that responsibility, either.

And yet when I look out my back window now and see the spindly branches of the willow over the fence, I see that I have changed this place. A piece of me is planted here now, putting its roots into the soil I meant to only tread lightly upon. And that’s a very Dutch lesson, too, bluntly questioning my personal narrative of non-involvement. The reality of the engineered landscape (and pretty much everywhere we live is engineered, to one degree or another) is that how we live creates the physical world we live in. People and land are as interdependent as politics and work.

There is no footfall so light that it does not leave a print. The best we can do is choose where we walk, and how.


* The Dutch word for wheelbarrow is kruiwagen. The term comes from the verb kruien, which can mean to shovel things, turn a windmill toward the wind, or walk in the peculiar way one does with a wheelbarrow. In other words, it’s a name based on actions rather than appearances. This is, in a complicated way, neatly symmetrical.
† As the youngest rioter for People’s “everybody gets a blister” Park, I should point out that California does have its own tradition of plant-your-own-tree activism. But I should also point out that Ronald Reagan found that kind of activism threatening enough to fight it with tear gas and live ammunition.

Crossposted on Noise2Sig.nl. Comment wherever you like.

March 14, 2014
Tony Benn, 1925-2014
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 09:31 AM * 31 comments

He was Old Labour, the real thing, pre-Blair: suspicious of business and its interests, a supporter of working people, passionate about justice, anti-war, pro-equality. He put up plaques to suffragettes and supported marriage equality. He gave up a peerage to stay in the Commons, then left public office when he thought he could do better by direct organization.

The quote of his that’s kicking around Twitter today is his Five Questions:

If one meets a powerful person—Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler—one can ask five questions:
  1. What power do you have?
  2. Where did you get it?
  3. In whose interests do you exercise it?
  4. To whom are you accountable?
  5. And how can we get rid of you?
Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.

I know that the art of purity test design is to make one that is both noble to the listener and passable by the speaker, but this is a good one. We should ask it more often, in his memory, as a reminder to ourselves, and as a goad to the powers that be.

Rest in peace. And thank you.

February 25, 2014
Open thread 194
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 01:55 PM * 943 comments

The Nazis invaded the Netherlands in May of 1940. Apart from repeated provocation of the Jewish community, the occupiers were friendly. They considered the Dutch nearly as good as Germans, and hoped to win the population over.

On February 23 and 24, 1941, the Nazis occupying Amsterdam rounded up 425 young Jewish men, beat them, and sent them east to the concentration camps. It was the first such move after the occupation, excused by the community’s reaction to a series of incitements and restrictions. The next steps were all planned: close off the Jewish district, appoint a council to liaise with the community, hide the steadily increasing cruelty from the rest of the population. (Basically, Warsaw.)

But on February 25, 1941, Amsterdam went on strike. The Gentiles stood with their Jewish neighbors in the first direct action against anti-Jewish measures in occupied Europe. The trams stopped running and the dockyards stood idle. Businesses shut down as their workers took to the streets; even the venerable Bijenkorf, the quintessential Dutch department store, closed its doors. By the next day, the strike had spread to several outlying cities.

It was brutally suppressed. Nine people were killed and hundreds arrested. By February 27, it was over; three people were executed for leading it on March 13.

With them died any illusion that the Dutch could be won over. And Amsterdammers still commemorate the Februaristaking, the February strike, on the 25th of the month.

ETA: Although I had not intended it to, this post gives the impression that the Dutch resistance to the Nazi occupation equalled Dutch support of and protection for the Jews and other targeted people—Dutch and refugee—living in the Netherlands throughout the war. Alas, that was not the case.

There are many reasons that the Netherlands lost a greater proportion of its Jewish population than pretty much anyone else in Europe; certainly, the “pillarization” of society, which meant that everyone’s religion was recorded, was a contributing factor. But it cannot, and should not, be forgotten that not a few Dutch people either turned a blind eye to the Holocaust, or actively supported it and the attitudes that underlay it.

I regret, quite profoundly, my unintentional erasure of people who must not be forgotten. And I’m sorry as well that I’ve hurt members of this community in so doing, and in taking this long to add this note to the entry.


Continued from Open thread 193 . Continued in Open thread 195.

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