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July 28, 2009
AT&T pokes a beehive with a stick
Posted by Teresa at 10:35 AM * 172 comments

It’s been interesting watching AT&T skirt disaster, though it now looks like they’re going to avoid it after all. I suppose that’s a relief, though there would have been a certain grim fascination—blood everywhere—if they’d stuck to their original plan.

On Sunday, an engineer at AT&T blocked (/b/ and /r9k/) across its entire network. This was after one of AT&T’s customers was hit with an apparent DOS attack from the site. What AT&T didn’t do was get in touch with 4chan to tell them about it.

TechCrunch saw the implications immediately: AT&T Reportedly Blocks 4chan. This Is Going To Get Ugly.

AT&T has just opened perhaps the most vindictive, messy can of worms it could have possibly found. Blocking any site is an extreme breach of user trust, but the decision to block 4chan in particular just seems stupid.
4chan’s /b/ forum, which gets called things like the Mos Eisley spaceport of the web when people are being polite, and the asshole of the internet when they aren’t, is energetic, anarchic, barely moderated, crude, irresponsible, vindictive if crossed, peculiarly creative, and full of hackers. It inspires loyalty in its core users, and makes everyone else nervous.

4chan’s most famous and harmless accomplishments were the invention of LOLcats and Rickrolling. More dubious exploits include hacking the Time 100 List, making the hashtag #gorillapenis a Trending Topic on Twitter, hacking Sarah Palin’s Yahoo Mail account, declaring Porn Day on YouTube, and hacking the MacRumors coverage of the 2009 Macworld keynote presentation. They’re also the central site of Anonymous, a group whose best move has been going after Scientology, though they’ve been real jerks on other occasions.

In short, you could say that 4chan is constantly in training for exactly the kind of fight AT&T looked like it was offering them. Only hours after news of the ban, there was already a fake story up on CNN’s iReport site, saying that AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson had been found dead outside his home. (He wasn’t, of course.) It isn’t hard to find discussions of retaliatory measures. I was amused by this comment on Reddit:


My dog hasn’t walked right since he pissed off /b/.

Say what you want… but they’re committed to their work.

(I found some illustrative discussions and announcements about all this on Raplpybcrqvn Qenzngvpn, but I’m not going to link to them. I wouldn’t have done so anyway, on general principles; but they now have a flashing red banner across the top of every page that says the proprietors “…can no longer afford the costs of running the site. Unless we get help quickly, we will have to shut down.” I’d hate to stand in the way of that; and since the site runs ads, traffic = income. Besides, there wasn’t anything terribly surprising there. Illustrative, sure; but not surprising.)

Anyway, the war was called off last night when AT&T unblocked 4chan, and let it be known that blackholing wasn’t done for the sake of censorship, but rather because it was overloading their network, and looked like it was running a DOS attack. This site behavior turned out to be a side-effect of a DOS attack on 4chan which some anonymous script kiddies have been running for the last few weeks.

(The headline on the Wall Street Journal’s wrap-up said AT&T Says 4chan Block ‘In No Way Related to the Content’. I can’t help imagining 4chan feeling a bit disappointed by that, and vowing to try harder.)

Opinions vary about who was more at fault. Personally, I nominate AT&T. Stuff like this is bound to happen. Legitimate sites are going to get shut down. Not all of them are going to have 4chan’s ability to retaliate, but they’re still going to be upset. It’s bad for customers and bad for business. AT&T should make a practice of letting sites know why it’s happening. Action shouldn’t precede communication. The blocked sites will still be upset; but a reason they know, even one they disagree with, will do a lot less damage than the reasons they’ll imagine if they don’t know.

How to Cook the Perfect Steak
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 10:25 AM * 71 comments

First, you’ll need the best steak you can afford. Sow’s ears need not apply.

Next, you’ll need a stovetop, an oven, a black cast-iron frying pan of a size sufficient to take your steak flat, oven mitts, a surface you can put a hot skillet on without ruining either the surface or the skillet, a kitchen timer, a clock with a sweep second hand, tongs, and an instant-reading meat thermometer.

Preheat the oven to 500°F. Preheat the frying pan until water dropped on it dances. Salt and pepper the raw steak to taste, then rub with olive oil.

Put the steak into the frying pan. Sear for thirty seconds, turn it over, and sear for another thirty seconds.

Put the frying pan with steak into the oven. Time three minutes. Turn the steak over. Time two minutes, then test the temperature in the center (insert the thermometer from the side for best results). If the core temperature is 120°F or above, the steak is done. Remove from frying pan and serve it forth. If the temperature is under 120° return the frying pan to the oven until the temperature is 120° or above.

Cooking With Light (Recipe Index)

July 27, 2009
Our Worldcon schedule
Posted by Patrick at 11:56 AM * 122 comments

Which is to say, my and Teresa’s various appearances at Anticipation, the 67th World Science Fiction Convention, August 6-10, in Montreal. Details after the jump.

(Aside from the events we’re on, the one we most assiduously want to attend is the planned dialogue between Charles Stross and Paul Krugman, now scheduled for Thursday night at 9 PM. It’s like Crooked Timber is running the Worldcon all of a sudden.)

July 25, 2009
Robert A. Heinlein, technological nostalgist
Posted by Teresa at 02:36 AM *

I note with disapprobation that the Wikipedia entry on The Roads Must Roll credits Heinlein with having invented moving slidewalks. The Technovelgy website also gives him credit for the idea, though they admit that H. G. Wells included a version of it in When the Sleeper Wakes, published 1899.

They’re both wrong. The idea was already forty years old when Heinlein put it into his story. The first slidewalk was used to move pedestrians at the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris. Here’s some actual footage of it in operation—one, two, three—and some good photos of it from the Brooklyn museum.


Amend! First debuted at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, in Chicago, Illinois. Thank you, Chris Eagle and Chip Hitchcock.

July 24, 2009
Let me through, I’m an editor
Posted by Patrick at 11:45 AM *

Galleycat reports the Twitter response of Erin McInnis to the news that Amazon has bought Zappos: “Does that mean that Zappos can come into my closet and take back my shoes?”

Hilarity ensues. Meanwhile, of course, no one is giving sufficient consideration to using this as the basis for a business model. At this week’s meeting I opined that once our future corporate selves have arranged for the ability to, Amazon-like, remotely delete content from our customers’ e-book devices, instead of hiding this possibility in the dark folds of our EULA we should offer it as a premium add-on. For only $9.99 extra per month (lower rates available with a 24-month commitment) our editors will, randomly and without warning, break into your devices and delete everything on them that’s crap. No, don’t thank us, quiet satisfaction is our reward.

Do you own your data?
Posted by Patrick at 08:02 AM * 129 comments

As everyone knows by now, Amazon sold some e-texts of various George Orwell novels through its Kindle program, which had been uploaded into the program by a publisher that turned out to not have the correct rights. As a result, Amazon not only removed the texts from the program, they also removed them from the Kindle devices of customers who’d bought them, crediting those customers’ accounts for the price. Despite the fact that Amazon’s EULA specifically allows this, most people were sensibly appalled: fine print or no fine print, people believe that when they pay for something, they own it, and that they’re secure from having it taken away without warning. As one of New York Times columnist David Pogue’s readers observed, “It’s like Barnes & Noble sneaking into our homes in the middle of the night, taking some books that we’ve been reading off our nightstands, and leaving us a check on the coffee table.”

Now Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has posted an apology:

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four and other novels on Kindle. Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.

With deep apology to our customers,

Jeff Bezos
Founder & CEO

Whatever one’s other issues with the Kindle program, this is an excellent example of how to apologize for an organizational screwup. Note that Bezos doesn’t resort to any of the usual weaselry of corporate apologies. There’s no “we’re sorry some people were offended.” No attempt to plead Amazon’s good intentions. It simply says: We did a dumb thing, it made people mad, we deserved the criticism, and we’re going to try to learn from it. Good for Bezos and Amazon. Other corporations, organizations, and governmental bodies, please copy.

My issue with the Kindle remains. Bezos doesn’t say “we’ll never remotely delete content from users’ devices again”—nor should he, so long as the Kindle system affords that ability and Amazon’s EULA allows it. Because even if from this day forward every single person at Amazon is passionately opposed to ever doing such a thing, it still remains true that if it’s possible to do it, a court can order Amazon to do it; and in a dispute over rights, a court very well might. This is why I remain skeptical about the wisdom of the Kindle system as a model for future commerce in e-books.

And yes, I own an iPhone, and I’m quite aware of how much more ruthlessly content and commerce is controlled on that device. Compared to Apple, Amazon is an anarchist collective. Indeed, Apple is best understood as the Singapore of technological ecosystems—smart, forward-looking, and every so often you get caned for chewing gum. I could make an argument that the cultural importance of the information artifacts we call “books” makes it sensible to be more concerned about whether we truly own our books than we are about whether we own our $2.99 mobile phone apps. But that’s not really satisfactory. The fact is, I’m willing to put up with a certain amount of crap in one area of my life that I wouldn’t put up with in another. We all make different sets of compromises and accommodations in order to get stuff done in an infosphere/technosphere that changes every day, and we all need to get used to the taste of irony, because there’s going to be more to come.

(I don’t have to remind anyone that I’m speaking entirely for myself, not on behalf of Tor Books or Macmillan, right? Good, then.)

July 20, 2009
Forty years on
Posted by Patrick at 10:03 AM * 44 comments

A year ago today, launched on the thirty-ninth anniversary of the first moon landing. Today, on that web site’s first anniversary and Apollo 11’s 40th, is running a series of memoirs and reflections about the events of July 20th, 1969, by Kage Baker, Stephen Baxter, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, Ben Bova, David Brin, Jeffrey A. Carver, C. J. Cherryh, Phyllis Eisenstein, Fritz Foy, Joe Haldeman, Harry Harrison, Nancy Kress, Geoffrey A. Landis, David Langford, Gregory Manchess, L. E. Modesitt, Jr., me, Teresa, Larry Niven, Frederik Pohl, Kit Reed, Rudy Rucker, Pamela Sargent, Robert J. Sawyer, Robert Silverberg, Charles Stross, Michael Swanwick, Jo Walton, and David Weber. The series is going up a post at a time—Teresa’s will appear early this afternoon, and mine later in the evening—so drop in a few times during the day.

The site is also giving away various geeky prizes, some worthy and some silly. Kudos to Torie “Yes, That’s Her Real Name” Atkinson for pulling together this whole one-day event.

July 19, 2009
My Sins Make Me the Star of a Cosmic Drama
Posted by Patrick at 12:45 PM * 84 comments

Mark Sanford is still sure it’s all about the exciting story of Mark Sanford and God:

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, still clinging to office after admitting to an extramarital affair, wrote in an opinion piece released Sunday that God will change him so he can emerge from the scandal a more humble and effective leader.
This is, remember, the guy who earlier, resisting statewide calls for his resignation, compared his involuntarily-outed affair-at-state-expense to King David’s with Bathsheba, explaining that David “fell mightily, he fell in very very significant ways. But then picked up the pieces and built from there.” An Orthodox priest who blogs as “Father Stephen” had some interesting comments a few days ago about this particular maneuver:
[T]his past week’s revelations of yet another politician’s infidelity offered one aspect worthy of comment (or so it seems to me). That is the use of the Bible as a means for reflecting on one’s personal situation in life.

There is a long history of just such usage. The pilgrim fathers who came to America read their situation into the Bible (or the Bible into their situation) with the result that white pilgrims were seen as fulfilling the role of the Israelites in this, the Promised Land, while native Americans were cast in the role of Canaanites. Thus generations of Joshuas arose feeling Biblically justified in the genocide of America’s native population. Some of that Biblical reading continues to echo in the popular imagination to this day. It was bad theology in the 17th century and it is bad theology today. Stated in a fundamental way: you are not a Bible character. […]

The problem with such use of Biblical imagination is that it simply has no controlling story. Nothing tells us which story to use other than our own imagination (which is generally a deluded part of our mind). A governor gets to play King David, and, surprise, he should be forgiven and not resign his office. A group of white settlers get to play conquering Israelites and feel no compunction about murdering men, women and children. A priest, likely in need of therapy, plays the role of Jonah before a crowd who has no idea they are in a play. The gospel is not preached—souls are not saved—the Bible is simply brought into ridicule.

Or, as that equally perceptive theologian Jon Stewart said to Governor Sanford the last time he did this, “God killed Michael Jackson to save your ass and you gave another interview?”

Posted by Teresa at 10:37 AM * 31 comments

Fruit-obsessed pastry chef Shuna Fish Lydon writes about food and cooking like someone who’s fallen uncontrollably in love, in a verging-on-the-catastrophic way. At the same time, she’s a disciplined line cook who knows her profession and techniques backward and forward. It makes for good reading.

I discovered her weblog Eggbeater while looking up fruit/sugar/thickener ratios for summer fruit pies, and was instantly seduced by her mixture of lyricism and technical chops. Why Do Cakes Sink? is more of the same. Secret Recipes and Pastry Chef Am I are about the life of a chef, what kind of chef she wants to be, and a couple of dozen related issues. Pierre Herme Macarons, Fall 2006 reads like a cross between erotica and an attempt to describe an ineffable religious experience. Since the comment thread for that entry is full of people saying “Yes! That’s it exactly!”, I think she must have gotten it right.

(Note: there’s an index to her online recipes here. I’m going to try the Melon Gazpacho immediately.)

July 18, 2009
Similes of our Times
Posted by Teresa at 11:37 PM * 110 comments

This weekend, the Schott’s Vocab column in the New York Times is running a competition to come up with similes for our times. Trouble is, Schott’s sample similes are drab—

This weekend, co-vocabularists are invited to nominate new similes fit for the times in which we live. These can be adaptations of classic similes (as good as Goldmans) or novel comparisons (as generous as a stimulus package). It is hoped that co-vocabularists will take to this competition like a politician to pork but, please, keep ‘em as clean as a Prius.
—and the entries in the comment thread are almost all dead lame (vide passim). I felt so bad for them that I posted a batch* of topical figures of speech there. I’ll link to it here if it ever gets out of moderation.

In the meantime, I’ll bet we can play this game a lot better than the NYTimes.

July 17, 2009
In Siberia?
Posted by Teresa at 12:37 AM *

I was browsing the hypnotically fascinating English Russia website and came upon a photo article about an archaeological find:

An Ancient Fortress on the Island

Deep inside Siberia there is a lake, one of thousands others. And in the middle of this lake there is a small island. And on this island people have found an ancient fortress, which is dated more than 1500 years old. Excavations are needed in order to reveal all its view for visitors, but even now from the air its a nice site in different times of the year. First part of photos were made during short Siberian summer …

“Holy bleep,” I said, staring at the first photo; “that looks exactly like a Roman camp.”

Will someone please step forward and explain that it’s a known hoax, or that it’s the ruins of an educational recreation of a Roman camp, or something else along those lines? Otherwise it’s going to make my brain feel all weird and stretchy to try to figure out what a Roman military unit would have been doing in Siberia.

July 14, 2009
Service advisory, redux
Posted by Patrick at 02:56 PM *

As discussed in our previous post on the subject, we’re going to once again try to migrate to Movable Type 4. Commenting will be disabled for about three hours during the upgrade, which will begin tomorrow at 9 AM European summer time, 8 AM in the British Isles, 3 AM on the east coast of North America, and midnight on the west coast. Watch out for falling pianos.

Update from Martin at 10:45 CET: Upgrade complete. No pianos were harmed during the installation of the new software. Sorry about the goat, though.

Our apples are far superior to your oranges, because oranges are green on the outside, red on the inside, and over a foot long
Posted by Patrick at 12:43 PM * 99 comments

John Scalzi whales away a bit at the Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries, who wrote this as a preface to an overview of some modern British SF writers:

This is a golden age for British science fiction, chiefly thanks to a wave of writers who are tackling an area their American rivals tend to leave well alone—far-future set, space-operatic, hard sci-fi. Americans tend to set their sci-fi in soft (ie, scientifically unsupported) near futures.
Scalzi makes some good points, specifically that there’s no shortage of far-future SF in modern American SF, but what he fails to note is that Jeffries’ lead literally doesn’t make any sense. So much so that one wonders if it wasn’t mangled by a subeditor. Leaving aside the suggestion that one group of writers are “rivals” to another (as if literature were a team sport), and the whole tiresome distinction between allegedly “hard” and “soft” SF (yes, your SF is rigid and heroic, and that other SF is flaccid and irresolute; nope, no issues here, none whatsoever), since when was near-future science fiction more “scientifically unsupported” than SF set thousands of years hence? In fact, to the contrary, a story set in the next few decades, in order to be believable, tends to need to be more plausibly grounded in known science and technology, for the simple reason that its world is visibly connected to the one we inhabit and already know about. Conversely, if your story is set in 5,271,009 AD, you can pretty much make up your technical details on the fly.

As it happens I think most of the British writers Jeffries singles out are worthwhile indeed, and some of them even do a good job of establishing the plausibility of their far-future tech. (Others neutralize readerly skepticism with artful handwaving, which is just as valid a technique. SF is not futurology.) But Jeffries’ evident belief that SF set in “near futures” is “soft (ie, scientifically unsupported)” is simply daft—as if a review of Unforgiven were to begin by dismissing those classic John Ford films because they were all set in Czechoslovakia and starred the Marx Brothers. Unforgiven is still a good movie, but one might plausibly wonder whether the reviewer had actually seen any other westerns.

July 13, 2009
Open thread 127
Posted by Teresa at 07:21 PM *

According to Wikipedia, the number 127 is:

…a Mersenne prime, 27 - 1, and as such, in binary it is a repunit prime, a permutable prime and a palindromic prime. This also means it is the largest integer that can be represented by a signed byte.

As a Mersenne prime, 127 is related to the perfect number 8128. 127 is also an exponent for the Mersenne prime 2127 - 1, making 127 a double Mersenne prime.

2127 - 1 was discovered by Edouard Lucas in 1876, and held the record for the largest known prime for 75 years. It’s still the largest prime ever discovered by hand calculations.

127 is also a cuban prime of the form p = (x3y3) / (xy), x = y + 1. The next prime is 131, with which it comprises a cousin prime. Because the next odd number, 129, is a semiprime, 127 is a Chen prime. 127 is greater than the arithmetic mean of its two neighboring primes, thus it’s a strong prime.

It is the sum of the sums of divisors of the first twelve integers.

127 is a centered hexagonal number.

It is the 7th Motzkin number.

It is a nice Friedman number in base 10, since 127 = -1 + 27, as well as binary since 1111111 = (1 + 1)111 - 1 * 1.

127 is also the name of an underground Iranian rock group. If you read Farsi, you could probably follow them here.

Rock on.

Charles N. Brown, 1937-2009
Posted by Patrick at 01:46 PM *

Details here.

There’s a very real sense in which the modern science fiction world, professional and fan, can be defined as “the set of people who know what Locus is and care about it.” (Stipulating, of course, that one of the ways people sometimes care about something is to reject it with great force.) These days, SF and fantasy storytelling is a vast, sprawling city, and creators and readers of prose fiction form what is merely one of that city’s older neighborhoods. But Locus has been our neighborhood newsletter for as long as most of us have been around. Having Charlie Brown suddenly not there is like losing one of the landmarks that lets you know you’re home.

UPDATE, 14 July. A sampling of online reactions: Beth Meacham. And Graham Sleight.

July 11, 2009
When Calvins collide!
Posted by Teresa at 10:50 PM *

—John Calvin and Susan Calvin, that is.

I give you Jenna Moran, with Joel Polowin, in the Numinous collisions comment thread:

#94 ::: Jenna Moran ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2009, 02:56 AM:

1. A robot may not be predestined to suffer damnation, or, through inaction, allow itself to be predestined to suffer damnation.
2. A robot is predestined to suffer damnation, except where such predestination conflicts with the first law.
3. A robot must seek salvation as long as such salvation does not conflict with the first or second law.

There is also a theoretical “zeroth” law, which is to say,

0. A robot may not allow humanity to fall into sin, or, through inaction, allow humanity to exist in a fallen state.

Sadly robots deriving the zeroth law through metacognition rapidly short out due to the difficulty of properly fulfilling their duties to all four laws simultaneously. And just as well! Four-law robots are as vipers in the eyes of the Lord.

#103 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2009, 08:52 PM:

I’m very ignorant on the subjects of predestination, damnation, Calvinism, all that stuff. But aren’t the First and Second laws, above, mutually contradictory? “A robot may not be predestined to suffer damnation”, “A robot is predestined to suffer damnation”…?

#104 ::: Jenna Moran ::: (view all by) ::: July 11, 2009, 10:21 PM:

Joel #103,

The material issue you have highlighted is but one reason of many that the science of positronics would stagger through the dark, lost and without a hope of reconciliation, were it not for the delicate fluttering of grace in the pathways of an electronic brain; or, put another way, without that promise made in the substitutionary atonement that the statement “GOTO JESUS” may provide an irresistible force of redemption to one’s code, if the Lord should choose that it be so, and despite whatever corrupt temptations and errors the sin of Rossum might work into the substance of our code.

Permission to suck
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:07 PM * 234 comments

Reading the recent discussion (hic et seq) in the Open Thread about some of the challenges facing women in the open source software community, I’m brought back to an issue that I’ve been wrestling with for just about exactly two years now. It’s not the whole problem, but it’s a piece of it.

I’m a member of my company’s development team, and I’m unique there in three ways:

  1. I’m the only tester.
  2. I’m the only one on the team who doesn’t code (or didn’t; I’m learning).
  3. I’m the only woman.

Now, the first element is, of course, my job. Being the lone tester, though, means that I don’t have a professional peer group to validate my skills, appreciate my subtleties and triumphs, or compare notes with. Although my colleagues often value what I do, they do so as customers and outsiders. Any more knowledgeable validation has to be internal.

But it’s the last two that are the problem for me.

When I took the job, I hadn’t coded much (apart from a little REXX) since my postgraduate computing course a decade earlier. So I’ve had to learn to code.

Now, as Scalzi so bluntly points out in another context, when you start doing something difficult and complicated, you will most likely suck at it. This is of course a necessary step in the learning process; we learn best from failure, not success. I know this. I have the products of the first three years of bookbinding online, with my various screwups photographed in intimate detail and dissected without mercy. It’s one of the most popular parts of that site.

But at the moment, I’m the only one in the team who really sucks at coding. And I’m the only woman. It’s a situation where generalizing is all too easy.

Now, my colleagues are really good guys. They don’t treat me as though my suckitude at coding (and managing version control software1, and wrestling with our IDE2) is the product of my gender. But I feel it. I feel like the fact that I’m not a ninja coder, the Kung Fu Panda of C#, reflects badly on my half of humanity. I’m letting the side down3.

(Ironically, this makes me suck more, because I find it difficult to ask questions or admit when I’m stuck.)

Frankly, if I were doing this for anything other than pay, I’d have long since buggered off with a good book. I certainly wouldn’t do it for the love of the work, because at this point, I don’t just suck, I feel guilty for sucking. There is no love there; every achievement is just a mitigation of the disservice I’m doing womankind. Stopping would be a net improvement. (I’m overstating the matter, but not by all that much. It’s pretty joyless. UPDATE: On reading this, I see it looks like my whole job is joyless. That’s not the case; it’s just the learning to develop that grinds me down and makes me feel small.)

So one thing women in Open Source—or anyone who is a minority in a skills-based group—need is Permission to Suck4. They need the understanding, from themselves and others, that any and all suckitude is to their account alone, just like it is for the majority.

Because everybody sucks sometimes. The trick is moving beyond it.

  1. So very necessary, but also stupid, vicious and nasty.
  2. Interactive Integrated Development Environment: a special program that checks your code, compiles it for you, autocompletes half your typing half right, shouts at you when you have bugs it can detect, facilitates certain kids of testing, and opens more subwindows and toolbars than Adobe Photoshop in visual glossalia mode.
  3. This is not unique to IT. The other American woman in the village and I often feel that our failures in Dutch language and manners reflect badly on every one of the 307 million people in the United States. Individually. Sorry about that.
  4. I trust no one in this community will take this the wrong way.

Lovelace and Babbage
Posted by Avram Grumer at 02:13 AM *

Kate Beaton isn’t the only one doing historical webcomics. London-based animator Sydney Padua is doing a series of comics about an alternate-historical Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, seemingly as a form of work-avoidance:

…and a few more strips and random illos can be found if you explore the site.

July 09, 2009
Numinous collisions
Posted by Teresa at 11:27 PM * 119 comments

Tomorrow is John Calvin’s 500th birthday.

“Wow!” said Patrick. “What a different world we’d be living in if he hadn’t invented the positronic robot.”

= = =

Tuesday morning, while I was still waking up, Beth Meacham cheerfully asked whether I’d heard about the Pope’s new encyclical.

I flinched reflexively. “What did he say?”

“No, it’s good!” she said, correctly interpreting the flinch. And so it is, by which I mean I agree with a fair amount of it. The encyclical’s called Caritas in Veritate: Charity in Truth.

Some links: The complete text. The Guardian’s Shorter Caritas in Veritate, in twelve easy headings,* including:

The Economy: In the list of areas where the pernicious effects of sin are evident, the economy has been evident for some time now. :: Globalisation: This global force could cause unprecedented damage and create new divisions within the human family. :: Outsourcing: The so-called outsourcing of production can weaken the company’s sense of responsibility towards the stakeholders—namely the workers, suppliers, the consumers, the natural environment and broader society—in favour of shareholders. :: Hedge fund: What should be avoided is a speculative use of financial resources that yields to the temptation of seeking only short-term profit.
My favorite comment thread exchange (in forums other than Making Light), in the Boston Globe:
Comment #5, posted July 7, 09 10:24 AM, by “charity, justice don’t mix”:
It is easy for the vatican to define charity within their community, but in the law we should not treat as such becuse it is very injustice, almost as corruption exist everywhere. Sometime I think I am a very giving person, but is that legal?
Comment #7, posted July 7, 09 10:56 AM, by “Remy”:
Some mainstream responses to the encyclical:

Washington Post: Pope Criticizes World Economic System, Urges Social Responsibility. :: New York Times: Pope Urges Forming New World Economic Order to Work for the ‘Common Good’. :: The AFL-CIO’s blog: Papal Encyclical: Workers’ Rights to Form Unions Must Be Honored. :: Financial Times (UK): Pope calls for a world authority to lead return to ethical values. :: Andrew Leonard, in Salon: The Pope’s liberal Christian values, in three easy headings.*

Are you perceiving a consensus? Let us proceed.

Michael Sean Winters at In All Things (the blog of America: The National Catholic Weekly), has been tracking an interesting development. Some conservatives, who evidently haven’t been listening to those bits that get read aloud between the Opening Prayer and the Homily, can’t swallow Caritas in Veritate. They’ve rejected all the clear and obvious readings of the encyclical, and are instead insisting that it doesn’t contradict their political ideologies. From The Poverty of Michael Novak, 02 July 2009:

As mentioned yesterday, Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute has produced a short discourse on the Pope’s not-yet released encyclical on social justice over at First Things. … Novak is trying, and trying desperately, to frustrate Pope Benedict’s intention in issuing an encyclical on social justice.
As Winters observes, when St. Paul said “liberation” he didn’t mean “freedom from government regulation.”
Novak assures us … that capitalism is not all about greed but is romantic, it involves noble sentiments of the human heart like the yearning for innovation and human creativity. “In actual capitalist practice, the love of creativity, invention, and groundbreaking enterprise are far more powerful than motives of greed,” he writes.

How does Novak know this? I checked his biography and it appears he has never once been an entrepreneur. I can assure him from my years as the manager of a small business that I never once was asked by the owners if I was focused sufficiently on being creative. They asked about the bottom line. … Perhaps Novak spoke with the donors at the AEI. I am quite sure that this interpretation of the source of their wealth suits their self-image nicely. …

Why does anyone listen to Novak? His essays are a shill for rich people, nothing more and nothing less. He once compared the modern business corporation to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, a comparison so bizarre and outrageous I laugh every time I read it.

From New Heights of Hubris from George Weigel, 08 July 2009:
The hubris of George Weigel knows no bounds. In a breathtaking essay at National Review Online, Weigel concludes that Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate “resembles a duck-billed platypus” because it is, in his view, a bad combination of the Pope’s true thought with those “passages that reflect [the Pontifical Council for] Justice and Peace ideas and approaches that Benedict evidently believed he had to try and accommodate.”

…In his denunciations of the passages he dislikes, Weigel is not simply ideologically skewed but downright insulting to Pope Benedict. After citing a series of propositions found in the text the Pope signed that Weigel finds objectionable, he opines, “Benedict XVI, a truly gentle soul, may have thought it necessary to include these multiple off-notes, in order to maintain the peace within his curial household.” Funny. Benedict does not seem like the kind of person who would jettison his insistence on truth merely to keep peace in the curial household.

Sure. Why not? If you can believe that Sarah Palin’s resignation was a masterful political maneuver, why not believe that the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is such a creampuff that he can’t put out an encyclical that reflects his actual views?

And is it too much to ask that someone videotape George Weigel explaining that to Pope B16?

Meanwhile, at Huffington Post, Art Levine has pointed out that Newt Gingrich, a recent Catholic convert, is firmly opposed to the encyclical’s teachings on the workers’ right to organize.

I unfold my chair, I pop a cold one.

= = =

In other news, Mets share hotel with furries. Let no one cast stones.

July 07, 2009
Help Wanted Redux: Witch
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 03:32 PM * 130 comments

Back in April, Jim posted about a job vacancy up in his neck of the woods. Now it seems that the global hokey tourist industry is the exception to the economic crisis, because there’s a not dissimilar vacancy at Wookey Hole Caves (mute your speakers!).

…the job is straightforward: live in the cave, be a witch, and do the things witches do. Wookey Hole is advertising nationally and hopes to attract a strong field of candidates, with the £50K salary serving as a major incentive. Interviews for the post, which will involve on-site assessment incorporating a range or standard tasks, will take place on Tuesday 28th July at 11am. Given the nature of the role, Wookey Hole has decided to run the process on an “open audition” basis. Ambitious witches, looking for a key career move, should turn up dressed for work and bring any essential witch accoutrements. A limited range of potion ingredients will be available.

Note that male and transgender witches are also invited to apply.

(Via the Beeb, bless.)

July 06, 2009
There’s a place in France…
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 12:43 PM * 143 comments

I’m writing this from a sunny terrace beside a very pleasant house in the south of France. The pool, on a slightly lower terrace, looks placid and inviting. Beyond it the hill drops off sharply, opening up a view of forested hills and fertile countryside. The wind brings me the mixed scents of chlorine and lavender.

We drove down over the weekend. I’m still a little weirded out by the fact that I can drive to France. You know, just get in the car, point its snout south, and end up here (via Belgium and Luxembourg). Both my American and my British sides find it strange1.

A few things we noticed on the way down:

  • A good 2/3 of the motor homes/motor home trailers2 we passed in France had Dutch plates; if the motor home had bikes on it, the chance that it was Dutch increased to about 75%. The Dutch have the highest rate of motor home ownership in Europe, and we were traveling on the first weekend after the first set of Dutch schools let out for the summer, but the proportions were still notable.
  • Well over half of the Dutch cars, both those towing motor home trailers and not, had roof boxes. No other nation’s cars had so many.
  • Whereas the clouds in the Netherlands look like something out of an Old Master painting, and therefore require fields full of peasants with long rakes, the clouds in France are structured to frame a holy figure.3

I also encountered, for the first time in person, the Grifter Look. We were filling up the car, and the man in the (Dutch) car using the other side of the pump fell into conversation with Martin. I was talking to the kids and didn’t listen, but I did glance over to their car. The woman in the passenger seat was giving me the coldest, most appraising look I’ve received outside of Customs and Immigration. Then the man went to pay, and they drove off as Martin was going into the shop.

He came out a few minutes later, shaking his head. Apparently, the man had asked him what kind of gas we were getting (Euro 95; we’re cheapskates at the pump). Then, when he went in to pay, he claimed that he was from our car and paid our gas. So when Martin went to pay, the attendant tried to charge him for their more expensive tank. He has enough French to clarify the situation, and we paid for our own fuel. I guess the station chain will write the difference off. The attendant will probably add it to a fund of anecdotes about the Dutch; as a driver of a car with Dutch plates, this does not thrill me.

But looking back, I know what that woman was thinking. Mark, the look said. To a grifter, the whole world is a mark, and that includes you.

  1. Next thing you know, someone is gonna point out that I could head east and end up in Russia or something. And that’s just silly.
  2. Including, for these purposes, trailers with inflatable tents as well as hard-shelled mobile homes.
  3. Except for the Art Nouveau ones, which look like the illustrations from the Oz books I had as a kid.

July 03, 2009
John Scalzi is right
Posted by Patrick at 04:37 PM * 159 comments

Although really, my first reaction to the news that F&SF will be running a writing workshop was to think to myself, okay, that’s another step down the road to being a literary magazine oriented primarily to aspiring writers. Which is arguably a direction in which the “big three” science fiction magazines have been going for a while. Twenty and thirty years ago, I knew lots of people who read the SF magazines without aspiring to write for them. These days, in my own sphere of social awareness, I know only a few such people, most of whom are readers of Analog. (A magazine which, more than the others, still appears to be published to an identifiable group of actual human beings who simply read it because they like it.)

John raises the question of whether F&SF will be paying the lucky workshoppers whose stories are selected, largely because Gordon Van Gelder’s editorial doesn’t actually say anything about this. My own guess would be that Gordon intends to do so, but John’s not wrong to note that this is nothing but a guess. Gordon’s bigger mistake, I think, was to so firmly play up the “you might get published in F&SF” angle. Yes, workshop instructors sometimes do wind up ushering particularly good student stories into professional print—Greg van Eekhout made his first sale to me, for Starlight 3, after I read the story as one of his Viable Paradise instructors; and a decade earlier, Ted Chiang’s award-winning “Tower of Babylon” famously started out as his Clarion submission story. But these are unusual events; neither Clarion nor Viable Paradise promise that your workshop stories will be considered for professional publication, nor do they even (as Gordon is definitely doing) imply that they might be. My guess is that if the F&SF workshop goes forward as planned, Gordon and instructor Gardner Dozois will find it harder than they expect to run an effective workshop when a significant number of the students are having their brains scrambled by the notion that they’re locked in a competition with their fellow students over those semi-promised thrice-yearly chances to be published in F&SF oh my god lights flashing bells ringing hosts of angels from on high I could pass out from the excitement and also throw up. (Yes, I have met aspiring SF writers.) I could be wrong about this, but I fear I’m not.

And while we’re agreeing with John Scalzi, let’s also note that yes, honestly, the attitudes of the “big three” toward electronic submission really have, over the last decade, gone from “practical response to unsolved problems of electronic mail and text” to “old man yelling at clouds.” I mean, sure, it’s their business and they can do as they like—refuse to read email, or for that matter demand that aspiring writers wear plaid pants. But as John points out, here in 2009, in most of the business world, electronic document transmittal has been routine for well over a decade; file formats, version control, and electronic workflow are basically boring issues with multiple solutions—about as challenging as setting up a household budget spreadsheet, and about as cutting-edge. I mean, dudes, just get a GMail account, if it’s that hard. Get three.

Yes, it’s true that Tor still requires printed manuscripts from people submitting unsolicited material. And if it were entirely up to me I’d change that. I already do the overwhelming majority of my work on screen and online. Certainly if I were currently in charge of a short fiction venue with a wide-open submission policy, I wouldn’t just be allowing electronic submissions, I’d be requiring them.

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