Back to March 2008

To Making Light's front page

Forward to May 2008

April 27, 2008
Open thread 106
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 04:11 PM *

The process of draining an entire lake started with the construction of a pair of dikes surrounding the lake. The space between the dikes would become the canal from which the drained water would eventually flow to the sea. A large network of windmills was constructed around the perimeter of the lake. Because of the depth of such a lake the mills were often arranged in series, each successive mill lifting the water higher. As the lake drained, a system of drainage ditches was put in place allowing efficient drainage to the windmills.

Designed for Dry Feet: Flood Protection and Land Reclamation in the Netherlands (2006)
by Robert J Hoeksma, PhD

“Where do people find the time?”
Posted by Patrick at 09:23 AM *

I generally hate being read to, and prefer transcripts to watching video of public speakers, but this fifteen-minute Web 2.0 talk by Clay Shirky—about gin, television, the “cognitive surplus,” and the true answer to the annoying question in the title of this post—grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. (Via Warren Ellis, to whom all due props.)

Transcript here, if you really can’t deal with video.

I’m currently in the middle of Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, “a book about organizing without organizations,” which I’m finding fascinating and valuable even when I disagree. More on this later.

April 26, 2008
Eric Clapton, White Power enthusiast
Posted by Patrick at 09:20 PM * 124 comments

The Observer looks back at the origins of Britain’s late-1970s “Rock Against Racism” movement, one of the things that made punk more than just a style and a set of aggro affectations:

Many of those who will gather in Victoria Park next Sunday to watch the Good, the Bad and the Queen, Hard-Fi, the View and the others on the bill were not even born 30 years ago. But for those who attended the original concert in 1978 it was a show that changed their lives and helped change Britain. Rock Against Racism radicalised a generation, it showed that music could do more than just entertain: it could make a difference. By demonstrating the power of music to effect change it inspired Live Aid and its supporters claim it helped destroy the National Front. It was the triumphant climax to a story that began two years earlier, following one hot August night in Birmingham.

It was 5 August 1976 and Eric Clapton was drunk, angry and on stage at the Birmingham Odeon. ‘Enoch was right,’ he told the audience, ‘I think we should send them all back.’ Britain was, he complained, in danger of becoming ‘a black colony’ and a vote for controversial Tory politician Enoch Powell whom he described as a prophet was needed to ‘keep Britain white’. Although the irony was possibly lost on Clapton, the Odeon in Birmingham is on New Street, minutes from the Midland Hotel where eight years earlier Powell had made his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. But if the coincidence was curious, the hypocrisy was breathtaking: Clapton’s career was based on appropriating black music, and he had recently had a hit with Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot the Sheriff’.

In usual circumstances his comments would have been merely ill advised, but it was the social and political context which made Clapton’s intervention so chilling. The National Front had won 40 per cent of the votes in the spring elections in Blackburn. One month earlier an Asian teenager, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, had been murdered by a gang of white youths in Southall. ‘One down—a million to go’ was the response to the killing from John Kingsley Read of the National Front. Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux were sporting swastikas as fashion statements. David Bowie, who three months earlier had been photographed apparently giving a Nazi salute in Victoria Station, told Cameron Crowe in the September 1976 edition of Playboy ‘…yes I believe very strongly in fascism. The only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that’s hanging foul in the air…is a right-wing totally dictatorial tyranny…’ In that same interview Bowie claimed that ‘Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.’ This was Britain then in the sweltering summer of 1976, and in that context Clapton’s comments were potentially incendiary.

I’m sorry to report that Clapton’s reappearance at the end of the article won’t improve your view of him:
This summer, in the last weekend of June, Eric Clapton will headline two shows in London and Leeds, the locations for the first and last Rock against Racism carnivals. While David Bowie had distanced himself from his pro-Nazi remarks, Clapton has not only never apologised for his outburst, but has continued to praise Powell; only last December on The South Bank Show he reiterated his support for the man and four years ago he told Uncut magazine that Powell had been ‘outrageously brave’.
The whole piece is worth reading; RAR really was one of those peculiar subcultural upwellings that actually made a difference, an act of coalition-building outreach that actually changed minds. (It also, as the article notes, got a lot of white and black musicians actually playing with each other, arguably feeding the later ska revival and the popularity of two-tone and other fruitful recombinations.) I knew most of that history already in a general way. But I hadn’t known what a creep Clapton was, and apparently still is.

Teresa in the Observer
Posted by Patrick at 08:44 PM * 106 comments

With a piece on narcolepsy and writing, part of this weekend’s special multi-page Observer Review section on sleep.

They did a good job trimming it to their needs, but that meant cutting a certain amount of anecdotage, so I’ve taken the liberty of posting the uncut version here.

Feeling the Heat
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 06:57 PM * 31 comments

Earlier today, a fire broke out on the ground floor of a mattress factory in Casablanca, Morocco. It spread rapidly, due to the presence of “chemical products” in the building. There were about 100 workers inside at the time.

55 people are dead. Many of them were on the top floor, where female workers sew. Rachnia Darif, who crawled through the roof space to a neighboring building, described the scene.

We ran to the door. It was blocked, to the elevator, it was blocked. Then, oops, the lights went out.

My first thought, of course, was historical. But Morocco’s record on workers’ rights, though spotty, is not disastrous. This is probably not equivalent, and it’s worth waiting for the investigation before drawing any conclusions.

Still, on Monday, please do me a favor. Look around your workplace and make sure you know where your fire exits are, and that they’re clear and unlocked. Locate the fire extinguishers and make sure you know how to sound the alarm. If your company hasn’t done a fire drill in a while, poke someone to do one.

(PS: I presume everyone has read this? Our Jim doesn’t write these things just to hear himself type.)

SFWA election results
Posted by Patrick at 05:15 PM * 50 comments

Since, this time, they’re of interest even to many non-SFWAns:

Russell Davis 330
Andrew Burt 53
Full results here.

April 25, 2008
Indistinguishable from parody
Posted by Teresa at 10:47 AM * 200 comments

It’s embarrassing to discover that string of comments you’ve been reading as intentional parody may have been serious. This has been going on in the comment thread of a Mark Frauenfelder Boing Boing post called Against Ben Stein’s wishes, lizards rapidly evolve after introduction to island.

It’s a two-troll comment thread. The one who posts as “Evidence” is just a garden-variety attention-seeker. The problem case I may have been misreading is the one who posts as “Iva Biggrudge”. I’ve been assuming that since there’s no such thing as a perfect idiot, he has to be lampooning a certain stripe of very bad online rhetoric. Now it looks like I may have been wrong—and equally, looks like I may have been right. Patrick literally can’t tell whether Biggrudge’s comments are intentional parody. Neither can Ill Lich, who’s one of BB’s sharper readers.

Have a look at them for yourself: one, two, three, four, five.

If Iva Biggrudge is serious, we’re going to have to donate his comments to the Stupidity Project, because they’re just about perfect.

April 24, 2008
The Rather Difficult Font Game
Posted by Teresa at 10:01 PM *

Just as it says: it’s a Rather Difficult Font Game. Have at it and tell us how you do. (Thank you, Mark Dirksen.)

April 23, 2008
Live in San Francisco, it’s TNH!
Posted by Patrick at 07:20 AM *

And several other interesting people. David Pescovitz posts the details over at Boing Boing.

April 22, 2008
NBC News calls Penn for Hillary
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 08:53 PM *

The game is going into extra innings….

April 17, 2008
Little Brother
Posted by Patrick at 09:02 AM * 189 comments

In twelve days, Tor will release one of the books that, should I happen to be run down by a beer truck next Tuesday, I’d most like to be remembered for having helped into print: Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother.

“A rousing tale of techno-geek rebellion—as necessary and dangerous as file sharing, free speech, and bottled water on a plane.” —Scott Westerfeld
Here’s some cover copy I wrote about it:
Marcus, a.k.a “w1n5t0n,” is only seventeen years old, but he figures he already knows how the system works—and how to work the system. Smart, fast, and wise to the ways of the networked world, he has no trouble outwitting his high school’s intrusive but clumsy surveillance systems.

But his whole world changes when he and his friends find themselves caught in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his crew are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and whisked away to a secret prison where they’re mercilessly interrogated for days.

When the DHS finally releases them, Marcus discovers that his city has become a police state where every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist. He knows that no one will believe his story, which leaves him only one option: to take down the DHS himself.

Little Brother is a whole bunch of things I love. It’s science fiction about how the world works. It’s unabashedly didactic about big issues like freedom and authority, and about technical issues like what is and isn’t real security. (Underlining that last: an afterword by Bruce Schneier.)
“Read this book. You’ll learn a great deal about computer security, surveillance and how to counter it, and the risk of trading off freedom for ‘security.’ And you’ll have fun doing it.” —Tim O’Reilly
But it’s also smart about the business of being a kid, in ways that speak to younger and older readers alike. Marcus has right and truth on his side, and he’s smarter than many of his antagonists, but that doesn’t save him from screwing up and being a source of pain to others. The world is complicated, and Little Brother is a story of growing up into the world.
“The teenage voice is pitch-perfect. I couldn’t put it down, and I loved it.” —Jo Walton

“Cory’s captured a particular element of adolescence very well—that sense of being a grownup (or maybe even understanding things better than a grownup would) without having the baggage of accumulated years of failure to tell you exactly how it is that things could go horribly wrong.” —Elizabeth Bear

“A tale of struggle familiar to any teenager, about those moments when you choose what your life is going to mean.” —Steven Gould

The hardcover of Little Brother releases on Tuesday, April 29. But right now, stacked up in my office, I have a few dozen of what we call ARCs— advance reading copies, handsome trade paperbacks printed specifically to stir up interest prior to a book’s official publication date. I’d like each of these to find a home. If you want one of them, and are willing to promise to read it immediately and talk about it to your friends—online, on your blog, in a forum somewhere, in somebody’s comment section, or just in plain old in-person conversation—I’ll have one sent to you right away. You don’t have to promise to like it or praise it, just talk about it. Requests, including your ship-to address, should be emailed to I’ll update this post when the stack of ARCs is used up.
“A wonderful, important book…I’d recommend Little Brother over pretty much any book I’ve read this year, and I’d want to get it into the hands of as many smart thirteen-year-olds, male and female, as I can. Because I think it’ll change lives. Because some kids, maybe just a few, won’t be the same after they’ve read it. Maybe they’ll change politically, maybe technologically. Maybe it’ll just be the first book they loved or that spoke to their inner geek. Maybe they’ll want to argue about it and disagree with it. Maybe they’ll want to open their computer and see what’s in there. I don’t know. It made me want to be thirteen again right now, and reading it for the first time.” —Neil Gaiman
Act now, act without thinking! Email me at today.

UPDATE: All 83 ARCs are now spoken for—by the time I got to the office, there were twice as many requests. Copies will go to the first 83 people who emailed; apologies to the rest. (If you emailed too late, you’ll get a response saying so. Give us a few hours to sort it.) The actual book does go on sale a week from this coming Tuesday…

April 16, 2008
Newsweek invents an alarming trend
Posted by Teresa at 06:01 PM * 250 comments

It’s much easier to make news sound exciting if you leave the facts out, as witness a recent story by Karen Springen in Newsweek about a children’s picture book about plastic surgery:

Mommy 2.0:

A new picture book about plastic surgery aims to explain why mom is getting a flatter tummy and a ‘prettier’ nose.

When she was pregnant with her son Junior, who turns nine this month, Gabriela Acosta ballooned from 115 pounds to 196. Acosta lost the weight but wound up with stretched, saggy skin. Even her son noticed it. He told her that her stomach looked “pruney,” the result, he thought, of staying in the shower too long. So the 29-year-old stay-at-home mom scheduled a consultation with Dr. Michael Salzhauer, a board-certified plastic surgeon in Bal Harbour, Fla.

Acosta told Salzhauer that she wasn’t sure how to talk to her son about the procedures she was considering. That’s when he showed her the manuscript for his children’s picture book, My Beautiful Mommy (Big Tent Books), out this Mother’s Day. It features a perky mother explaining to her child why she’s having cosmetic surgery (a nose job and tummy tuck). Naturally, it has a happy ending: mommy winds up “even more” beautiful than before, and her daughter is thrilled.

The article’s a major thumbsucker. It’s three pages long, with quotes from a concerned child psychiatrist, opposed opinions from some random person who thinks the book is a good idea (to give the article that balanced effect), and four full-sized colored panels reproduced from the book. I’ve seen a lot of trade publishing sell pieces that did a worse job of promoting a book.

Naturally, it’s stirring up all kinds of fuss and feathers and disgusted indignation—vide Icerocket, Google Blog Search, Blogpulse, and Technorati—in the traditional style of these things: aieeee, eheu, what kind of values are we going to be teaching our children, O the well-intentioned squawk and kerfluffle of it all.

Not that I blame the people who are getting worked up over this. No. I blame Newsweek for yanking our chains. This story is equal parts hokum and hot air. You’d think that somewhere in those three pages of titillating handwringing, Springen would have gotten round to mentioning that My Beautiful Mommy is a self-published vanity-press book available only from its “publisher”—or, presumably, from Dr. Michael Salzhauer.

Big Tent Books (not to be confused with Big Tent Entertainment) is a vanity press and marketing and fulfillment operation. It pretends it’s separate from another company called Dragonpencil—in theory, Big Tent is a marketing and distribution firm, and Dragonpencil is a publisher—but they’re really a single organization run by Jerry and Samantha Setzer. The two companies have the same address and phone number. Big Tent’s award-winning books get all their awards from Dragonpencil. Dragonpencil’s deluxe publishing package includes marketing and distribution by Big Tent. And if you poke around their sites long enough, you can find the page where they admit it.

Big Tent/Dragonpencil has the usual problem of vanity presses: zero to lousy sales and distribution. They’re a lot better at making books than they are at promoting them. Only a few of their titles are even listed at Amazon, and those are listed badly—half the normal publisher-furnished information is missing. Sales are minimal.

My Beautiful Mommy is not one of the books Big Tent lists on Amazon. It has no ISBN that I can detect—and this close to its publication date, I should be able to detect one. Clearly, this book is not destined to make its way to the shelves of your local bookstore.

It’s equally clear that the existence of My Beautiful Mommy says nothing about the state of the nation. It’s not going to corrupt the values of the youth of America, because they’re never going to see a copy. If it weren’t for Karen Springen’s article, the book would have no more significance, and get no more notice, than a xeroxed handout from your local GP.

So: Newsweek manufactured this alarming story out of medium-thin air. It’s one more thing to think about when the conventional media make snotty remarks about the journalistic standards of weblogs.

Update: Jill of Writes Like She Talks has followed up with her own research. She tracked down the author’s blog and his book’s ISBN (978-1-60131-032-3), and has left a message on his phone asking how Newsweek got his book. I’ll be watching for further developments.

Posted by Patrick at 04:00 PM *

I’m having trouble with my work email—stuff sent to or Among other things, people are getting told that I’ve deleted their email unread when I definitely haven’t done any such thing, even though I’ve supposedly got Outlook/Exchange configured to never respond to “read receipt” requests. And there are other issues as well.

For this reason, I’m urging people to simply stop using my “” address and send any and all email to for the foreseeable future. That’s been my primary email address since 1992 and I expect that to continue to be the case.

(Despite the “” address, these issues have nothing to do with the “” science-fiction ubersite we’re developing, as discussed here. Just sayin’.)

April 14, 2008
Open thread 105
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:10 PM *

From my shelves:

You do not come to Euphemia only to buy and sell, but also because at night, by the fires all around the market, seated on sacks or barrels or stretched out on piles of carpets, at each word that one man says—such as “wolf,” “sister,” “hidden treasure, “battle,” “scabies,” “lovers“—the others tell, each one, his tale of wolves, sisters, treasures, scabies, lovers, battles. And you know that in the long journey ahead of you, when to keep awake against the camel’s swaying or the junk’s rocking, you start summoning up your memories one by one, your wolf will have become another wolf, your sister a different sister, your battles other battles, on your return from Euphemia, the city where memory is traded at every solstice and at every equinox.

April 13, 2008
Could lead to goose-stepping
Posted by Avram Grumer at 06:18 PM *

Radley Balko reports that a group of his friends — young libertarians from the Washington DC area — met at the Jefferson Memorial last night to silently (wearing iPods) dance for a few minutes at midnight in celebration of Jefferson’s birthday. The Park Police showed up and ordered the dancers to disperse. When one young woman asked them why, they shoved her up against a pillar, handcuffed her, and arrested her. (Update: Here’s video.)

We probably couldn’t ask for a purer example of the principle that the primary mission of authority is to preserve authority. Even today, knowing that almost anyone could be holding a video camera and their actions could wind up on YouTube, cops will still bully and assault people for refusing to instantly defer to arbitrary authority. (That first video is a classic of the genre. The cop is a tubby man in a ridiculous uniform, riding around in a tiny vehicle that may as well be a clown car. His life as a cop isn’t turning out like it does in the movie and on TV, and he’s taking it out on anyone he can push around.)

Megan McArdle, another DC libertarian, picks up the story, and her comments section quickly fills with forelock-tuggers and knee-benders justifying the actions of the Park Police, even if they have to make up facts to do it. It’s practically a catalog of dishonest argumentation and propaganda. In fact, I think it’s useful to dissect the examples so that we can recognize them when we see similar arguments on the nation’s editorial pages. (This has turned out longer than I expected it to, but it’s not like we have to pay extra to print more pages.)

For example, a commenter named Jeff asks “If the Memorial is closed and people refuse to leave, why NOT arrest them for disorderly conduct?” — not aware that the memorial is open 24/7, too lazy to spend ten seconds on a Google search to check his facts, too lazy even to read the earlier comments where this had already been pointed out. When his mistake is rubbed in his face, Jeff adopts a faux-polite writing style and moves his goalposts. He argues first that the memorial is closed to certain kinds of events, of which group dancing might be one. (It might not, but hey, he doesn’t know, it might.) He later argues that since DC is a high-crime city, the Park Police have a legitimate concern, and even though it isn’t immediately clear, we need to grant them the benefit of the doubt. Of course, that’s totally ignoring the actual facts of the case — that the police didn’t arrest all the dancers, but merely the one who questioned their orders, and that the police offered no explanation for their actions. In Jeff’s mind, it’s only the authorities who get the benefit of the doubt. Ordinary citizens just have to obey orders.

Then we’ve got MarkG, who blames the dancers for appearing “odd”, and claims that “the police have to make a snap judgment about what to do”. Why exactly the police should need to make snap judgments in cases where no violence is occurring and no weapons or threat to life or limb are evident, that’s beyond me. Apparently, the fact that authorities sometimes unfortunately need to make snap judgments to preserve the lives of themselves or others means, in MarkG’s mind, that all judgments made by cops should be granted this same life-or-death importance.

MarkG later suggests that by dancing near where they lived, rather than spending several hours driving cars they might not have so they could dance in some other location, they were relying upon society to “provide them with a safe venue”. (Because we all know how safe DC is.) Somehow, he think that this means they shouldn’t complain when society fails to do so. Or something. He never actually completes the thought; his purpose here is to make a half-assed accusation of hypocrisy. See, by being in the city, they were relying on civilized standards of behavior, But by dancing, they were violating civilized standards of behavior. Because, y’know, dancing is weird! And as civilized people, we are obliged to crush out any impulses towards novelty, joy, or spontaneity.

There’s also LWM, the hardened cynic. He knows the score! He’s gonna tell the whiney little libertarians all about how the big, hard world works:

Probably the sense of entitlemnt and arrogance common among this group of right wing libertarians pissed the cops off. They just didn’t like you. Can’t say I blame them much. They found you in contempt of cop. No reprieve.

He understands how authoritarians think, but he’s lost any hope for change. In his world, the bad guys have already won every battle, so there’s no point in fighting. Since he’s not in authority, he suffers from a sense of inferiority. He compensates by puffing himself up in arguments like this, playing the part of the smart guy who passes on the wisdom that you just can’t fight the system. His argument is designed to appeal to people who recognize the nature of authority, but don’t feel strong enough to buck it. It’s also a comforting argument for those who aren’t inclined to demonstrate or act weird, much the same way that assertions about things a crime victim might have done to invite the crime are comforting to those who fear they might one day be victims. These arguments tell you that as long as you obey the rules, you’ll be fine. (LWM also doesn’t know what “right wing” means, but that’s a post for another day.)

I’ve saved my favorite for last. Darkjethro:

Only in this country can one march in the streets of the capital obnoxiously protesting “the oppression inherent in the system” without fear of retribution.

He goes on to regurgitate the same points the other authoritarians had been making — dancing is so weird the cops have to investigate, the woman was asking for trouble when she questioned the dispersal order. He even goes on to blame the dancers for diverting the cops from the important task of protecting the rest of the park. But I want to admire that paragraph. One sentence of not even thirty words, and it packs at least three propagandistic payloads. Let’s unpack them:

1: “Only in this country” — In Darkjethro’s head, the United States is the only nation in the world that tolerates peaceful protest in the streets of its capital. England, Canada, France, Japan — all totalitarian nations, apparently. I bet he thinks the US is the only nation that accepts immigrants, too. The actual purpose of this phrase is to appeal to the little jingoistic spark of American exceptionalism that most Americans have programmed into them in grade school. It’s to get you nodding along, with a flag waving and “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing along in your head, to distract you for the rest of the payloads.

2: “‘[T]he oppression inherent in the system’” — You probably recognize this as a (distorted) quote from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In its original context, it’s spoken by a medieval peasant who’s just been spouting a lot of 20th century leftist jargon. He’s being assaulted by King Arthur, who’s annoyed at having his time wasted and authority questioned when he wants answers to simple questions. On the one hand, the scene is an example of an authority figure abusing a subject, there’s validity to the peasant’s complaint, but the peasant is also ascribing to “the system” an act of violence that’s primarily the result of his desire to argue about politics in a context where such argument will do little good. By using this quote, Darkjethro is attempting to paint political demonstrators in general as whiney complainers who have no understanding of the context within which their protests are embedded. Darkjethro’s misquote (substituting “oppression” for “violence”) might be accidental, but it furthers his propagandistic purposes. By casting his imagined demonstrations as protests over “oppression” rather than “violence”, he makes the demonstrators seem less sympathetic. It’s easy to sympathize with a victim of violence, but we all know people who shout “oppression” any time they don’t get their way.

3: “[W]ithout fear of retribution” — Here’s the ultimate payload. He’s asserting that the US is a country (the only country) where you can demonstrate in the capital without fear of retribution, even though the very article he’s responding to is about demonstrators facing arbitrary retribution in the nation’s capital! He’s trying to use your patriotic pride, your belief in your nation’s ideals, to get you to ignore the very betrayal of those ideals.

This tactic should be familiar to anyone who’s been watching the Bush administration deny that it tortures prisoners. Bush asserts as a normative statement that “Torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture.” And yet, we do torture prisoners, and hand people over to other countries that torture them.

All of these tactics — the use of your ideals to overturn your trust in facts, the assertion of nebulous threats that justify arbitrary authority, the portrayal of protesters as lunatics, the claim that an all-encompassing bureaucracy has legitimate authority over our every breath and step, that you’ll be fine as long as you don’t “make trouble” — these tactics can be seen and heard every day wherever political discussion takes place. They’re the words with which once-free people talk themselves into tyranny.

Bury my acorns at Wounded Knee
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:55 PM * 87 comments

The silver and the russet-gold were fighting for the crown
The silver beat the russet-gold all around town.
Some gave them white bread, and some gave them brown;
Some gave them acorns and drummed them out of town.

The British red squirrel has been under threat from the American grey squirrel for about a century. Grey squirrels, first brought to England as exotic animals, were released into the wild around the beginning of the twentieth century. Their range has increased steadily since then.

The threat is serious. The American grey generally outcompetes the smaller red, eating a wider variety of foods and breeding better under stress. And where the newcomer appears, the native vanishes. There are no more red squirrels in the Home Counties.

Who killed Red Squirrel?
I, said the pox, did;
Of the native got rid.
I killed Red Squirrel.

With the irony that only history is capable of, the grey squirrel is also using a plague to reduce the red population and clear the ecosystem for colonization. Many greys carry squirrel parapoxvirus, familiarly known as squirrel pox. The greys have antibodies to the virus, and seem unaffected by it, but reds are entirely vulnerable. Within a fortnight of becoming infected, most are dead.

Sing a song of virus
Eyelids itch with pox.
Soon a lifeless squirrel’s
Packed in a box.
When the box was posted
The postie wouldn’t say.
Due to unforseen delay
He left it Saturday.

Squirrel pox is already endemic in England and Wales. Antibodies have recently been found in grey squirrels in the Scottish Borders, so the disease is known to be heading north. To assist in mapping the spread, the public is requested to send any dead red squirrels in for autopsy. Instructions for packing the dead squirrel are available on the internet.

It is particularly important to note that one should ensure it arrives on a weekday - a dead squirrel must not sit in the letter box over the weekend.”

Ring a ring o’rowan
Whither are ye goin’?
A scritching! A scratching!
We all fall dead!

It may not be possible to save the red squirrel on mainland Britain. The grey seems unstoppable, despite anything humans and other animals can do. Some have proposed abandoning the mainland effort and concentrating on island populations, which are easier to defend from the invasive grey.

But even this may fail. In a generation, the British red squirrel may be no more than a ghost, or a memory.

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is aye now free,
My heart’s in the Highlands a-climbing a tree
Climbing the pine tree, and nibbling at the yew;
My heart’s in the Highlands, though my time is through.

(All nursery rhymes are from A Kit’s Forest of Verses, attributed to the legendary Sciuric bard, S. Nutkin)

April 12, 2008
A book by its cover
Posted by Avram Grumer at 01:32 AM *

Wow, this may be the most elaborate book cover treatment I’ve ever seen!

It’s Jordan Crane’s cover for Michael Chabon’s new book of essays, Maps and Legends. It’s got three bellybands, each illustrated, irregularly cut and overlapping, also with die-cut holes that line up to reveal the title on the main cover. Oh, and the main cover has debossing and foil.

I think I might be hesitant to buy this thing just for fear of tearing the cover as I read it. I suppose I could leave the bands at home while I carried it around for reading, then put them back on when it’s on the shelf.

(Via Drawn!)

April 11, 2008
Future of Publishing, Part 5,271,009
Posted by Patrick at 02:38 PM * 35 comments

Matthew Yglesias:

The bad thing about bloggers writing books is that we torment you with nagging about the need to buy our book. But the good thing is that if you do buy the book, you’re also buying in to a vast interactive new-media experience.

April 09, 2008
Don’t Miss the Deadline
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 07:19 PM * 26 comments

A reminder: The ballots for the SFWA presidential election must be received by 19 April 2008. Mail early! And weigh the envelope — it’s on the border of needing two stamps.

April 06, 2008
Heads they win; tails we lose
Posted by Patrick at 07:33 PM *

Centrist economist Howard Gleckman is alarmed by what’s been happening to American capitalism:

[F]or the past three decades financial engineers have been playing a game with unlimited upside reward and, thanks to the Federal Reserve and the White House, limited downside risk.

The new rules: A $45 trillion market in immensely complex derivative securities, with no regulation, no capital requirements, no transparency, and a Federal Reserve that is so terrified of the consequences of this market blowing up that it seems prepared to bail out the losers at almost any cost.

The perfectly predictable result is a Wall Street willing to peddle increasingly dicey paper in return for the promise of ever-higher returns. Who wouldn’t, especially with the Fed prepared to cover your bad bets? The phenomenon has been around long enough to have a name: moral hazard.

Just since the 1970s, we have gone through Michael Milken’s junk bonds, the savings and loan crash, leveraged buyouts, Long-Term Capital Management and the hedge funds, venture firms and the dot-com bubble, the private equity craze, and the sub-prime mortgage mess. It’s all a variation on the same theme — smart guys take other people’s money, leverage it by as much as they can get away with, buy stuff, securitize it, and then flip the paper for a huge profit.

Unfortunately, the deals get riskier and riskier and finally crater. Eventually, someone gets caught holding the bag. If that someone is big enough — a bank or even an investment house — the Fed steps in to bail them out. Even more troubling, the central bank continues to pump liquidity through the whole financial system to keep things afloat. So, to ease the consequences of the bursting dot-com bubble, the Fed made plenty of money available for the mortgage market. That not only kept home prices up, it set off a housing boom, sub-prime and no down-payment mortgages, and finally, kersplat, here we all are.

As Gleckman observes, “we seem to be reverting to an era where recessions are caused by financial busts rather than downturns in the real economy…These Wall Street-driven busts used to happen all the time, until post-Depression regulation of commercial and investment banks leashed the speculators.” You know, that boring, interfering, big-government stuff that we had to get rid of in the ’80s and ’90s in order to unleash the throbbing engines of capitalism.

This would be a good moment to remember that the Clinton/Gore administration was every bit as much part of this march of folly as Reagan and both Bushes. They were merely nicer about (intermittently) thinking we ought to do something for the people dispossessed by it. (Also, arguably, less prone to getting us entangled in fiscally ruinous multi-trillion-dollar wars, but that’s another issue.)

What libertarians (and the softheaded quasi-libertarian burghers of science fiction fandom, most of whom think the Economist is a voice of reason) need to learn is that capitalism is never about free markets, or in fact “freedom” of any sort; it’s about using the power of the state in order to make it easy for large amounts of capital to get together and rearrange the rules for its own convenience. “Privatize the profits, socialize the losses” is the logical consequence of capitalism’s prime directive. What we wind up with is socialism for the powerful, and tough shit for everybody else.

Some must employ the scythe
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 06:40 PM *

Once again, a major implementation goes pear-shaped. On Thursday, March 27, Heathrow Airport opened Terminal 5 with great fanfare. It promised a revolution in passenger convenience, and included a new automated baggage handling system1. But things did not go well, and the opening weeks are sure to become a case study in project failure. Hundreds of flights to and from the terminal were redirected or cancelled. The stranded luggage mountain reached a peak of 28,000 bags, but appears to be declining with intensive manual effort.

I’m not going to bore you with the details of what I think went wrong in this specific case; I’ve mused about it on my own blog. But this implementation is part of a larger picture of bad decisions—expensive bad decisions—that have a wider impact than flight delays and missing luggage. The human factors here are the same as those that let the levees fail in New Orleans, and spread the Challenger across the Florida sky. Taken to national scale, they’re part of why we’re in Iraq.

Listen to Mustn’ts, child, listen to the Don’ts.
Listen to the Shouldn’ts, the Impossibles, the Won’ts.
Listen to the Never Haves, then listen close to me.
Anything can happen, child,
Anything can be.

Shel Silverstein, Listen to the Mustn’ts

We love heroes and leaders, from Alexander the Great and his iconic descendants2 to Captain Kirk and his. Whether real or fictional, they stretch the bounds of the possible. They show us a world where our fears don’t limit us, and inspire us to try to live there.

The problem is that great leadership is about more than “the vision thing” or being “the Decider”. A poor leader can sound like a great one by choosing a direction and sticking to it, counting on his “will” to carry him (and the people following him) over the obstacles that they encounter. And if the obstacles are small and their momentum great, that is all that’s needed. But that doesn’t make him a great leader. That makes him lucky, and luck runs out.

What a real leader needs is people who disagree with him. I don’t mean the needlessly contrary, the ornery and the difficult. I mean people who share his ultimate goal, but whose job and passion it is to pick holes in his plans to get there in order to improve them. Sometimes that’s the loyal opposition; sometimes it’s the court jester. Sometimes it’s citizens exercising their First Amendment rights. Sometimes it’s me.

Since human beings tend to be highly goal-oriented, establishing the proper goal has an important psychological effect. If our goal is to demonstrate that a program has no errors, then we shall tend to select test data that have a low probability of finding errors. On the other hand, if our goal is to demonstrate that a program has errors, our test data will have a higher probability of finding errors.

Glenford J Myers, The Art of Software Testing

Testers (like me) are, in the small scale, the disagreeable advisors to the king. We share the ultimate goal with our project managers: releasing the product to the admiring masses. But our job is to find problems, from the design stage through to the final build, so they can be fixed. To do that well, we must stand in opposition to the belief that the code, or the product, or the plan is bug-free. We start with the supposition that something is wrong and go looking for it.

This mindset never earns testers, or anyone who questions a leader’s vision, many friends. In the public sphere, where motivations are part of the discourse, it is taken as evidence of bias and a reason to ignore any inconvenient views. In the corporate world, it can lead to the perception that the testers are never satisfied, and can therefore be overruled at will.

Some must employ the scythe
Upon the grasses,
That the walks may be smooth
For the feet of the angel.
Some keep in repair
The locks, that the visitor
Unhindered passes
To the innermost chamber.

Philip Larkin, from The Dedicated

Being a tester, or any kind of disagreeable advisor, can be unglamorous and unrewarding. Our successes are rarely advertised. What leader proclaims, “I had this idea that I thought was good, but then my advisers pointed out that it was impractical”? I can think of one major cancelled plan in my own field, when the London Eye’s initial passenger run on the Turn of the Century was called off because of a failed safety test3. Usually, though, the successes are marked by delayed implementation dates or revised press releases. Not the stuff of fame.

But I believe that those of us who question leaders, who look for failures and are only reluctantly convinced of successes, are important. We can stop a bad idea before it becomes a bad plan, a bad product, a bad policy. I think we need more people like that in the wider world, whether it be consumers adopting a security mindset or citizens questioning government officials.

And even if all we do is teach our leaders the mantra reserved for those who ignore their disagreeable advisors, well, that too is a form of recognition.

Ivanova is always right. I will listen to Ivanova. I will not ignore Ivanova’s recommendations. Ivanova is God. And, if this ever happens again, Ivanova will personally rip your lungs out!

Susan Ivanova, Babylon 5

  1. This is the kiss of death for a new terminal, and has been since Denver International Airport’s long-running and epic failure to automate their baggage handling. It was introduced in 1995 after a two year delay, and spent a decade expensively mangling and mislaying passenger luggage. It was put out of its misery in 2005, after parallel trials proved that manual handling was more accurate, faster, and cheaper.
  2. All the way down to JFK and Bill Clinton, everyone who has used the icon of the tousle-haired young idealist who conquered the world hearkens back to him.
  3. And if I ever meet the tester who made that recommendation stick, I will buy the drinks all night.

April 04, 2008
Pity the Times
Posted by Patrick at 12:43 PM *

Yes, it’s another attempt to re-invent book publishing. A fine thing. Experimenting is good. Many things about this industry seem irrational; then again, many of those seeming irrationalities turn out, on examination, to be adaptations to intractable conditions, and thus not so irrational after all. Still, times change, technology changes, public desire changes, and it’s good to try new stuff. Brave new initiative? Evil power grab? Depends. Don’t know.

What I do want to know, however, is how Motoko Rich can be employed by the New York Times to, evidently, report on books and book publishing, and yet still write this:

Mr. Miller, who was most recently president of Hyperion, said he hoped to offer authors a 50-50 split of profits. Typically, authors earn royalties of 15 percent of profits after they have paid off their advances. Many authors never earn royalties.
Actually, as any 23-year-old editorial assistant could have told the New York Times, hardcover authors typically earn royalties of 15 percent of the list price of sold copies. Profits have nothing to do with it; the authors get the royalties whether or not the publisher made any profit at all. The claim that “many authors never earn royalties” is likewise a bit off; the author’s “advance” is in fact an advance payment of the royalties that the publisher expects the book will earn, usually in its first year of publication. But that’s a minor and defensible error, nothing compared to the eye-poppingly ignorant claim that authors are paid based on a percentage of profit.

It’s a shame that the New York Times has such limited resources that it can’t afford to hire reporters or fact-checkers who know anything about trade book publishing, an industry whose largest companies are, of course, headquartered in Tibet, Antarctica, and on the far side of the moon, thousands and thousands of miles from the 43rd Street headquarters of the New York Times.

(Thanks to Constance Ash for noticing this.)

Forty years gone
Posted by Patrick at 08:31 AM *

He was a lot more interesting than the plaster saint he’s been recast as. He was also a lot more radical. All day, the national media will remind us that he was murdered forty years ago today. But how many of them will quote this speech, delivered exactly a year earlier, April 4, 1967?

The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy—and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us—not their fellow Vietnamese—the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move or be destroyed by our bombs. So they go—primarily women and children and the aged.

They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one “Vietcong”-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them—mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children, degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?

We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation’s only non-Communist revolutionary political force—the unified Buddhist church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What liberators?

Now there is little left to build on—save bitterness.

For this speech, Time accused him of “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post announced that he had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.” Maureen Dowd wrote a tongue-in-cheek column about how annoying he was, see, just like the unpopular kids in high school, get it? Richard Cohen mournfully announced that all sensible liberals like Richard Cohen were obliged to repudiate this kind of extremist attack on America. And Chris Matthews wondered how talk like this would play to “regular people.” Wait, I seem to have become unstuck in time. It’s so hard to tell.

April 01, 2008
Posted by Patrick at 08:09 AM *

I asked Abi Sutherland for directions from the airport. Longtime readers of Making Light will be unsurprised to see the manner in which she answered.

A country the size of a commuter rail system Canal-city Amsterdam, close-built of bricks
Water-girt capital, welcomes a visitor.
Wordsmith and bitwise, Hugo-marked editor
Arriving in Schiphol, portal of planes.

Passport-stamped, customs-cleared, holding his luggage
Out on the concourse, the voyager seeks
Train-ticket vendors, kiosks for coinage
Or card-swiping men, a small fee they charge.

Landscape with windmill Indeed, between Eastercon and several days in London, I visited the Netherlands—specifically, to meet co-blogger Abi and engage in high-level meta-blog analytical gossip about you. (Not that you should worry. We consulted with Teresa, Jim, and Avram over the phone, and we’ve decided to let you live.)

That established, we spent a day exploring Amsterdam on bicycles, demonstrating to my satisfaction that the entire city, and probably the entire country, were carefully arranged by the Illuminati as a means by which to throw me into an admiring, somewhat slack-jawed trance. That’s without visiting any of the city’s “coffee houses,” you understand.

Zaandam his aim, north of the river
Hoorn-ward the trains speeding him there.
Many the services, Sloterdijk-changing
Easily managed, frequent and fast.

Others go straighter, fewer in number
Five minutes over the mid-hour mark
Web-aware wanderer, Blackberry-bearer
Long ago learned this from

Canal infrastructure I tell you what, if the planet’s seas really do rise, I’m going to the Netherlands, where most of the country is already below sea level and the general attitude is “what’s a few more feet on the dikes?” Not only have these people been keeping the North Sea out since the Middle Ages, but they also work at it 24/7. If you want to get something done, ask a busy person.

Dismounting in Zaandam, twin-platform station
Seeks he the escalators, rising above.
There waits his hostess, binder and blogger
Car-driver, key-bearer, transport to town.

Bike lane vs. car lane No American’s quick blog post about Amsterdam would be complete without a passage of boggled amazement over the dominance of bicycles over cars. Yes, you heard me right. Abi warned me that “once we get into the middle of town, you’ll be a god.” When I noticed that many streets offered wider lanes for cycles than for automobiles, I began to get the idea. When, on a narrow sidestreet where bikes and cars share the same lane, I had to pull to the left to avoid a parked car—and realized that the multiple cars behind me were immediately slowing down to give me space—I really got the idea. As far as I can tell, in the Netherlands, bicycles are the default; it’s cars that have to plead their case.

Paradise If by some mischance the concourse is vacant
Absent American, long-haired and late
Soon will arrive, car-parked and ready
Thus will our visitor patiently wait.

Next time I’ll give Amsterdam, and the Netherlands, more than two nights and a day. Meanwhile, Abi and Martin are fabulous hosts, and many, many thanks to them for letting me briefly invade their world.

(Complete Flickr set here.)

Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.